Adweek: When you spoke at Google’s campus in 2009, you said one reason you got into cooking was so you wouldn’t have to do interviews, so I just want to apologize for doing this to you.
You started out cooking at a really heady time, the late ’90s. The dot-com boom was on, tons of venture capital was flying around. But you’ve said you were drawn to cooking because it was “one of the few things I thought was honest.” What did you mean?
If I had done better in school, I probably wouldn’t be cooking right now. But I was an idealistic college grad. I was thinking, how could you just sit down, type away meaninglessly or enter data, and do that for the rest of your life? Just accept that? It just seemed so meaningless to me.
You cut your teeth at Craft under Tom Colicchio. That place was red hot from the day it opened. How’d you get in there?
I was still going to cooking school, and my buddy was working there as a waiter. The only way I could get in there was by answering the phones.
But reservations are front-of-the-house. How’d you get into the kitchen?
I was the worst phone receptionist ever. Ever. One day, I went back to help out. I was just chopping mirepoix. It was just a cube of carrots, a cube of celery, a cube of red onions. I only had to do three quarts—not that much. But it took what seemed like eight hours because I just wanted to do it right. That’s when I realized that I’d never cared about doing a job right before.
You actually trained in a few top-name places—not just Craft, but The Mercer Kitchen and Café Boulud. For as much as it all taught you, though, it also seems to have made you critical of fine dining. You’ve called it “elitist” before. What ticked you off about it?
There were several factors involved. I didn’t necessarily enjoy cooking for my clientele. I don’t know exactly who they were. I had also just come back from working in Japan and traveling throughout Asia. And I saw that eating well isn’t just for a certain class demographic. I mean, everyone can eat well. But in America, there’s this huge discrepancy between cooking well and eating well. The best restaurants happen to be the most expensive, fancy restaurants. It’s not taken seriously if you did anything other than that. I definitely could have stayed in that world. But there was something about dropping out of it that allowed me to be free to choose whatever I wanted. And I just wanted to do it a little bit different.
Well, with Momofuku, you did—certainly in terms of losing the snobbery. You take reservations via your website on a first-come basis. There’s no VIP list, none of that old-guard stuff.
I just wanted to open up a noodle bar, to serve food that I wanted to do. I didn’t really care that it wasn’t sexy. I didn’t care, and that’s why Momofuku happened.
But it almost didn’t happen, right? You were a few months into your run, and looking at closing if things didn’t pick up.
We were going to go out of business in like two, three months.
But then you got some good press. The New York Times called Momofuku “a plywood-walled diamond in the rough.” Now, I’m not suggesting that the media saved your restaurant, but it probably did you a favor.
I’m sure it actually helped us, but there was no plotting of strategy. We didn’t have an agenda. We didn’t have a PR company. We just had no idea what the fuck was going on. Peter Meehan, who is my writing partner in all of my ventures, will quite honestly say that our food was awful when we opened up. But it got better. We were following our gut. We were learning how to run a restaurant.
Running a restaurant is, among other things, a grueling and nasty job. Do you think the cable cooking shows clean up that image?
They certainly make it plastic, but I’m not opposed to it. Like, I’ll do [a TV appearance] if it helps promote the restaurant. But obviously everything [these days] is reality TV because it’s easier and cheaper to produce. [Cooking shows are] a gold mine for someone making TV—high tension situations, drama.
High energy, low production cost.
Right. And the personalities are quite flammable. For TV producers it’s a fucking treasure trove.