David Chang vividly recalls dining in London when he lived in the city as a student in 1995.
“There was nothing to eat, particularly if you were on a budget,” said the Korean-American chef, whose influence has rippled across the world from New York, where he founded the Momofuku group of restaurants.
“You could eat a four-quid ($6.28) pizza, and Wagamama had started -- it was delicious then -- or you could go to an all- you-can-eat buffet in Chinatown,” Chang said in an interview at the bar of St John Hotel. “If I’d had more money I could have gone to Le Gavroche or Marco Pierre White’s restaurant. But if I had, I’d probably have dropped out of college and gone to work for Marco, and my life would have been different.”
Chang, 34, was in London to cook at the hotel with his friend Fergus Henderson, a favorite of other chefs for his “nose-to-tail” specialties. Henderson sat beside him for the interview. Together, the chefs swapped jokes and banter, though I noticed Chang stuck to Diet Coke as it was 11:30 a.m.
(“I need to get used to the drinking culture,” he said.)
“Fergus was the forefather of the gastropubs when he was at the French House” in Soho, Chang said. “London is renowned for fine dining and really cheap eating, but there are not so many places in between, which is what he was doing.
“I’m reluctant to use big words like revolution, but things are happening now and chefs are trying to express themselves.”
He spoke admiringly of Henderson’s food, offering a critique of his venues: St John (“more classic”), St John Bread & Wine (“more freedom”) and St John Hotel (“just delicious”).
Would Chang consider opening a restaurant in London, following his decision to open in Sydney?
“If it happens, it happens,” said Chang, whose venues include Momofuku Ssam, Ko, Noodle and Milk, as well as Ma Peche. “I’d never say no, but we have our hands full at the moment. You look at the chefs who have come here, people like Daniel Boulud, and they have the bandwidth to do it and to meet expectations.
“London is the most vicious city in the world, no doubt about it,” said Chang, referring to the restaurant critics following a public falling-out with Jay Rayner after the Observer’s critic reviewed Ma Peche in March 2011. (Rayner said Ma Peche doesn’t serve dessert; Chang’s response on Twitter was robust, according to Eater.Com.)
I spent a day with Chang judging about 30 dishes over four hours at the Taste of London event on June 20 and he engaged with each chef, enthusing as much about the last dish (Le Gavroche) as the first (Bocca di Lupo). He was also at ease with the critics on the panel and the choice was unanimous of Club Gascon, Spice Market and Cinnamon Soho for top three places.
He’s still unconvinced he’d get a welcome in London.
“I’d rather open in Paris,” he said, and laughed. “At least they’d be more sympathetic to what I was trying to do.”
I hope he was joking.
(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. He is U.K. and Ireland chairman of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards. Opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Warwick Thompson on theater.
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