Monday, August 29, 2011

David Chang, Culinary Artistry, and the Problem of Chefs Selling Out in Las Vegas

Momfuku Ssam Bar in New York's East Village is a singularly unique and hip restaurant that has turned head chef David Chang into a culinary star. The pork-centric Korean/Japanese/French/Italian/whatever Chang and his crack staff can imagine menu is a constantly evolving wonder of deliciously indulgent and inventive tastes, all of it presented at prices far below that of similarly hot, celebrity chef driven restaurants. And instead of tasteful design and servers wearing suits, the restaurant is alive with energy, led by the enthusiasm of the tattooed and pierced, T-Shirt wearing staff that cooks and serves your food.

Also, there is a gloriously cheesy painting of John McEnroe in full 80s glory inexplicably hanging on the wall.

When I visited the red-hot restaurant on my New York adventure, I ate Chang's famous steamed buns filled with pork belly (which live up to the hype), jowl terrine (indulgent, wrong, and delicious), roasted lamb loin and belly topped with dripping egg yolk (soft and salty heaven), and the most gloriously delicious and utterly, totally different slices of carrot cake I've ever put in my mouth. It was one of the best meals of my life, with food that defies classification from one of the hottest and most exciting young minds to burst onto the culinary scene in years.

As if the amazing and outside the box food wasn't enough, Chang also has a hilariously unhinged public persona, as his media appearances are often peppered with F-Bombs, self deprecating rants, and tirades against overrated Food Network chefs and the entire celebrity chef culture in general (even though he is indeed a part of said culture).

With his restaurant's daringly inventive food and punk-rock cool mixed with his own high profile persona and "who gives a crap" bravado, a David Chang restaurant would fit in perfectly in Las Vegas. Though the chef has admitted that the idea of Las Vegas is intriguing to him, no official plans have gone forward for a Sin City link in the slowly yet surely expanding Momofuku line of restaurants (Momofuku restaurants are planned in Toronto and Sydney, so it's not as if the chef is averse to expanding his empire beyond his beloved New York City).

A Chang restaurant in Vegas would be a real win for the city, but it might be a matter of bad timing with the economy in the toilet. Investors might be nervous taking a chance on a chef who takes such outlandish risks with his food and has such a volatile personality, and it's probably a safer investment in the minds of many to open another Wolfgang Puck or Emeril Lagasse restaurant on The Strip instead. Just because you can score with discerning foodies in Manhattan's coolest neighborhood doesn't mean that success will translate with the tourists who frequent Vegas restaurants.

And it's also might be a question of personal integrity... can such an outspoken, punk rock-style chef open in Vegas without losing some of the street cred he's earned through his F-Bomb laced rants and provocative Tweets? Basically, I'm wondering if you can enter into the artifice of the Vegas restaurant scene and still remain an artist, or if you're automatically watering down your brand when you open amongst the glittering facades of The Strip?

Vegas is a hard town to remain true to one's vision, but since Vegas features restaurants from Hubert Keller, Michael Mina, Guy Savoy, and Chang hero Thomas Keller where the chefs have been able to control their visions and innovate even as they compete in a crowded marketplace, it is doable.

A Momofuku restaurant could fit in with the side of Vegas that the young and artsy have started to occupy, the people who attend First Friday events and drink at The Double Down. A hipster and foodie approved David Chang eatery could be a God-send to a place like The Cosmopolitan, so eager to prove that they're cutting edge and cool to the "curious class" demographic that they're desperately courting (a plan that's not working as the resort reported a big loss at the end of the last quarter). Whatever he decides, Chang has the kind of clout and media buzz at this point that he could open a restaurant in Vegas on his own terms. Hopefully one day soon Chang will unleash his wild culinary imagination on The Strip.

One can only imagine what his rants will be like after he spends some real quality time in Sin City.

No comments:

Post a Comment