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. ... 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.
Cooking, as a physical activity, doesn’t come naturally to me. It never has. To compensate for my lack of dexterity, speed, and technique, I think about food constantly. In fact, I’m much stronger at thinking about food than I am at cooking it. And recently I started seeing patterns in our most successful dishes that suggested our hits weren’t entirely random; there’s a set of underlying laws that links them together. I’ve struggled to put this into words, and I haven’t talked to my fellow chefs about it, because I worry they’ll think I’m crazy. But I think there’s something to it, and so I’m sharing it now for the first time. I call it the Unified Theory of Deliciousness. ... A chef can go crazy figuring out how much salt to add to a dish. But I believe there is an objectively correct amount of salt, and it is rooted in a counterintuitive idea. Normally we think of a balanced dish as being neither too salty nor undersalted. I think that’s wrong. When a dish is perfectly seasoned, it will taste simultaneously like it has too much salt and too little salt. It is fully committed to being both at the same time.