“Recovering alcoholics talk about needing to hit rock bottom before they are able to climb out. The paradox for the workaholic is that rock bottom is the top of whatever profession they’re in.”
David Chang is well known in the culinary world through so many arenas. He has a number of restaurants, books, cook books, podcasts and has featured on a number of cooking TV shows including his Netflix show, Ugly Delicious. He has a reputation for having a DGAF attitude and has amassed a lot of success in his career. And yet it is possible that you may never have heard of him. There is nothing I love more than a good ol’ celebrity memoir and if it involves the culinary world, that is even better (Exhibit A and B – Padma Lakshmi’s to be specific) So, I was eager and curious to read Chang’s memoir.
I had prior knowledge of who he was and a little insight to his carefree personality. I have even visited one of his restaurants, Momofuku (which I found overrated), so I wasn’t going in completely blind. Chang delivered the basics. I think he was open and honest and really gave insight to his rise as a chef. Chang also was open about his bipolar diagnosis and being heavily prone to outbursts of rage, even among people he loves.
I added this book to my TBR list when I read an article and excerpt of his book that focused heavily on his outbursts and diagnosis – which I did not know about. I think the book missed the mark for me because the excerpt I read, made me think this book would be focused on his personal life but it turned out to be more of a “How to” book that focused more on his career. I take responsibility that this could be my fault for having different expectations but an example is that the excerpt had my curiosity piqued because I honestly was curious on how he navigated his anger issues within his marriage and how his wife handled it. He barely mentioned his wife in the book but we got loads of examples of how it played out in his various kitchens.
Like I mentioned earlier, Chang was very honest about his life especially the ugly (which there is a lot of) He spoke about being a child of Korean immigrants and how it influenced his desire for success. But his honesty was not something that exactly sat well with me. He talked about behaviors he was not proud of, but for me being honest about awful things doesn’t necessarily excuse the fact that it happened. I didn’t exactly think he went super deep on certain topics. It almost read like he was telling us just enough to be defined as a memoir but you can tell things are missing. He tells us on more than one occasion that he did not create the best working environment for his employees, who were sometimes scared of him but in another says how his greatest talent is bringing out the best in people so that dissonance was hard for me to comprehend.
Something else I struggled with is the fact that Chang’s account of himself made him unlikable. I have mentioned before how this affects my enjoyment of a book, when a protagonist is unlikable, and it was no different here. Once I realized that I was only going to get his version of a memoir, my interest waned. His career trajectory was impressive but I don’t think it was told in a compelling way, I was just ready to be done with the book.
Something Chang does well is actually go deep about the reasons for his restaurant choices, his love of food and the history of food. Fun Fact: Momofuku means “Lucky Peach”. He does give the appropriate kudos where credit belongs for example to black women and Taiwanese women when he started a fried chicken place. A tiny segment of the book that for some reason struck a chord with me was Chang giving his former intern, Madge a chance and making her Momofuku’s CEO at age 30. That is a huge risk that I applauded him for.
I think if the book was presented as a career “How To..” it would have leveled my expectations and been a better representation of what kind of memoir it was. Not to discount his hard work, but it’s hard to take advice from someone who flew a lot by the seat of his pants and even by his own admission was lucky from the very beginning starting with how his dad gave him 100k as seed money. He does have an appendix chapter titled “33 Rules To Being A Chef” that could be applied to any career path that I think aptly fits what I think would have been a better direction for the book.
Per usual for a memoir, I audio’d it and gave it 2 stars for all the reasons mentioned above but that is not to say this book won’t work for a lot of people. For people who may not know anything about Chang, who may be more interested in knowing more about culinary success or who don’t need their protagonist to be likable, this book might actually be a good read for them.