Having a drive that matches the wattage of Las Vegas, chef David Chang knows how to get things accomplished. Starting with his acclaimed Noodle Bar in Manhattan, his culinary exploits have grown ever more expansive, moving into the tasting menus of Ko and beyond. That drive is reflected in his focus and fortitude in an industry fraught with peril. Chang continues to move forward in his creative process while maintaining the integrity of his vision and branding as a culinary entrepreneur and restaurateur. We spent a few minutes with the chef to learn his perspective of the turbulent restaurant world and to find out more about his newest Momofuku, located in the upscale, hipster Cosmopolitan Hotel, Casino, and Resort.
The Daily Meal: How long where you eyeballing Las Vegas for this venue, and are you elated to finally be opened?
David Chang: We have been looking at Las Vegas since the economic collapse in 2009. It has been a long time with working with the casinos. I feel like Goldilocks following the breadcrumbs, until we found the right fit here at the Cosmopolitan.
I have read that Momofuku is a “hype-generating buzz magnet.” Is that how you would describe the venue?
We don’t do any of that; we just try to do great food. We hope that we are more substance than flash. We have a lot to figure out in Las Vegas.
Hospitality is the mainstay of the economy in Las Vegas. What is your definition of hospitality and how will that be presented in Las Vegas?
Hospitality has a multitude of viewpoints and has multiple roads, but I believe for a long time hospitality was defined as one kind of way which was a Western or Michelin-star French way. But I think how I define hospitality is in what really matters, and that is how the customer leaves the restaurant. Hopefully they leave ecstatic and they got value from the experience. How you get there doesn’t really matter, as long as you do it with ethical and moral guidelines.
What do you want people to encounter when they first enter your restaurants?
Most of our restaurants are very different; some are what I would term bare-boned. After traveling and working abroad and in Asia, I have found that décor and ambience is certainly a very Western perspective to what is delicious and what is great that can be Eurocentric in most part. Living and working abroad and in Asia opened my eyes, in that some of the best food in the world is made in the most humble of places. I would rather have a place that has to overcome its limitations, than to be accentuated by them. It does not mean I don’t enjoy great ambience, but for me it is about seeing the happiness in people’s faces when they are having a good time. It’s a high bar, but that’s the road that I have chosen.
What do you look for in your employees, especially in such a transitional business?
First thing I look for in an employee is: Will they be harder on themselves than I would be? Are they willing to make mistakes? Do they want to work hard and be a part of the team? It doesn’t necessarily mean they have to be exceptionally talented, but do they have the grit and fortitude to go forward?
What are some of your expectations of your venue here in Las Vegas?
This menu has been really difficult. We have never done the same menu anywhere, and that makes it difficult on ourselves, but some things are the same and certain things are not. We try to work with local purveyors to source different ingredients, so things taste different. This restaurant had to get a lot of targets, one is that it is in a casino that doesn’t really have a noodle house — and there is every type casino in the world that doesn’t have some sort of noodle house — and it has to appeal to a wide range of people. It has to appeal to foodies potentially. It has to appeal to people from out of town looking for a fun night — well, it literally has to hit just about every type of demographic. It would have been easier to say we are a steakhouse, but we aren’t. The challenge is in hitting all our goals and having a menu that we could execute. I have been talking to a lot of our customers and thankfully most people are enjoying it, but there are people with super expectations who are maybe let down. I wish we could blow people away, but we just opened so that doesn’t make me happy. So let’s see how we are judged in year two or year three. It’s not like a movie premiere; the movie is not going to get any better. We will get better after six months, a year.
On a final note, what words of advice would you give an aspiring chef?
You are going to have to push harder than everyone else; you are going to have to tough it out. That’s true. Every time you think you are at a bottom, there is a lot lower that you can go. And when you reach your top, wherever that might be, it’s just a higher fall.
When in Las Vegas, chef David Chang’s Momofuku is worth a stop to dine and explore a venue with a view.