"At the end of the day, you're a restaurant, not a gallery," asserted David Chang at Monday night's "Dining + Design" talk at the New School in Manhattan. "I think you need to deliver on that, first and foremost."
The chef and owner behind the global Momofuku empire, with restaurants based in New York City, Sydney and Toronto, participated in the last of a three-part series on restaurant design, alongside his partner Andrew Salmon and designer Anwar Mekhayech — who oversaw the recently opened Toronto additions to the Momofuku lineup. Mitchell Davis of the James Beard Foundation moderated.
The discussion focused on restaurant design, environment and food — and how those three components synthesize to form a cohesive dining experience, particularly at Chang's own restaurants. Topics veered from design (or lack thereof) born from necessity, to the vastly different, big-budget openings in Toronto to Chang's persistent call for a simple concrete box as his next restaurant. Some choice Chang quotes from the talk, below:
Explaining the bare-bones decor of Momofuku Noodle Bar, which Chang opened with an initial budget of about $125,000 dollars:
"When we opened Momofuku Noodle Bar in 2004, design was the last thing I was concerned about…it was 600 square feet, 27 seats, stools from this web company. If I could have afforded décor, we would have. So everything in the existing restaurant from the get-go was by default from what we could afford, which was nothing. And that's why there is no décor as we know it…Momofuku Noodle Bar became an exercise in what we don't need."
Restaurant design he admires:
"El Bulli. With all the food, it was still a Catalan home. You could have your canapes and drinks outside watching the sunset in this beautiful forest, near the beach, overlooking all the water. And you go inside and if you didn't look at the food, you'd think you're in a grandmother's home. And then you go in the kitchen…and it's from the future. Such a surprise."
And The Fat Duck:
"A restaurant that makes me weep when I think about it is the Fat Duck. It's a story of making it happen. Heston's amazing, but when he opened that restaurant — when it first got three Michelin stars, it only had one fork and knife [symbol]. That means it's like the least comfortable restaurant, ever. What you see is them trying whatever they can to make the space happen."
And Le Bernardin:
"I think in New York, that's my favorite dining room right now. I think the redesign that Bentel & Bentel did is just tremendous. It's such an iconic dining room and it looks sexy now. Everybody looks better. And the food looks better — it just looks right. For me, I'm just still stuck in this juvenile notion, like gimme the worst-looking room and I can serve you food that you're not going to expect."
On his own intentionally designed restaurants in Toronto:
"I still don't know how to appreciate it. I just don't know. Maybe 10 years from now. While it's beautiful, I still have this weird idea — just give me a concrete box. I feel like the nicer a room looks, you almost have to work harder. Like it just diminishes the food."
On food trucks:
"While I like eating out of food trucks, I don't wanna cook IN a food truck. I just need a kitchen. I can't, I can't do it."
"Restaurant art is really weird. If it's not a picture of food, people think it's really weird. But you don't go to a bank and see pictures of money."