Drinks With… David Chang

Bartender talks shop with legendary New York chef David Chang


Interview by Simon McGoram

David Chang, legendary chef behind New York’s celebrated Momofuku Noodle Bar and Sydney’s own three hat restaurant Momofuku Seiobo was recently in Sydney for the launch of The Bulleit Speak Easy Series and Bulleit rye. We got to have a chat with him about Americana, letting chefs serve customers, bourbon and who the hell would want to drink pickle juice.

Americana is having a massive influence in the drinking and dinning scene over here at the moment. Why do you think this has such appeal?


Why is it having such an influence? I don’t know. Maybe it’s the same reason that everyone thinks American cinema is the best. Is it really the best? I don’t really know… Maybe America just markets itself better. Or incessantly. It’s just one of those things – maybe the internet has something to do with it.

I don’t know what the reason is – maybe because I’m part of it. It’s certainly something that people have mentioned to me. I’ve noticed it where bars are trying to be from a certain time or era. It confuses me. I don’t understand why people want it to be something else.

It doesn’t mean that you can’t dig into the past at all. I always think of Japan too as a culture that took from everywhere. But you’d be hard pressed to find anything ‘Chinesey’ in Japan or Korean. Because over time they have taken it as their own and taken it somewhere else. I’m all for using inspiration from other places but using that as a spring board. I think the pursuit of authenticity and making things ‘authentic’ is a dangerous road. 

At your restaurants, like Momofuku Seiobo for instance, why did you decide to get chefs serving customers over the bar? Do you think that chefs are as effective as communicating as bartenders and other front of house staff?

No we’re the worst! We got into cooking so that we didn’t have to talk to people.  But it was sort of a by-product of what happened in New York. I didn’t really think about the consequences of having an open kitchen.

There are pros and cons to having an open kitchen. One of the definite bonuses is that you get to see. There’s no lying to the front of house and it makes it a much more seamless experience. But certainly the negatives are that it’s an open kitchen and you can’t really hide anything.

One of my mantras is that you can always add but you can never take away. So why don’t we see where we actually really need people and go from there. I don’t like opening a restaurant and having to fire a heap of people after six months. I’d rather be understaffed than over staffed. For the meantime I’d rather have extra cooks dropping food off. And I think that there’s a better story when someone can say that I’ve literally been cooking this all day. Well they don’t need to explain it but there’s a little bit more pride when someone drops it off – there’s no disconnect. It’s hard to find servers that want to know the whole experience.

I’m not diminishing at all the front of house. I think that the guys we have – Charles Leong and Richard Hargraves and such – are unbelievable and they have really opened my eyes to having an amazing front of house. It’s a work in progress as everything is.

Do you think that it is important for chefs to develop their front of house skills these days?

I definitely think that it’s never a bad thing to know more about your craft. I think there is a disconnect though as cooks can do the front house job but front of house can’t do the back of house job. It’s not a necessity but again I’m of the school of thought that knowing something is never a bad thing. Having people that know how to do everything is a good thing. Even knowing how to wash dishes – it’s the most important position.

So I hear that you’re a bit of an American whiskey fan. How did you get on to drinking whiskey?

I didn’t want to learn about Jazz and there are only so many things that America has created that are uniquely its own. So I just though well, Bourbon and American whisky doesn’t have thousands of years of history – it’s relatively new. So that’s why I chose it. And just by drinking and discovering labels I found out more. It’s just easier that way. I don’t have to learn French, I don’t have to learn Spanish – it’s right in my back yard.  That’s pretty much why. And it tastes good!

The Pickleback seems like a bit of an unlikely trend. Just how popular is it in New York and why do you think that it has taken off?

I don’t understand. I have no idea. It’s like the hula-hoop. It makes no sense to me. I don’t think that it necessarily marries that well with bourbon. Which is why I thought that the lemon is a better way to go even if it’s just the lemon rind. I just don’t like dill and vinegar is quite harsh. I’ve only really had pickle backs at times when I don’t remember having pickle backs. I get off from work and I’m like: ‘Man I’m so looking forward to drinking pickle juice with my bourbon!’ I don’t think you’ve ever thought that?!

How do you normally enjoy drinking your Bourbon?

I really like sipping it. I feel like I’ve had a lot to drink over the years working in the industry and whatnot. And I enjoy drinking. But I don’t want quantity – I want quality. I really do. And I’d be hard pressed to find somebody in Australia or even in America where somebody would say that Bulleit doesn’t make a good product. It’s delicious for what it is. If you what to find a bourbon that’s really good and affordable and wasn’t like Van Winkle which is impossible to find and ridiculously expensive what are you going to do? And if you want rye where are you going to get it unless you import it in your suitcase? Not only by default – it’s a good alternative.

So what is the secret to your ‘pickle juice’? Why do you think it might be something for bars to investigate?

If I was going to drink a Pickleback, which people are drinking quite a bit now in Australia, I’d rather drink something that pairs well with the bourbon. And I would question why the hell am I drinking pickle juice with bourbon? Just because someone is telling me to? It’s just like watching cigarettes on the movie screen. Just because you see an actor smoking a cigarette doesn’t mean you should start smoking cigarettes. Maybe if you want to. I just think that is good to question stuff. It’s not a bad idea to drink pickle juice, but even if that was acceptable and delicious wouldn’t you want to know if there is a more delicious way?

Even if it was the Macarena of god damn drinks fads would you accept just having it as is? I don’t know if the pickled lemon is a better experience but I’d rather make the attempt. I could have said you have to use sherry vinegar for this and this particular label. And that it has to be Kirby cucumber and you can only use flor de sel salt. And you can’t use tellicherry black peppers you have to use green peppercorns. It’s just a lemon  and it’s something that people already have. It’s something that you’re going to throw away so why not put in minimal work – literally – to make something that’s not just edible but delicious I think. No one is forcing anyone to do anything it’s just adding the technique and investigating it a bit further.

David Chang’s Basic Lemon Pickle

Chang doesn’t believe in throwing food out yet every weekend bars are upending lemon wedges into the trash can. Chang’s answer is simple – two parts salt to one part sugar. Simply coat your lemon wedges with this and leave in a clean sealed container. It’ll be a dry mix but the salt will draw moisture out of the lemons and you can add a little leftover lemon juice should you really feel the need.

After a couple of weeks the ‘pickle’ brine with be ready to siphon off. Mix with other flavourings, sugar and water at this time and with a little diced preserved lemon peel. Sip on your favourite whiskey and chase with lemon pickle.   

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