David Chang is the chef and founder of Momofuku and author of the best-selling cookbook of the same name. To follow David on his food adventures, check out an issue of Lucky Peach or watch Mind of a Chef on PBS. You can also watch David's 2012 Science & Food lecture, "A Microbe in My Ramen?"
Image courtesy of Gabriele Stabile © momofuku
What hooked you on cooking?
Childhood memories. I was hanging out with my grandparents growing up and my grandmother was an amazing cook. My earliest memories are all food memories. Then I learned that cooking could be something I could do as a job. It was an honest profession, and a job that wasn’t sitting at a desk.
The coolest example of science in your food?
Fermentation. That’s a huge blanket statement, but coming from a guy who knew nothing about science, to go back and learn basic science that I never thought I’d have to know was very fascinating for me. I’m not reading cookbooks anymore, but I’m reading science books and journals that I never thought I’d be interested in. I’m in awe that I’m learning stuff I never thought I’d want to learn. Everything about cooking is all science. I’m now very comfortable that cooking isn’t just intuitive, but to make it better I need to know what is really happening to foods. That to me, is a constant question I ask: WHY is it happening?
The food you find most fascinating?
Rice is endlessly fascinating to me right now. It has extraordinarily strange properties to me, and is so versatile. You can make noodles, you can turn it into rice sticks or sheets or mochi, and there are so many various types of rice. Take sushi, for example: there is aged rice versus unaged rice, the type of water… Rice is a vanilla thing, but rice is one of a billion different ingredients, but there are endless applications. Vietnamese rice sheet is AMAZING. It is something very simple, but in Southeast Asia, they make it without electricity, running water, and it has amazing properties. Rice is a lot like fermentation -- it gets me very excited since it seems so simple but you really know nothing about it.
Your all-time favorite ingredient?
That oscillates between really really good butter and really good shiro miso.
Great Chefs of France is my favorite cookbook because it goes into detail about all the great Nouvelle French chefs like Raymond Thuilier and Alain Chapel. It talks about everything from the creation of daily menus to their philosophies of food.
Your best example of a food that is better because of science?
My first endeavor to understand the science behind a food was adding alkalinity to pasta or noodles. That was mindblowing. How changing the pH – adding alkaline salt, such as sodium carbonate, could completely alter the structure of pasta or noodles. Getting the breakdown from Harold McGee on how and why it works was fascinating to me. I still don’t understand why there is an electron shift from positive to negative or whatever; I still don’t understand why it raises the gelatinization temperature of the wheat. I understand the basics of what happens, but if I want to go further I’m limited by my basic understanding of science -- it is limited by topics that I know nothing about. There are only so many textbooks and journals that I can read.
How do you think science will impact your world of food in the next 5 years?
For me the role of science is how do I make food better. The one topic I am on 100% is to explain MSG and demystify what MSG is. The only way you can demystify this food pariah is to talk science: there is no scientific data to back up the negative effects of MSG. Even home cooks don’t want to use it. Most people think it is used as a shortcut, but what if you just use it to make food better. That rigorous approach to why you should or should not use an ingredient is a process. I want to start using MSG in momofuku. People that work in momofuku will have a good basic understanding of glutamic acid and how we can use it to make food better.
One kitchen tool you could not live without?
Scaling or measuring instruments. I first thought measuring stuff was for wimps. But I now I think if you don’t measure you’re a stupid moron. It has only become abundantly clear to me recently that if you don’t have the right proportions, you’re screwed.
Five things most likely to be found in your fridge?
Srichacha hot sauce Unsalted butter A Lemon Mayonnaise Mustard
Your standard breakfast?