Editor's note: This interview mentions suicidal ideations.
Chef and restaurateur David Chang isn't worried about making "authentic" food.
"I find authenticity to be very stifling," he says. "It's about preserving one idea and one way of deliciousness, and I think that can be a very dangerous thing. ... That's not to say that authenticity can't be delicious. But when it's the only way you can make a certain food, that is problematic to me."
The son of Korean immigrants, Chang likes to mix ideas and traditions in the kitchen. "That's what's beautiful about food. It can be anything and everything," he says. "That's what makes American cuisine so wonderful."
Chang's first restaurant, Momofuku Noodle Bar, which opened in Manhattan in 2004, was inspired by his time in Japan — and his desire to craft ramen dishes made from American ingredients. Since then, Chang has opened more than a dozen restaurants in New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Toronto and Australia.
Chang notes that COVID-19 has introduced "seismic" changes to his industry. He has had to shutter two of his restaurants and temporarily relocate a third. The other locations have begun offering delivery services and selling specialty food products, like soy sauces and salt.
"We're doing anything and everything to stay afloat and to keep as many jobs as possible," he says.
Chang hosts the Netflix series Ugly Delicious, which focuses on foods and the cultures or mixes of cultures that produced them. In his new memoir, Eat a Peach, he writes about his struggle with bipolar disorder and suicidal thoughts — and explains how cooking and his restaurants have helped save his life.
On being embarrassed by his Korean immigrant parents when he was young and wanting to assimilate into his white community
When I was a kid, I was just so angry at why they couldn't raise us like normal white America. I remember my dad's mother staying with us for a short period of time, and how mean she was, and how frugal she lived, and how I just was not just embarrassed about the food — I was embarrassed by how [my parents] were raised, and I didn't want to be like that. I'm remorseful [for] not trying to understand that at a younger age and what they lived [through] and the experiences they had and just the cultural difference they had to overcome.
My parents wound up in Northern Virginia in the early '70s. I [can't] even imagine what that was like. Or even from my dad who lived in New York. My dad hated New York City. He would visit me occasionally, but he hated it because of the trauma he had living there, as a kid in his early 20s that didn't speak English in the early '60s. I can't imagine how hard that must have been. The older I've gotten, the more I'm moved by all they had to sacrifice and went through to give the family everything they needed.
On why he didn't want to pursue a career in traditional French fine dining
I was just so lost. I didn't know what I was doing. I think if I was better at cooking, compared to my peer group, especially the restaurants I was in, maybe I would have only cooked French food, but so much of how I wound up today was because I didn't fit in and I had to find my way and get some kind of expertise that no one else had.
One of the reasons I wanted to get out of French dining or fine dining in general was traveling abroad. And for me, the epiphany was, oh my gosh, in Asia, in Japan, in a city like Tokyo, that's so expensive, I never would have thought that people of all [backgrounds,] whether you're poor or rich, everyone can eat really well. ...
When I was in China, you could eat literally on 75 cents very well, but you couldn't do that in America. And I thought to myself, well, if you wanted to enjoy food in America in the late '90s, early aughts, if you told anybody, "I like to go out to dine," that was seen as elitist and snobbish, and that wasn't the case outside of the world. And that's when I tried to imagine, what's the delta here in America? Why is food only accessible or delicious for the people that can afford it? Why don't we have something that's a little bit more accessible, a little bit more affordable?
On being bipolar and having depression and suicidal ideation
When I was in Japan, that was my first serious manic bout. But when I came back as a cook, when I was working at Café Boulud, that was probably the lowest point I've ever experienced. ...
I can talk about it now in a way that I never was able to talk about when experiencing it, because I know it's not my fault; it's a chemical reaction in my brain or a lack of certain things that are working in my brain, and there are certainly other factors involved culturally. There's things that happened in my life with my father, my upbringing, and it's hard to want to live, as crazy as that sounds. You just think about all the different ways you can end it.
On how his depression and feeling like he had nothing to lose led to taking the risk to open Momofuku
Momofuku was an exercise in combating depression. Otherwise, a 26-year-old with very little experience should never open a restaurant — and that's what happened. If I wasn't depressed, I probably wouldn't name the restaurant as silly sounding as "Momofuku." Everything I did seemed like a decision that was a one-way ticket, because I legitimately told myself, "I'll see this as far as I can go, and if it doesn't work, well, this is all gravy anyway."
Living that way, it was very powerful. It made me grow in different ways, because I'm a wallflower by nature, I'm not whatever I am today. I changed in ways that I never thought — both good and bad. And depression was something that I used as a fuel to make me do things I would not normally do.
On learning how to be a better leader after having a consultant tell him how much his employees disliked working for him
I was a horrible boss, and I ruled with fear and commands. ... That's the hardest thing is I spent my entire life making sure I would never be like my dad, and I wound up being exactly like my dad to so many people and I just couldn't see it. ... Everything I did for a long period was, if it's good for me, it's good for the restaurant and it's good for the people that work for me. ... And then you realize, I could convince myself of anything. Again, that can be a very powerful thing for good and for bad, but the best way I could describe it ... when I realized that people hated my guts, it was when you realize that you're the smelly kid. The smelly kid never realizes they smell bad, and I had to really accept that I was even the worst kind of smelly kid. I was a smelly kid that always blamed everyone else for being smelly — and then I had to realize that I was the rotten one. ...
I'm still trying to change, Terry. This hasn't been an overnight process. And a lot of it is constantly revisiting how I've behaved or the things I've said, things I've done and revisiting and trying to analyze and how to be better and try to make sure that I don't repeat those mistakes. ... I'm just trying to be better, always trying to improve. And that's all I can do and not be the same person that I was in the past.
On learning of his friend Anthony Bourdain's death by suicide
Tony was a big brother to me. ... He was always worried that I was going to harm myself. And that's the problem. I always thought that Tony was the strong one. Tony was invincible. And I know a lot of people that are close to him maybe feel the same way, that we should have asked him how he was doing a little bit more. And actually there were always signs, if you think about it. I feel a lot of guilt, because I wanted Tony to be in service of me, and it wasn't exactly reciprocated. He was always worried about how troubled I was. ... Tony just white-knuckled everything. He was Tony Bourdain, until he wasn't. I think if anything, it's a reminder to anyone that just because someone is doing well and has everything going for them — the job, the family, the looks, the fame, whatever — doesn't mean that they're not going through something.
On being home more than ever because of the pandemic
I wrestle with this a lot, because this year has been so hard and I've been so blessed and privileged and I need to understand all of that goodness that I have in my life. And as terrible as things have been, I'm weirdly, strangely grateful, because I don't think at any other juncture or any other scenario, I would have been able to spend this much time with my family. And it's made me reevaluate so many things — being a dad, being present and realizing that no matter how hard I work or whatever, it doesn't matter. All you want for anybody ... is just unconditional love. You don't die with anything, and I want to be present.
On how becoming a father changed cooking for him
Cooking at home and actually cooking for my wife while she was expecting Hugo, like when he was in the womb, that's when I realized, "Oh, this is cooking." Cooking for restaurants is great ... but a lot of it was to feed me, ultimately. And I had never been in a position where I'm trying to generally feed someone else with love and I just want to nurture them, and cooking for my wife was the best, and then cooking while she was nursing had new meaning. Now it's feeding Hugo — and the strangest thing has happened. I now have learned a different way of cooking that I never thought that I ever would. It's now changed how I want to cook in general, like I care more about serving a bowl of soup that looks like just plain old soup, but made with love — as cliché as that is — just food made with love versus food that's trying to impress. ... I want to get back to that. I don't know what that means for restaurants, but for me right now, cooking at home, it's not a job. It's something I want to do.
Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz and Molly Seavy-Nesper adapted it for the Web.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, David Chang, is one of the most celebrated chefs and restaurateurs in America. Because of the pandemic, he's had to shut down some of his restaurants and rethink the others. His first restaurant, Momofuku, was named the most important restaurant in America by Bon Appetit in 2013. It opened in 2004 in a small storefront in Manhattan's East Village and became known for ramen noodles, pork buns and its casual atmosphere.
Since then, Chang has opened more than a dozen restaurants in New York, LA, Vegas, Toronto and Australia. He's won five James Beard Awards, including best new restaurant and outstanding chef. He hosts the Netflix series "Ugly Delicious," which focuses on foods and the cultures or mix of cultures that they derive from. He's also written a memoir called "Eat A Peach." As you'd expect, the book is filled with insights about food and restaurants, but he also shares his insights about himself. His parents immigrated from North Korea.
When Chang was growing up, he was embarrassed by the foods they ate and how their kitchen smelled different from the kitchens of his friends' families. He has bipolar disorder, has frequently dealt with suicidal thoughts and credits cooking and his restaurants with saving his life.
Thank you again, David, for being here. So, David, you have so many restaurants. How many have you had to close because of COVID? And how many are open?
DAVID CHANG: Well, first of all, Terry, it's a real honor to be part of your show. And it's a - hopefully people learn something about the restaurant business or myself. But in terms of the restaurants that we've had to close, we've closed two - one in Washington, D.C., one in New York City. And we've had to temporarily relocate another. So all in, sort of three. And hopefully that number doesn't increase.
GROSS: How are the ones that you're keeping open managing to stay open? Because I think what you have to say will be indicative of what a lot of other restaurateurs would say.
CHANG: Well, it's a little bit difficult right now because it's weather dependent, as winter is hitting most of the East Coast. And outdoor dining was a great boon to everyone. But as winter approaches, it's a little bit harder. You know, I've talked to a lot of peers. Their sales have gone down quite a bit. And at the beginning of the pandemic, those that were doing delivery and pivoted to a delivery-focused menu really did well. But when everybody pivoted to that, sales started to decrease.
So we're all in this together, and we're all trying to figure it out. And all restaurants did the same. We're doing anything and everything to stay afloat and to keep as many jobs as possible. But we've had the advantage of having consumer product goods. So over the past few months, we've been selling salt and spices and soy sauce that we've developed over the past decade-plus. So we had that plan in place, but not everyone is fortunate enough to have that.
GROSS: Are you doing more, like, delivery? And how does it feel to be doing that? What do you like? What don't you like about it?
CHANG: I've always wanted to do delivery.
GROSS: Yeah, you tried to deliver at your restaurants.
CHANG: Yeah, yeah.
GROSS: And they failed.
CHANG: They did. They did. Maybe the timing wasn't right. I think it would have been a great opportunity now. But I'm fascinated with delivery because it's another way for restaurants to sort of have a revenue stream. And I feel very strongly seven, eight years ago that if we didn't diversify - restaurants in general - didn't diversify, we were too dependent on the income of the four walls - you know, the happening in a restaurant.
So as much as I don't always want to, like, have restaurants that deliver food, we all have to embrace it. I think it's here to stay. And it was going to happen. A lot of what's happening right now with restaurants were going to - was going to happen over a 10-to-15-year period, but we wouldn't have noticed all this, you know, seismic shifts with restaurants closing and restaurants moving to delivery or takeaway. It would have happened so gradually you wouldn't have noticed.
But delivery and food logistics with your smartphone, that's here to stay. And we have to find a better way because right now a lot of restaurants aren't even making money doing that because of the delivery fees from the - you know, the people that do the delivery services are taking a big cut.
GROSS: When you started in the restaurant business - well, you studied at the French Culinary Institute. You worked at Cafe Boulud, which is, you know, fine dining, authentic French cuisine, kind of fancy restaurant in New York. And you decided that you weren't cooking the kind of food that you eat, and so you decided to give up on that kind of fine dining. What was the turning point for you in deciding that that wasn't for you? Because a lot of chefs aspire to that kind of fine dining, and you headed in the other direction.
CHANG: Well, Terry, I was just so lost.
CHANG: I didn't know what I was doing.
CHANG: And I think if I was better at cooking, compared to my peer group and especially the restaurants I was in, maybe I would have only cooked French food. But so much of how I wound up today was because I didn't sort of fit in, and I've had to find my way and get some kind of expertise that no one else had. And one of the reasons I wanted to get out of French dining was - or fine dining in general was traveling abroad.
And for me, the epiphany was - oh, my gosh, in Asia, in Japan, in a city like Tokyo that's so expensive, I never would have thought that people of all sort of - whether you're poor or rich, everyone can eat really well. In China, when I was in China, you could eat literally on 75 cents very well. But you couldn't do that in America. And I thought to myself, well, if you wanted to enjoy food in America in the late '90s or early aughts, if you told anybody, I like to go out to dine, that was seen as elitist and snobbish. And that wasn't the case outside of the world.
And that's when I tried to imagine - what's the delta here in America, right? Why is food only accessible or delicious for the people that can afford it? Why don't we have something that's a little bit more accessible, a little bit more affordable?
GROSS: So what was the secret to figuring out what kind of food you could cook that would be delicious and very affordable?
CHANG: Well, again, in Japan - two different times I lived there - ramen was something that I - I've always grown up eating noodles, but ramen was something that was the providence of college students and 25-cent cup of noodles. And when I - I was so lucky with timing in so many things in my life. I saw Japan in this renaissance of ramen, where it was as - the fervor for ramen was like pizza and barbecue and hamburgers combined.
And I was like, wait - I taste it. It's like nothing I've ever had before. People are queuing up for two to three hours at certain spots. But why this doesn't exist in America? And I was like, well, I bet you this would be popular in America, too. And that's why I was like, OK, let me just try to do something that doesn't really exist quite yet in America. And I didn't know if it was going to work.
GROSS: But you had to make the ramen special. So what did you do?
CHANG: I didn't make it Japanese. I used only American ingredients because I had too much respect for Japanese ingredients, and also, I couldn't afford it, either. The very best stuff in Japan is going to be very expensive. So I wanted to tailor it so it was a little bit more of an American palate. So we used bacon from Tennessee - Madisonville, Tenn. Allan Benton was our analogy for - analogous ingredient to, say, katsuobushi (ph) the essential ingredient to dashi in Japanese cuisine.
So we just tried to, like, mix and match and find things that were comparable and also not skimping on quality. We were getting the very best bacon and making a broth out of that. So it was trial and error.
GROSS: You know, you say some interesting things about authenticity. You know, like, you're not into authenticity, and I want you to explain why. You're talking about borrowing, you know, from Asian food, but making it American and not calling it fusion (laughter).
CHANG: Yeah. Well, everything is sort of fusion anyways. But I just - that was a - that's a word that I've sort of had as a burden to sort of carry because I've now embraced it because everything is fusion. And it is the polar opposite of what authenticity is in food. And I find authenticity to be very stifling, very - it's about preserving one idea and one way of deliciousness. And I think that can be a very dangerous thing. You know, what is acceptable and what isn't and who gets to decide that is scary to me. And not to say that authenticity can't be delicious. But the - but when it's the only way you can make a certain food, that is problematic to me.
And the only time I find authenticity to be good is when you have to preserve a culture, you have to preserve stories that are being immigrated from another culture. Those are things that need to be cherished. And we need that kind of authenticity. But what I love about food is diversity. I love change. And anything that you eat that was, quote, unquote, "authentic" wasn't before. It was an amalgamation of different stories and different immigrant stories. Like, that's what's beautiful about food. It can be anything and everything. And I love the new. And that's what makes American cuisine so wonderful. It can be anything. And I wanted to try to do something new.
GROSS: So a lot of your food has a Korean influence even though it's not, like, authentic Korean food. But when you were growing up, I think, Korean food was a real source of embarrassment to you. You were embarrassed by how your kitchen smelled. Kids used to make fun of you for it. How did your kitchen smell? And what made it smell that way?
CHANG: Oh, man. Growing up, my kitchen smelled a lot of different things. I remember tripe. If you've ever cooked tripe at home, it smells...
GROSS: Oh, no. You're kidding (laughter).
CHANG: Oh, man.
GROSS: I have not (laughter).
CHANG: My mom used to make tripe all the time. And that's just not something you - anybody's going to want to, like, smell or taste.
GROSS: Explain what tripe is.
CHANG: It's a kind of - it's a stomach lining. There's several stomachs in the cow. It's, basically, the stomach of a cow, the stomach lining of a cow. And it has a very peculiar smell. And it can be made very delicious. But, you know, it wasn't just tripe. For the most part, it was something like kimchi or all the fermented goodness in Korean cuisine. And even something now that people love today is kim, the Korean seaweed snack that you can even buy at your convenience store or pharmacy, I see it being sold.
I remember bringing that to school for lunch because I loved it. I snack on that my entire life. But as a kid, you know, you open up your lunchbox. And you bring out something that looks like - that is seaweed - I imagine in 1984, you know, kids saying, like, what is that? And you say it's seaweed. They're like, ew, that's gross. That's, like, the nice version of people making fun of your food. Wait until they smell kimchi...
CHANG: ...Or doenjang or any of these fermented, goodness things that people would make fun of me. And they said every possible name. And it's not just Korean food, Terry, you know? It's a story that anyone that's an immigrant to America can share, right? It's all the foods that most people have no idea but now, in 2020, everybody finds delicious. So it's just funny how it all plays out.
GROSS: My guest is chef, restaurateur and host of the Netflix series "Ugly Delicious" David Chang. His memoir is called "Eat A Peach." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF PEALS' "FLOATING LEAF")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with James Beard Award-winning chef and restauranteur David Chang. He has a new memoir called "Eat A Peach."
So both of your parents are from North Korea. And they - I mean, their family lived there before the North and the South became separate entities. And I think your grandfather was alive when Japan invaded Korea and, basically, tried to make Korea into a satellite of Japan and have everybody assimilate into Japanese culture. You thought you were eating Korean food. Was it Japanese food or Korean food or some mix of the two?
CHANG: It was a mix. But my grandfather came from a well-to-do family. My father came from, like, nothing. My mother came from a very prominent family. And like many well-to-do young men, he was educated to be Japanese. He didn't like Korean food. He went to college and higher education all in Japan. And, you know, Japan colonized Korea, like systematically tried to deprogram anything that was - like, from the language on up, to the food that you make or eat. So my grandfather did not like Korean food at all. He didn't - he never ate kimchi. He never ate the things. So he always had Japanese things made for him.
I was introduced to Japanese food at a very early age through him. And I think it's a main reason why I have such an affinity for Japanese food, because my grandfather was, basically - you know, he's Korean. He spoke Korean, had Korean friends. But, like, in his heart, I think he was more Japanese than he was Korean. And when I came back from Japan - and my Japan was much better back then - he was so proud that he could talk - speak in Japanese to me. He was so happy.
GROSS: So when your parents emigrated from North Korea, what was the state of North Korea and where they lived? What did they have? What did they lack when they came here?
CHANG: So my father was born on what is now the border of North Korea and China. My mother was born a little bit closer to what is now the 38th parallel in a town called Kaesong. And, you know, they had to - they, like most people, fled to the South. And they lost everything. And, you know, Korea - it's remarkable how people think about Korea today. But that progress and the success they've had, I think, makes people forget just how poverty-stricken Korea was. They lost everything. And I forget even myself that my parents were refugees, you know, for a long time. They lost everything. And they - my dad immigrated to New York in 1963 to work as a dishwasher because life was so hard. The better opportunity was going to be in America. And that's how it all happened. And he came back. And he married my mother. And I think my mom came back to America in '68 or '67.
GROSS: So do you think often about the distance between the lives that they had, because they lived through the Korean War, right?
CHANG: Yes, they did.
GROSS: Yeah. So do you think often about the distance between the lives they had in North Korea and then South Korea, when they lost everything and lived through war, and what it was like raising you in the suburbs?
CHANG: You know, now that I'm a father, I think about it in a completely different way than I was growing up. And when I was a kid, I was just so angry at why they couldn't raise us like normal, you know, white America. And it wasn't even then. I remember my dad's mother staying with us for a short period of time and how mean she was and how frugal she lived and how - I just was, like, not just embarrassed by the food, I was embarrassed by how they were raised. And I didn't want to be like that. And I'm remorseful of not trying to understand that as a - at a younger age and what they lived and the experiences they had and just the cultural difference they had to overcome.
Like, my parents wound up in northern Virginia, you know, in the early '70s. I don't even imagine what that was like - or even for my dad who lived in New York. My dad hated New York City. He would visit me occasionally. But he hated it because of the trauma he had living there, you know, as a, you know, kid in his early 20s that didn't speak English in the '60s, early '60s. I can't imagine how hard that must have been. So the older I've gotten, the more I'm moved by all they had to sacrifice and went through to give the family everything they needed.
GROSS: But to put some perspective on your anger, you tell a story in your memoir about how when you were a kid, you were playing in a go-kart. And I guess it overturned. Your leg was really injured. And for five days, you were saying, it hurt, it hurt. You were crying. And your father said, just walk. And you put cream or ointment on it. And five days later, when your parents finally took you to the hospital, you had a badly broken femur, which is why you were in so much pain.
And, you know, you were so angry at the way your pain was not taken seriously and that nothing was being done when your leg was in serious jeopardy. So I guess that's just, like, one example of why you grew up with so much anger toward your father. It's hard for kids to understand the kind of perspective that you were just talking about. But it's just like that anger really stuck with you, though, for forever (laughter), for a really long time.
CHANG: Yeah. Unfortunately, it did. And, I mean, I'm trying not to be me, all right? That's my mantra. Don't be me. And so much of it was an excuse to be angry in the past. And I'm trying to have a better understanding, not as an excuse for anything, but I've really thought about - that's one story, right? I broke my leg. My dad would not let me go to the hospital, (laughter) you know, for a few days. And with my - I mean, I see a psychiatrist. And that's a lot to unpack because now that I'm a father, I can't imagine letting my son not see a doctor if he broke his leg or got sick.
So it caused me to evaluate, like, that my love - like, his love for me was conditional - right? - that I did something wrong. But when I think about it more, as terrible as that sounds at 2020 - and it is terrible - my father was just trying to teach me how to be tough and how to survive. And when I think about it in relation to his mother - right? - who stayed with us, she - this is a funny story. She would wash dishes. My brother and I would, like, go like, check how crazy grandma is. She's washing dishes by spewing - spitting water out on it, like washing a plate like this because she had no running water before. It was about conserving water. And that was the easiest way for her to wash dishes.
And every time she'd make rice, every kernel would be dried on the deck. And we'd be like, what are we doing? And she'd make us eat it later. But she was just trying to teach us how to survive. And when you're a little kid, you can't understand that. And if that's how she is, imagine how she raised my father. And, you know, it takes a lot of, I think, empathy that I've tried to have a bigger reserve of to appreciate and to understand all the things I never understood about my father. And I'm still going through it. So in some ways, I'm more angry than ever at my dad. In some ways, I've forgiven him. And it's going to be a process.
GROSS: I should mention, he died in June. And I'm sorry. And I hope you got to, like, work some of those things out with him.
CHANG: We did. We did.
CHANG: And he lived a full life.
GROSS: My guest is David Chang, chef, restaurateur and host of the Netflix series "Ugly Delicious." His new memoir is called "Eat A Peach." We'll talk more in the second half of the show. And we'll listen back to my 1989 interview with travel writer and memoirist Jan Morris. Her 1974 memoir "Conundrum" was about transitioning to female. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALLISON MILLER'S BOOM TIC BOOM'S "VALLEY OF THE GIANTS")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with David Chang. He's a James Beard award-winning chef and restauranteur. His most famous restaurant is called Momofuku. He also hosts the Netflix series "Ugly Delicious." In his new memoir, "Eat A Peach," he writes about food, restaurants, his childhood - his parents are from North Korea - and he writes about his inner life.
So, you know, you mentioned that you were troubled. You were diagnosed with bipolar disorder. And, of course, you had it before you were diagnosed with it, so you didn't know - you didn't really have an understanding, I suppose, of what you were dealing with. And you went through a very long depression. You write about, like, your suicidal thinking. During that period when you didn't really understand what you were dealing with and you had, like, months of depression and you were thinking about suicide, you didn't want to hurt your parents by actually doing it. But, like, how serious were you in in your thinking? Is that too personal to ask? Is that..
CHANG: No. I mean, it's not.
GROSS: ...Inappropriate to ask?
CHANG: It's not inappropriate. And part of the reason why I want to talk about this is so, you know, we can talk about these serious subjects that people never want to talk about. And it's hard to find, you know, stories that people can maybe relate to. And it's my story. And I'm always careful of talking about depression because I never want to see it as prescriptive for anybody else. But for me, I reached a point in my life where I just couldn't find meaning in anything.
GROSS: Was this before you were cooking or after?
CHANG: Oh, yeah. Yeah. When I was in Japan, that was my first serious manic bout. But when I came back as a cook, when I was working at Cafe Boulud, that was probably the lowest point I've ever experienced. And it's hard to ever explain to anybody that would question, like, why would you feel so bad? Like, come on. Like, just step outside. I can talk about it now in a way that I never was able to talk about when experiencing it because I know it's not my fault. It's a chemical reaction in my brain or a lack of certain things that are working in my brain. And there are certainly other factors involved culturally. There are things that happened in my life with my father, my upbringing. And it's hard to want to live, as crazy as that sounds, right?
And you just think about all the different ways you can end it. And the craziest thing about depression to me after all these years is when you're in a state of serious depression, all you do is think about yourself. And that distorts things. And you're so sensitive to the hurt. And your self-confidence is at an all-time low, self-esteem at an all-time low. But you're simultaneously, you know, thinking that everything you think is the right thing, weirdly. You're convinced enough that anything you think is right and true. And it's this weird paradox. And I went through all of it. And I - that's why I tried to hurt myself in ways that didn't look like suicide.
And I reached a point in my life where - I had no reason or experience to open up a restaurant. But it reached a point where I literally was, like - life or death is like a scenario, right? Like, the worst thing is death. And the second worst thing is hurting other people along that road. The other thing is like, everything else is OK, right? And for me, it was, OK, if I - what's the worst thing I can do? OK, that. OK, let's think about that. Before I choose to do that, let's try to do things that I would never do.
GROSS: Once restaurants kind of saved your life, then you felt like you would become addicted to work, that you were like working constantly. And what does it feel like in your life to feel like work has become an addiction? What did it feel like?
CHANG: You know, it felt - it's - I'm still working through it. And I just had a conversation with my wife last night. She's like, you got to stop. You've got to stop. You know, all I want to do is provide for my family. And that's ultimately what my father wanted. And the last thing I want to do is raise my family and my child the way I did my father. But I could still get the same result if all I do is work. And I'm trying to break these habits. It's really hard. And, you know, in the book, I say the weird thing about work is that it's the last socially acceptable addiction. And the bottoming out in work addiction is at the peak of your career. You know, it's like - it's the craziest thing.
GROSS: I thought that was so perceptive when you wrote that because usually, like, in memoirs or people talk about their lives, when they talk about bottoming out with an addiction, it's the absolute lowest point of their life. They're not functional anymore. But like you say, if you're addicted to work, the peak of your career is when you're most addicted.
CHANG: It didn't really hit me until I would say a few years back, probably like 10 years into running Momofuku. My mom and dad - I was like, if they wanted to screw me up in the head before, they really did a good job at this moment when they said, you have to stop working so much. And I was like, what are you guys talking about?
GROSS: Your parents saying that, wow (laughter).
CHANG: I was like, what? That's when I was like, this is now crazy. If they're telling me I'm working too much, like, I have reached a new level.
CHANG: And the hardest part, Terry, too - and this memoir and my work addiction is it's my perspective. And I think along the way, I can rationalize anything in my addiction to work and proving people wrong and getting to my goals and reaching the metaphorical mountaintop. And as a culture, I feel like we put such a premium on doing that and the sacrifice is worth it, right? And now I see that I hurt a lot of people along the way. And my book only represented some of those stories.
Some of those people I've reached out to over the years - former employees, family members, friends. When you're on the single-minded track to get to where you want to go, you know, it's borderline sociopathic to be like, yeah, it's worth it. I'm going to do this even though, you know what I mean? I'm going to keep on going. I'm going to keep on going. And we sort of celebrate that, at least I internalized it as that. It's worth it. You got to get there. You got to do it. And you get there and you realize, what the hell was I doing? And that's where I'm at right now is I hope I've done more good than bad, and I think that I have. But I can't ask for forgiveness from the people I've wronged. I have to earn it, you know.
GROSS: Let me say that in your book, you say that at some point you hired like a - an executive coach who was going to give you feedback about how to be a better executive and run your restaurants better. And the first thing - I think the first thing the coach said to you was, it's amazing how long people have worked with you in your restaurants 'cause they hate you. (Laughter) I'm thinking, you probably paid a lot of money (laughter) to hear that. But that must have really hurt to hear that. How did you change after hearing that? And why were they feeling so discontent with you?
CHANG: 'Cause I was a horrible boss - and I ruled with fear and commands. And...
GROSS: Like your father brought you up...
CHANG: That's the hardest thing is I spent my entire life making sure I would never be like my dad. And I wound up being exactly like my dad to so many people. And I just couldn't see it. And a lot of the book is about perspective and seeing these things and facing that and realizing that just because I understand that now doesn't mean that, you know - I - you know, it doesn't rationalize anything. It just means, like, I have a different perspective, and I have to change that. And that was hard, to know that everything I did for a long period was, if it's good for me, it's good for the restaurant and it's good for the people that work for me - and I have that aligned. And then you realize that was just a - I could convince myself of anything. And again, that can be a very powerful thing for good and for bad.
GROSS: So you were - we were talking earlier about, you know, suicidal thinking. You were friends with Anthony Bourdain, and he died of suicide the day before your wife found out that she was pregnant. And you'd been trying very hard to get pregnant. I have to say, there's so many examples that I've seen in my life where a beloved person dies, and the wedding is right afterwards or, you know, some celebration is supposed to come right afterwards or a child is born right afterwards. And I don't understand exactly why. I mean, obviously, I don't understand why it often is that way, but it just seems to often be that way.
But did - I mean, did you and Bourdain talk about suicidal thinking? Was that something you shared with each other?
CHANG: Yeah. This is always tough to talk...
GROSS: Tell me if that's too personal to ask.
CHANG: No, no. It is. It is, but it's important to talk about. And...
You know, Tony was a big brother to me. And you know, it was a crazy thing when we found out when Grace got actually - when we were, you know, when the pregnancy actually took place, I couldn't believe the timing of it all. It was just so crazy to me 'cause we had been trying so long. And Tony thought that I would have been. You know what I mean? Like, he was always worried that I was going to hurt myself (crying). And that's the problem is I always thought that Tony was the strong one. Tony was invincible.
And I know, you know, a lot of people that were close to him maybe feel the same way, that we should have asked him how he was doing a little bit more. And actually, there were always signs, if you think about it. And I feel a lot of guilt because I wanted Tony to be in service of me, and it wasn't exactly, the - you know, reciprocated. And he was always worried about how troubled I was. And I never once thought that - yeah, I knew - but Tony just white-knuckled everything. I mean, he was Tony Bourdain until he wasn't.
And I think, if anything, it's a reminder to anyone that just because someone is doing well and has a - has everything going for them - right? - the job, the family, the looks, the fame, whatever - doesn't mean that they're not going through something.
GROSS: Yeah. I should mention here that in the first episode of the second and most recent season of "Ugly Delicious," it's all about, you know, children - having children, feeding children. And we see in that episode you and your wife telling your parents the news that she was pregnant. And there's just this explosion of joy from your parents. Your mother's just in tears. And so if - I just want to call our listeners' and viewers' attention to that. It's a beautiful moment. But I didn't realize - I mean, you know, what a lot to go through in the course of 24 hours.
CHANG: You know what, Terry? That kind of emotion was one of the purest things I've ever experienced. And I was so happy. No one ever told me that telling someone else that your partner is expecting would bring that kind of emotion. And that's when I knew that there was more to life to live, right? There's more emotions to seek out. And I was so glad to give that to my parents.
GROSS: My guest is chef and restaurateur David Chang. His new memoir is called "Eat A Peach." We'll continue our conversation after a break.
And let me also mention this - if you've been dealing with serious depression that has led to thoughts of suicide or know someone who is, there are people you can contact for help at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can call them at 800-273-TALK. That's 800-273-TALK, or 800-273-8255. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with James Beard Award-winning chef and restaurateur David Chang. His new memoir is called "Eat A Peach."
I'm thinking about how much your life has changed in the past year. Your son was born a little over a year ago. And then not long after he was born, the pandemic starts. And, you know, New York has shut down. LA has shut down. You're closing restaurants. You're working a lot from home. At the same time, you're a new parent. You're cooking more at home. So I don't know. In some ways, has the pandemic enabled you because you're not flying around to your restaurants in Sydney or Toronto or New York and you're home so much of the time, enabled you to spend more time with your son at a time when you might not have been able to?
CHANG: I wrestle with this a lot because this year has been so hard. And I've been so blessed and privileged. And I need to understand all of the goodness that I have in my life. And as terrible as things have been, I'm weirdly, strangely grateful because I don't think at any other juncture or any other scenario I would have been able to spend this much time with my family. And it's made me reevaluate so many things, you know. And I want to be present. And I've been telling myself so much this year that winning is losing. And I want to find ways where - you know, just yesterday, for example, you know, there's stuff going on at work. And I was having dinner. And I immediately had to, like, immediately jump in. I was in work mode.
And I talked to my wife later. And she's like, I understand why you have to do this, but you will still always care more about work than your own family. And I want that emotion to be equal to my family, and it's not there. And I'm mad at myself for that. That work can come. And I'm so dedicated to work. I'm so grateful for the team we have at Momofuku with Marguerite Mariscal and the whole team, that I want to make sure that they're not let down and I'm helping them out and their family, too. But this is an opportunity for me to be the best version of myself for my family. And that's the most important job I can have. And I need to tell myself that.
GROSS: So, you know, I read it. I couldn't believe that this is true, that until the pandemic, you hardly cooked at home. Could that possibly be true?
CHANG: Oh, man. A lot of professional chefs never cook at home.
CHANG: Ever. I mean, for me and a lot of people I know, it's just the last thing you want to do when you come home or on your day off is cook.
GROSS: What do you do, order out pizza?
CHANG: All the time. Or any delivery or...
GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah.
CHANG: Yeah. I just never cooked. And, you know, my first apartments, I always actually unplugged, you know, the oven. I turned off the gas just for storage because I didn't even own plates until literally when my wife moved in with me. I had to buy plates and cups.
CHANG: I mean, it was ridiculous.
GROSS: That's amazing. So what do you cook for yourself and your family?
CHANG: I love cooking for my son, and it's the best way to this day still. And that's the one thing - my food was so important to my family, it was the one thing we always could agree on, you know, even with our differences of trying to eat something delicious. So I cook breakfast for my son. I cook lunch. I cook dinner. And I cook a lot of Korean food.
GROSS: What do you make? Kids are picky.
CHANG: He likes eggs and rice. Kids are picky. Eggs and rice. He doesn't like any vegetables. He doesn't even like meat. And I'm currently at a place where I'm trying to figure out how to incorporate vegetables like every other parent. And I am supremely frustrated at my failures (laughter). I try to round out what he wants to eat, but it's a lot of rice, a lot of rice. And - but I, you know, just cooking Korean food or anything, like, I'm cooking just like anybody else. It's not like how I cook in restaurants.
But I tell you, cooking at home - and actually cooking for my wife while she was expecting Hugo, like, when she was, you know, he was in the womb, that's when I realized, like, oh, this is cooking. And I had never been in a position where I'm trying to genuinely feed someone else with love and I just want to nurture them. And cooking for my wife was the best. And then cooking while she was nursing had new meaning. Now it's feeding Hugo.
And the strangest thing has happened. I now have learned a different way of cooking that I never thought that I ever would. Like, it's now changed how I want to cook in general. Like, I care more about serving a bowl of, you know, soup that looks like, you know, just plain old soup but made with love, as cliche as that is, just food made with love versus food that's trying to impress.
GROSS: David, I can't tell you what a pleasure it's been to talk with you. Thank you so much. And thank you so much for being so open. I really appreciate it. I think it's valuable to hear what you have to say.
CHANG: Thank you so much.
GROSS: My interview with David Chang was recorded last Thursday at a Zoom event produced for WHYY by Emily Kinslow. Chang's new memoir is called "Eat A Peach." After we take a short break, we remember travel writer, historian and memoirist Jan Morris. She died last week at the age of 94. Her first memoir, published in 1974, was about transitioning to female. We'll listen back to our 1989 interview. This is FRESH AIR.
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