Quarantine has introduced David Chang to something new: staying put. The chef and founder of Momofuku, who once described himself as a human Roomba, spent much of the last decade on the road, checking in on restaurants from Vegas to Sydney, filming episodes of his Netflix show Ugly Delicious, and seizing on almost every opportunity to see more of the world. Right about now, in normal times, he’d be zigzagging the country in support of his new memoir, Eat a Peach, which was recently named a New York Times Bestseller. But the current arrangement doesn’t much bother the 43-year-old chef, since he gets all the family time he wants. In the following interview, Chang talks to his co-author about where he’s been, where he’d like to go, and one of the book’s most prominent threads: escape.
To start on a sunny note, when we read in your memoir about how you approached travel for much of your life, it wasn’t this romantic or even fun thing for you. It was an escape from pain.
It’s a lot easier for me to put this together now, but yeah, it was my way out, my way to delay facing problems. The most obvious example is my first stay in Japan, right after college, which was well before I even considered becoming a chef. I wound up there because I went to a post-grad career fair on campus and literally chose the first booth I saw. Not kidding. All my friends had lined up awesome jobs—or at least they seemed awesome to me, a person who graduated near the bottom of his class—and I was just thoroughly unhappy. I still hadn’t found my place: not with my classmates at this school in Connecticut, not with my Korean family. So I convinced myself that my problems were in the States and that maybe I was destined to live the life of an expat.
Next thing I know I’m in an oppressively hot town in Wakayama Prefecture, having full-blown manic episodes, living next to a dorm for Jehovah’s Witnesses while teaching English to kids who are better at the language than I am. Nightmare. You might call that finding myself, but it certainly didn’t feel that way at the time.
It was a pattern of escape for so long. People still don’t believe me when I say that the reason I signed on to open the first Momofuku outside of New York City in Australia—after declining almost every partnership deal to that point—was simply because my personal life was a disaster and suddenly I had the chance flee to the other end of the planet. I moved into the casino in Sydney and tuned out everything. So impulsive. I look back and almost can’t recognize that person.
In the book we learn about the consequences of that approach. But what lessons from those experiences are still valid now?
With Japan, especially, the beautiful thing in retrospect was that I didn’t know anything at all. I wasn’t reading Lonely Planet. How often do people go to a place without doing the homework in advance? It’s terrifying, but ultimately incredible.
And you don’t have to even get on a plane to achieve that. My first visits to the Chinatowns in New York made me feel like an outsider. When I was young, they reminded me of how varied the world really is. I mean this: Maybe just rent a place for a couple of weeks somewhere you suspect you won’t immediately fit in. Then find out if you can scrape by without downloading an app.
Part of me wants to say that if you speak the language wherever you’re going, it doesn’t really count. But I also did study abroad in London. I took trains everywhere. I can tell you that riding through Europe when you don’t look like most of the people around you is a worthwhile experience.
Ultimately, it’s freeing to feel foreign—to know that no matter what you do, you will never fully penetrate the culture unless you are lucky or with a true local. People travel, I think, to remind themselves of what it’s like to be foreign. Sure, you might find a way in for one day, and that’s something you will always remember and long for. It’s because you can’t recreate it on command, no matter who you are.
You’re in your forties now. What has changed?
My days of solo travel are largely over, since I’d much rather be with my wife [Grace] and our son. But the thing that does approximate the feeling of being alone somewhere else is fly fishing, which I try to do whenever I can. I really like catching permit in Mexico. I go to Playa Blanca, outside Tulum. There are high-end lodges and more affordable ones, and they’re all great.
What’s the appeal for you?
It’s nice to go there because your cell phone doesn’t work, the electricity only runs a certain number of hours per day, and you have to focus completely on the task at hand. It’s one of the only ways I’ve found to be fully in the moment, because if I think about anything else, there is no way I am getting that fish. Permit are very smart. They are easily spooked. I’ve been on two week-long trips where I haven’t caught, or even seen, a single fish.
It’s simultaneously taxing and relaxing. Freshwater fly fishing is meditative, but saltwater fly fishing is like going to work. You’ll find yourself in a situation where you haven’t seen a fish for a couple days, and then you finally see one and it’s a big one and you have everything ready. If you are not calm and focused, you will screw it up. Only travel gives you moments like that.
How did you get into fly fishing?
I learned to do it in Wyoming. I started going there in the late 90s. I don’t snowboard and ski like I used to, but I still fly fish.
It was a different place back then. I was pretty much the only Asian person in the Jackson Hole area. The Asian tourists would pass through and look at me with this concerned expression, like they felt bad leaving one of their own behind.
But even then it was changing, getting more popular. I remember driving out west and telling a cowboy that I was on my way to Jackson Hole. He just looked at me and said, “That is not Wyoming. They have sushi there.”
I’m detecting a theme, but I’ll ask anyway: What qualities do the places you like to visit share?
For the most part, they are far away, hard to get to, stunning–and they have awesome fishing.
I’ve got Mexico and Wyoming under my belt, but there are so many other spots on my list. I’d love to catch taimen in Mongolia, I’d love to catch golden dorado in Bolivia. I’d love to go back to the South Diamond [in Gila National Forest, New Mexico] and catch the monster brown trout. I’d love to visit Patagonia or go after milkfish in the Seychelles.
As far as restaurants go, how do you keep yourself from getting jaded? In the book, while you speak fondly about the bucket-list meals you had coming up as a chef, there’s also a hint of fatigue.
Nowadays I want to go to places where there is nothing composed about them. Nothing finicky. That’s where I’m at: It is what it is. A bowl of matzoh ball soup. I want really good food with beautiful intention behind it and less of everything else. Every country has some form of that. Oftentimes, it is the food you won’t read about in magazines or blogs. It’s what isn’t considered cool.
Last year we were in Margaret River in Australia with [Momofuku Seiobo] chef Paul Carmichael and the rest of the team. One night, instead of joining all the other amazing chefs who were in town for the food festival we were part of, we just decided to cook in one of the apartments we were staying in. Not because we were trying to be cool, but because we rarely get to see each other. We went to the tiny local supermarket, where they only carried instant rice. And we basically Macgyvered a meal: a panzanella, fish cooked in the microwave, and some great wine. That is the travel I want.
Here’s another example, from an actual restaurant: While I was filming Ugly Delicious in Istanbul, we went to a kebab shop called Zübeyir Ocakbasi where you sit at the counter with charcoal and smoke inches away from your face. It’s almost dangerous. They’re making everything from scratch. You see people in nice clothes who know they are going to stink like hell and are fully in it. Strangers are giving each other tastes of the food and doing shots of arak. It becomes a party. The sort of experience you can’t download.
At one point in the meal, I blurted out something like, “The pistachios are so good!” Yeah, Dave, it’s because they’re from here.
For all the talk about nature and sleeping in backwater towns, you’ve come to appreciate a good hotel once in a while.
Absolutely. I stay at plenty of AirBnBs in the U.S., but I also like staying in hotels. I like knowing that I don’t need to make my bed. I like knowing that if I am hungry at 3 a.m., I can get some version of an international club sandwich.
It’s funny: I now know what it’s like to experience Japan with some money and without any money at all, and I can say that the experiences have been equally amazing. But I don’t know if I’ll ever rough it again. I used to be the guy scoffing at the tourists in Roppongi Hills. I am now absolutely one of those tourists.
What’s your spot?
I used to stay at The Cerulean, but it hasn’t been updated in a while. Now I’d say it’s the Park Hyatt. It’s high-end, but not one of the super-super posh ones. A Lexus, not a Ferrari.
It’s safe to say that all the travel had worn you down in recent years, since so much of it was for work and it meant being away from Grace. How do you feel about things now, six months into quarantine?
Oh my God, I miss traveling so much. I don’t miss the constant travel. What I miss is being able to just pick up and leave. To just go. We always want what we can’t have.
Where will your next vacation be?
There’s nothing on the books right now. We live with my in-laws, and I want to be as cautious as possible. But once we can travel safely, I’d love to take Hugo to visit our relatives in Korea and to show him Japan, which we were going to do during the Olympics.
I will say this: If I was 25, I’d probably go somewhere with limited risk, taking every precaution possible.
The thing you can’t travel without?
I call it my Miscellaneous Bag of Shit: 20 pounds worth of electronics, pretty much, from backup iPads to backup chargers. So many cables. You simply cannot depend on the entertainment system on a plane, even if it’s the most wonderful airline. There’s nothing worse than putting the headphones in the jack and realizing that the audio only plays to one ear, so you have to fidget with it to find the one spot where it fully works. There’s nothing worse than plugging the power cord into the socket below the seat and having it fall constantly. And there is nothing, absolutely nothing, worse than looking at the back of someone’s head for the duration of a transatlantic flight.
When were you happiest while traveling?
Every time I’ve flown to Australia. Such glorious rest. I am all for technological advancements that bring us closer together — see Miscellaneous Bag of Shit — but international wi-fi has to be the worst invention of all time. There was a period when I had no other option but to tune out, and I miss it dearly.
The place or trip that challenged you most?
That first trip to Japan after college. My head hurts just thinking about it.
What is your room service indulgence?
Chicken fingers, 100 percent. Whenever abroad and in doubt, opt for deep-fried foods.
The strangest place you’ve spent a night?
Traveling through Europe, I overslept on a train and ended up in Locarno. A lovely place, but my unintended visit coincided with the film festival. Every hostel was taken; no trains until the following day. I slept outside a post office. That sort of thing has happened to me in more than one city.
What is your favorite market in the world?
Nishiki, in Kyoto.
What are your showoff spots in your hometown?
It doesn’t exist anymore, but the answer will always be Wu’s Garden, a restaurant in Vienna, Virginia.
If you could travel to any place in any epoch, which would it be?
It’d be much easier to tell you the coordinates I won’t be plugging into the time machine: Paris in the 1780s, London in the 1830s, and Russia around 1918.
Which places would you happily spend a weekend, a week, a month, and a year and why?
Weekend: Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tennessee
Year: Living in Vietnam or traveling throughout Africa
Where are you embarrassed that you’ve never been?
Morocco is the only African nation I’ve visited. I can’t wait to see so much more.