It was 9:30 on a Friday morning, and David Chang was already furious.
The Momofuku Group founder was at one of his dozen-plus restaurants, Má Pêche in Midtown Manhattan, for a meeting with chef de cuisine Ian Davis and three sous-chefs. But Chang had arrived a bit early, and he decided to drop in on the kitchen with Davis and the others. Within a few moments, he was clocking mistake after mistake—a cascade of small lapses that, in the chef’s mind, added up to an epic transgression.
The butter was too cold. A whipped-cream-topped waffle sat melting under a warmer. The breakfast-tray setup was all wrong, the salt-and-pepper shakers had gone missing, and a server was handling toast without wearing gloves. Worst of all, a cook at the flat-top griddle was overdoing the eggs. Eggs! Are you kidding me? Chang thought. Whoosh: that familiar jolt of rage. He slid his arm around Davis’s shoulder, gripping hard to contain the fury.
There was a time when Chang would have yelled, definitely at high volume and possibly at great length. He would have dumped the eggs in the trash, grabbed the spatula, and just cooked the dish himself, yielding soft eggs, yes, but also hard feelings. Chang would have made a scene, embarrassed his crew, ruined everyone’s morning and possibly the whole day, all without actually addressing the problems that caused the issues in the first place.
But that was the old Dave. That guy was a superstar chef with a growing restaurant empire who was as famous for his standards as his intense flavors, and high-volume freakouts were part of the mystique. New Dave is doing everything he can to keep himself under control. Because these days, Chang is reaching for something bigger: He wants to turn his boundary-pushing restaurants into a global culinary brand. As Momofuku continues to move beyond its New York origins, it will further spread a distinctive aesthetic that has already seeped into the American food scene in ways that diners might not even realize. That tiny, undecorated, no-reservation spot that just opened near you, serving fancy versions of lowbrow dishes made with top-quality ingredients and high-end technique? You can probably thank Chang. Over the past decade, he has helped transform food culture—and especially a certain kind of gritty, back-of-the-house chef sensibility—into a genuine social phenomenon.
Already, Momofuku Group offers diners the Chang experience at restaurants in New York, Sydney, Toronto, and Washington, D.C. (The latest, a high-end, Asian-Italian experiment called Nishi, opened in New York in January.) It co-owns seven outposts of Milk Bar, a popular bakery that’s the vision of pastry chef Christina Tosi, and operates three locations of Fuku, Chang’s casual fried-chicken-sandwich mecca, with more on the way. Chang is also an investor in New York’s booming food-delivery service Maple, and he co-owns (and regularly contributes to) the five-year-old, award-winning food magazine Lucky Peach. Chang announced in February that a Momofuku restaurant and Milk Bar will open inside the Cosmopolitan hotel in Las Vegas late this year. And in 2017, he will launch yet another New York restaurant, in Pier 17, a new building in lower Manhattan's Seaport District.
Soon, his bold flavors will tackle even more platforms. In March, he revealed the latest Momofuku project: a meal-delivery service called Ando, which is set to launch this spring in New York and will give Maple lovers a whole new set of desk-lunch options to obsess about. "Dave is a competitive person," says Lucky Peach editorial director Peter Meehan, a longtime friend. "And he has become enamored with business. I think he wants to have a really big company. I think he’s doing the things that need to be done to get there." And while Chang loves to jokingly compare himself to North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un, he now believes that his business needs a leader, not a dictator. Someone who can motivate people not the way a chef often does—through fear—but like the best kind of CEO can: by articulating big dreams and inspiring people to help make them real.
After pulling himself away from the Má Pêche kitchen disaster, Chang gathered the chefs around a table for their scheduled meeting. Dressed in dark jeans and a vintage-style Houston Astros T-shirt, with bedhead-spiked hair and a smattering of beard, Chang took a sip of Trader Joe’s green juice, pulled out his notes, and launched into a prepared lecture (he describes these sessions, which he holds regularly at his restaurants, as "classes"). But Chang couldn’t focus. He kept coming back to those screwups, ditching the script to pick over the problems he’d just witnessed—not who was to blame, but what caused them, how to avoid them next time, and, most of all, how to be a leader. "I was so mad, I couldn’t contain myself," he told the chefs. "But I did. When you see something wrong, you want to jump in and be the hero. Because you can do it—you can save it! But it’s a short-term fix." The question, he said, is how to anticipate problems and create better systems. "It’s like a puzzle: How do we make this work? And then it’s on to the next thing, and the next after that."
Chang spoke evenly, with the slightly biting tone of someone accustomed to being in charge; for emphasis he often smacked the table with his fingertips or the edge of his hand, karate-chop-style. "It’s never-ending," Chang told the Má Pêche crew. "And if you don’t realize it by now, you are in the wrong business. This is not for sane people. Anyone who likes this shit is not fucking normal."
The previous afternoon, I had met with Chang at Momofuku’s headquarters, which occupy the fifth floor of a prewar loft building near New York’s Union Square. Though the 38-year-old chef keeps a desk in one corner of the open-plan room, he can more often be found in the kitchen area or—as he was when I got there—making calls in the glassed-in conference room. It was just three weeks after the January opening of Chang’s much-anticipated new restaurant Nishi, and a whiteboard in the corner still displayed evidence of menu-brainstorming sessions. Chang finished his call, offered me a just-delivered Fuku chicken sandwich, and settled in to explain his vision for Momofuku’s future.
Chang’s empire had started modestly. Built with a $100,000 loan from his father and a family friend, along with $27,000 of his own savings, Momofuku Noodle Bar, which opened in 2004, was a tiny East Village space that eventually earned a big reputation for its umami-rich takes on Asian cuisine. Chang—then a 26-year-old graduate of New York’s French Culinary Institute who’d worked at Tom Colicchio’s Craft and spent a year studying Japanese food in Tokyo—was an irresistible character, mixing serious food skills with a screw-you irreverent charm, blending the elite culinary ambition of such chefs as Wylie Dufresne with the sodium-soaked pleasures of high-American junk food.
A second Momofuku restaurant, called Ssäm Bar, opened in 2006. Funded in part with money his dad raised by mortgaging his golf-supply store in Northern Virginia, where Chang grew up, the venture was risky. As was the menu—an odd Asian-burrito concept (pork and kimchi wrapped in a flour pancake, say) that wasn’t an immediate success. Chang faced the possibility of losing not only his restaurants, but also his father’s business. "You just refuse to make it not work," said Chang, whose projects have often struggled at the start. "It has to work. I just can’t understand any other scenario. But it’s a hard way of running a company. All I remember telling myself is, You can’t break. You can’t break, you can’t break, you can’t break."
Chang turned things around by concocting an inventive late-night menu that started attracting New York food connoisseurs. It meant extreme hours for him and his staff, but customers loved it. That success inspired Chang to launch his first fine-dining establishment, Momofuku Ko, which opened in 2008 with an eight-course tasting menu and quickly became one of New York’s most celebrated culinary haunts. From there, the empire grew fast. "Dave is always trying to push himself to do something different," said comedian Aziz Ansari, a big fan of Chang’s food who has become a friend of the chef’s. "It’s very easy for someone that successful to make boring, safe choices, and he never does that. He always wants to take risks and do something new and exciting."
As Momofuku has grown, Chang has mostly pursued a series of short-term goals rather than some broader strategy—sometimes with surprising results. Nishi, his recent collaboration with Ko veteran Joshua Pinsky, was originally set to be an expanded Fuku. At the last minute, Chang and his team decided to try something new, settling on a melding of Italian and Asian cuisines. "I was like, you know what? Fuck it," Chang said. "Let’s do it. That’s our strategic vision: Let’s just fucking do it."
Now Chang is looking to expand in a more deliberate way, a process that’s being steered by Momofuku Group president Andrew Salmon, who Chang brought in as his business partner in 2006 ("He didn’t want to do paperwork anymore," Salmon recalled. "The first conversation we had, he said, ‘I hear you do paperwork?’ "). In Momofuku’s first decade, the company built new restaurants mostly by reinvesting profits; in the last two years it started soliciting investments—from friends, family, and other relatively modest backers. Salmon is currently looking to take on even more investors, who he hopes will help fund the company’s next big wave of growth.
Momofuku’s most valuable asset might prove to be Fuku, the quick-serve chicken-sandwich restaurants that are evolving into an entity that will operate separately from the parent company. Chang and Salmon hope to launch several more by the end of the year—in New York and beyond—including a new, larger version of Fuku in Manhattan by the end of summer.
With its stripped-down decor and accessible menu, Fuku is easy to imagine as a staple of shopping malls and sports venues nationwide (a Fuku recently opened inside New York’s Madison Square Garden). Its signature product—a fried-chicken sandwich that’s essentially a riff on Chick-fil-A, pickles included—is classic Chang: meticulously crafted, a bit unexpected, and completely delicious. It’s also typically irreverent; the sandwich comes wrapped in foil that’s stamped with the word dericious. ("We know that could be offensive to some people," says Chang, who likes to poke at Asian-food stereotypes. "But it’s literally how my mom says it.") Chang and his team are currently working to expand Fuku’s sandwich offerings, possibly with a vegetarian option and perhaps even something akin to McDonald’s Filet o’ Fish.
Meanwhile, Milk Bar, the Momofuku-backed baked-goods chain that Christina Tosi owns and operates, could grow from 7 to as many as 14 locations this year. Its quirky desserts—with names like crack pie and compost cookies—are both playful and innovative, and their success is earning Tosi a mounting public profile of her own (she’s currently a judge on the popular Fox cooking competitions MasterChef and MasterChef Junior).
Tosi, a fellow French Culinary Institute grad, came to Momofuku in 2006 as a food-safety consultant, but Chang soon discovered her other talents and created a broader role for her. The pair hatched Milk Bar after retail space became available in Ssäm Bar’s building, and when it opened in 2008 as a to-go dessert counter, customers swarmed. Today, Tosi is working to define Milk Bar, which she acknowledges has always been "kind of the baby sister to Momofuku," as its own distinct brand. "You’ll start to see Milk Bar become a bit more grown-up," she said. "It’ll still have the hand-built, homemade feel, but I think it’s going be taken a little bit more seriously." In addition to opening more stores, Tosi is also expanding her e-commerce and retail offerings (sandwiches and other savory fare are in the works) and is considering less-conventional ideas such as Milk Bar–branded vending machines.
For Chang, the goal of all this growth is simple: "to win." But his idea of victory is different from that of many other budding moguls. Though he says he’s had lots of opportunities to sell Momofuku, he is more interested in creating something big and sustainable that can improve not just his life, but that of all his employees. "I derive pleasure and enjoyment by building a place where a lot of people can benefit," Chang said. "And I mean that. My goal is a utopian work environment where we can pay top dollar to our cooks, to our servers, to our dishwashers, everyone." Chang likes to think about what happens when Momofuku employees head out after their shift. "When you have drinks with your friends, particularly in this business, you talk shit about your workplace," he said. "I want this to be a place where people aren’t talking shit. They’re like, ‘Sorry, guys, I know you’re all unhappy with your jobs, but I love mine.’ "
As raw and critical as Chang can be, he is ferociously loyal to the people who work for him. "When I first joined this company, within a month or so, Dave invited me to lunch," said Sam Gelman, who came to the company as a cook at Ssäm Bar in 2007. "He said, ‘One of my commitments to you is that you will never have to find another job.’ " Today, Gelman is Momofuku Group’s culinary director. It’s the kind of story you hear repeatedly when you talk to people about Chang. "He’s got a knack for seeing talent, seeing hunger in someone, and giving them the opportunity to prove it," said Tosi. "He wants to know that you care every bit as much as he does—that your care is so deep, it might be seen as crazy. That’s when you’ve got him."
Ravenous after the Má Pêche meeting, Chang climbed into the back of an Uber car and headed several blocks east, to an industrial kitchen located in a Midtown Manhattan basement. This unmarked space, tucked below a Thai restaurant, is at the center of Chang’s latest creation, a food-delivery service called Ando that at the time was still a closely held secret. Inside, chef J.J. Basil, who is overseeing Ando’s food, had prepared a tasting of items that would likely end up on the menu. Chang couldn’t wait to dig in.
Ando is named, like its parent company, after instant-ramen creator Momofuku Ando. (It is also Spanish for "I walk"—fitting for a delivery service. Momofuku itself is Japanese for "lucky peach," hence the name of the magazine and also Má Pêche.) The business is a joint venture with Expa, a San Francisco–based startup lab built by Uber cofounder Garrett Camp. Expa is designing the app and overseeing logistics, while UberRush will tackle the actual food drop-offs. "We have a pretty big vision for it," said Expa partner Hooman Radfar, Chang’s cofounder on the project. "But our focus is very much delivery to delivery, meal to meal, neighborhood to neighborhood, until we get it right. We want to make this feel great—like Momofuku at home." Tosi is also involved; she’s creating three new cookies that will be initially sold exclusively through Ando: salt-and-pepper, Ritz Cracker, and what she describes as "darn good, slap-your-mama chocolate chip."
To Chang, Ando will be no different from any other Momofuku restaurant—just with a slick app serving as the front-of-the-house rather than a packed dining room. As with every launch, he had been obsessively focused on perfecting the food: level of saltiness, degree of spiciness, portion size, and so on. When Chang arrived at the tasting, Basil had already laid out dishes in recycled-cardboard boxes on a prep table. The packaging was temporary; Chang was hoping to serve it all in traditional Chinese-food containers stamped with Momofuku’s peach logo.
Each item had an identifying white card in front: TOFU GREEN BOWL, GRILLED CHICKEN BOX, CHEESESTEAK. The descriptions were boring. The food was anything but. The gigantic "cheesesteak," a gut-stuffing combination of chicken, house-made American cheese sauce, and B&G pickled peppers, was Chang’s favorite. "It’s maybe the most dangerous thing I’ve eaten all year," he said. "Last time I was complaining, ‘I’m so tired. It’s so heavy.’ J.J.’s like, ‘You dumbass: You ate two of them.’ "
Ando’s rollout will be complicated by the fact that Chang remains an investor in Maple, New York’s year-old meal-delivery service, which currently drops off $12 lunches and $15 dinners below 42nd Street, and is expanding fast. Its black-helmeted bike deliverers are now a lunchtime lobby staple, handing off stacks of brown-and-yellow bags to quality-starved office workers. No cash is exchanged; tax and tip are included, à la Uber (Maple’s couriers are paid $14 an hour plus a bonus per delivery and are also offered health insurance and other benefits).
One afternoon during the lunch rush, Maple CEO Caleb Merkl, who founded the company with Akshay Navle, gave me a tour of one of his distribution centers, a gleaming, multiroom space in Lower Manhattan with high-tech cooking equipment and a clever food-making system that Merkl asked me not to describe. Basic prep work happens in a commissary in Brooklyn; final assembly is done at spaces such as this one, which are positioned around the city. The company’s proprietary software keeps detailed track of every order from the moment a customer chooses a meal via Maple’s one-touch app. A unique algorithm groups orders and determines delivery routes, streamlining the process.
Maple’s food is less distinctive than Ando’s will be, an ever-changing limited menu of salads, sandwiches, and entrées that’s overseen by Le Bernardin veteran Soa Davies. With its high-quality ingredients and careful preparations, it’s undoubtedly an improvement over typical midday office fare ("sad salad lunches," as Merkl refers to them). And the whole interaction—from the intuitive app to the carefully designed packaging—feels thoughtful and elegant. "We are going to serve meals to a huge number of people," Merkl said, "and they all need to have good experiences."
Chang and Merkl insist that there’s plenty of room for both Maple and Ando—that nobody orders lunch from the same place every single day. They still talk on the phone several times a week, sharing advice and ideas. "It’s a giant pie," Chang said. "I mean, Momofuku’s Noodle Bar and Ssäm Bar are [close to each other]. I don’t view them as competitors."
After downing his cheesesteak and trying the rest of Basil’s offerings, Chang moved onto several varieties of fried chicken. He’s hoping to offer a KFC–style chicken bucket as a secret Ando menu item, which in-the-know customers would be able to unlock in the app. "I’m so unhappy right now," he said, looking not at all unhappy as he chased a bite of chicken with a swig of Diet Coke. "It’s too much. It’s just fucking good."
At Nishi one cold Saturday evening, a few weeks after it opened, the wait for a table stretched several hours. A tablet-wielding hostess guarded the front door, sharing the bad news with the fans lining up on Eighth Avenue. The restaurant (which, like Danny Meyer’s the Modern, has banished tipping) would start taking reservations several weeks later, but that night, the only way to taste New York’s hottest new restaurant was through extreme patience.
Inside, excited culinary adventurers squinted at menus while perched on high, backless chairs at communal tables. As servers talked up the bold dishes—the restaurant’s fermented-chickpea take on pasta classic cacio e pepe and anchovy-and-mint-laced sweet potato earned instant food-world fame—chef Pinsky managed the kitchen, his prodigious black beard and heavily inked forearms visible through an open doorway.
Chang had been spending a great deal of time at Nishi since it opened—greeting customers, sampling dishes, and (gently!) correcting errant staff members. It’s one of his great skills, this fine-tuning of a new spot, but it does raise a question: What will Chang’s role be at Momofuku as it expands? He is now confronting the possibility that despite all his efforts to create New Dave—after embracing meditation and poring through business-management books and befriending the kinds of guys who, as Meehan puts it, throw around words like valuation—there’s a chance that he isn’t the best person to take Momofuku where he knows it needs to go, and that maybe it’s time to bring in a more seasoned executive to run the company. "If someone can do this better than me, fantastic," said Chang. "Because I am ill-suited for this position. Really! I don’t know how to do half the shit that we’re doing. I know how to run a kitchen; I know how to develop food. I know how to work with chefs. But the whole other side, of being a company head? There’s a lot I don’t know. I’m at a point where maybe I’ve given it the best that I’ve got, and I don’t know if I’m the guy who can take it forward. It would be foolish to think that we’re not at a crossroads."
Though Chang and Salmon have been talking to candidates, it’s of course quite possible that they’ll decide to leave things the way they are. Whatever happens, Chang will remain vital to the company he started. With culinary director Gelman in place to oversee the sit-down restaurants, he plans to focus much of his attention on growing Ando and Fuku, and there will always be young chefs to mentor, crazy ideas to pursue, endless new ways to spread the Momofuku brand. Maybe Chang will write a follow-up to his and Meehan’s 2009 best-selling cookbook, Momofuku. Perhaps he’ll do a new TV show; he and Meehan have been working on ideas—including a Chang-ified version of an instructional "dump-and-stir" cooking program—that they’re currently discussing with producers. Or maybe he’ll just keep doing what he’s always done, relentlessly pressing everyone around him to get better, to push harder, to care as much—almost as much—as he does.
A version of this article appeared in the April 2016 issue of Fast Company magazine.