There are many things the internet can be blamed for, from revenge porn to Grumpy Cat, but celebrity chef David Chang has added a new item to the list.
“Everything tastes the same,” he says, “and it’s the internet’s fault.”
Chang, whose culinary empire has grown over a decade from one noodle bar, Momofuku, to a group including more than 10 restaurants, a cookbook and a quarterly magazine, Lucky Peach, argues that the much-vaunted democratisation of information has had a pernicious effect on variation in food.
It was in Lucky Peach that he first explored the argument, with particular emphasis on the foodstuff that his own restaurants focus on: ramen. Before the internet, he wrote: “Apprentices would learn from a chef, then work their way from taking orders to washing dishes and finally to working in the kitchen. Once they were good enough, the master would tell them to move on to another shop somewhere else.”
If you wanted to learn how to cook, “you’d order ramen books from Japan and wait weeks for them to arrive, so you could pore over the photos from across the planet”.
Now, “ramen is everywhere, and a lot of it is the same. I don’t want to go to every city and taste the same fucking thing. Everyone’s serving tonkotsu ramen, everyone’s serving pork. You could do a blind taste test and not have any idea where the fuck you’re eating.”
Speaking at the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas, Chang argues that restaurant cuisine is hurt in more ways than one by the frictionless way the internet enables chefs to get information from all around the world.
“There are probably 10 websites about the best places to find ramen throughout the world … That’s fantastic, but it hurts the important demographic of the cooks. There’s no struggle, and I think it’s very important in any creative process that you endorse some sort of struggle.”
The pressure is on
At the other end of the scale, he argues, the rapid growth in food blogs and online conversation around eating out means that it’s harder than ever for a young chef to make a mark doing something that’s interestingly different, because the pressure to get it right first time is enormous.
“One thing the internet prevents is trial and error. Everybody wants something instantly. That’s fantastic, but what it sacrifices is the process of fucking up. I’m sorry, but nobody is born a chef genius, it’s whoever makes the best mistakes. And right now the internet puts people in the position where they have to get it right immediately.
“In Noodle Bar we fucked up for nine months straight. Being told you’re going out of business is great, because it means you don’t care. We thought ‘if we’re going out of business let’s fucking go out of business’,” he said – and that’s when his business took off. “The only way you fuck up is if you don’t fuck up.”
Despite being down on the internet, Chang is by no means relentlessly anti-tech – although he expects more than the industry currently provides the restaurant sector. “The existing stuff that’s there, it’s great but it’s not awesome. I don’t think anyone’s like ‘man, I love OpenTable’. You use it by default. We use it. But it’s not something you rave about.
“That’s what we’re missing: nothing’s amazing.”
Order and Pay for Food Remotely
The dream platform, he said, would mix the reservation, point of sale and inventory systems to offer something unique. “For instance: We have some really old great wines. If someone orders a really great Burgundy, I need to open that six hours beforehand.” Currently, of course, that’s not possible: the restaurant can only open wine once a customer’s ordered it.
“There should be a way for us and the customer to be like: ‘Mr Smith, last time you were here you ordered this, would it be alright if we opened it at five o’clock beforehand?’”
But looking into the idea provided an awkward surprise. “I had no idea how expensive it is. We were talking to a data mining company, who were going to charge $6-million a year to make a platform for us. I was like, ‘what? That’s more than we make! I should have done better in school.’”
Instead, Chang’s first real adventure in the tech space takes its influence from a rather more down-market source: Taco Bell. The fast-food chain recently launched an app that allows customers to order their food remotely, and pick up their own custom-made taco as it’s made. “That’s amazing,” he said. “That is pretty rad. And I would love that for Momofuku two years from now. You walk in, no line, sit down and I have what you want, boom, it’s right there.”
Affecting how people eat
In the meantime, Chang’s experimenting with the idea in his latest restaurant venture, called Fuku. The restaurant, announced this week, will focus exclusively on spicy fried chicken sandwiches. “It’s going to basically be a regular restaurant where you can get a fried chicken sandwich. Just that right now. And a healthy option. You’re either eating fat person food, or you want a healthy lunch.”
Alongside the restaurant, Chang will launch an app, which follows similar lines to the Taco Bell concept. But, he says, the venture is more than just the latest expansion of his chain.
“I think that the only way you can effect change in a positive way is by effecting it from big business. If Momofuku can get big, we can really affect how people eat.
“Everyone wants to make a David Lynch Blue Velvet movie, but no one wants to watch that all the time! I really want to reach Star Wars. To make a movie, or food, that everyone wants to enjoy, that’s hard. Right now, to make something that is enjoyable by everyone is intrinsically rewarding.” – © Guardian News and Media, 2015