A canvass of the food world reveals that the top 10 celebrity chefs are worth a collective $948 million. As everybody knows, only a relative few cooks will ever reach the culinary mountaintop where these kitchen gods live, but enough have made it that “celebrity chef” isn’t just a defining pop term of our multichannel, food-crazed age—it has become a kind of living stereotype.
It goes something like this. A talented cook starts out with a restaurant that hits it big. Then he opens a few more. Then he crosses into the mystical realm of branding, and suddenly his name is everywhere: on cookbooks, packaged goods, TV shows, kitchen equipment. He or she (but typically, he) commands five-figure speakers’ fees.
With only minor variation, the scenario handily describes the career paths of Emeril Lagasse, Wolfgang Puck, Mario Batali, and…
But then again, not quite.
Without question, the 34-year-old Korean-American chef who helms the highly acclaimed Momofuku is at the top of his game. Since opening the doors of his first restaurant in 2004, leading to what The New York Times dubbed “the slurp heard round the world,” Chang’s formula—“pan-Asian cooking, French techniques and bad-boy attitude,” in the words of Epicurious.com—has earned him two Michelin stars, multiple awards and hoards of devotees who’ll do anything to get a reservation at one of his 11 (and counting) restaurants—those that even take reservations, that is.
And with a Momofuku cookbook, a line of sauces at Williams-Sonoma and an offbeat, wildly popular 100,000-circ food quarterly magazine called Lucky Peach (the English translation of the Japanese “Momofuku”), Chang is well into the transfiguration from man of the kitchen to a man of media.
And yet, when we caught up with Chang last month at his East Village test kitchen (which sits safely behind an unmarked storefront, lest foodies storm the place), we came across an internationally renowned chef who’s not just baffled by all the acclaim but convincingly unsure about whether he wants more of it. “I got into this profession because I wasn’t supposed to achieve anything,” says Chang, who once told The New Yorker he wasn’t even an awesome cook. “Then all of a sudden,” he says, “it just veered into this whole new realm.”
Before it veers much further, we wanted to get Chang’s take on his cooking, his businesses, his media projects and media image, and the morphing of his name and his work into something he never dreamed they would become: a brand.