Illustrations by Jenny Oh
Back in the early aughts, when I still lived in New York City before moving to the Bay Area, an early mid-life crisis propelled me to temporarily jettison my career in television production. While most of my professional life had been devoted to working on stories for public media and documentaries about the arts, several regrettable stints (but necessary for my paycheck) in the encroaching blight of reality television programming left a sour taste in my mouth.
Scanning Craigslist jobs listings one day, as I pondered what to do next in between freelance gigs, I decided to click on the “food/beverage/hospitality” section. I had a deep love for food – cooking it, eating it, obsessing over it – so perhaps my future would lead me down a different path of storytelling: through culinary creations.
A post seeking a prep cook for a relatively new “noodle bar” in the East Village called Momofuku caught my eye. I can’t recall most of the details listed in the ad, but I do remember it said they’d be willing to train someone with little to no experience in a restaurant kitchen – which would definitely be me. So I wrote up a short cover letter explaining my desire for a possible career change, emailed my resume and crossed my fingers I’d hear back them.
Later that week, I was happily surprised when I was called in for a morning interview before the restaurant opened for service later that day. I briefly chatted with Joaquin Baca*, one of Momofuku’s chefs, who said that Chef Chang would be in shortly to meet with me. Not too long after, a tall, beefy guy strode in the door, with a swagger in his step and iPod earbuds jammed into his ears; he looked more like a guitarist in an indie rock band recovering from a long night of drinking rather than a reputable chef. He promptly plugged his device into Momofuku’s sound system and his heavy metal playlist began blaring in the background from the speakers.
Our chat was brief. He didn’t mince words and spoke with a no-bullsh** demeanor. While he sat back in his chair with a casual informality, his face conveyed a serious intensity about his work. Chef Chang gave me an overview of Momofuku, its menu, his love for ramen and their signature pork buns that were growing in popularity. I basically reiterated my sentiments in my cover letter, adding that I loved Japanese food and would love to be given the opportunity to learn as much as possible there.
“Well, to be honest, “ I recall him pausing for a a moment while looking down at my resume in his hand. “I’ve got my doubts. You’re pretty old and have no experience with cooking professionally.”
This bit of blunt honesty stung for a moment, as I didn’t consider myself quite “old” yet in my early 30’s, but true — I was certainly no fresh-faced kid, either.
“But I’ll give you a shot. You’ll be working long hours for $400 a week. Can you start today?”
Today? I figured I’d better say yes before he changed his mind and enthusiastically agreed to get started right away.
He introduced me to the various staff we encountered during a short tour of the restaurant — dishwashers, servers, other cooks – then led me down into the basement to meet the prep cook who he was looking to replace. (I can’t remember his name, so I’ll call him Prep.)
Chef Chang was pretty pissed at Prep; “I TRAINED this guy, I INVESTED in this guy for four solid months and now he’s f’ing leaving me.” Prep, a quiet, unassuming guy in his early-20’s, definitely looked ready to be on his way out. He greeted me with a tired smile and later on, confided to me that he was leaving this occupation for good as he found it far too grueling. “But I’m sure you’ll do fine,” he said, with a half-hearted note of encouragement in his voice.
The rest of the night was a blur of instructions. I followed Prep around the kitchen like a crazed puppy dog, trying to memorize where everything was and what to do and what not to do. As I ran up and down the stairs from the basement to the dining room, Joaquin warned me, “Always let people know where you are,” after I nearly crashed into another cook. There was only a minimal prep space upstairs behind the narrow counter for customers, so there was a lot of shouting of, “Behind you,” when cooks rushed through carrying pots of hot of stock.
My first formidable task was given directly to me by Chef Chang; he set down a large crate of scallions on the table and said, “Chop up this entire box, please.” A wave of panic silently passed over me but I nodded and said, “Yes, Chef.” Prep lent me a knife from his roll (not realizing everyone had their own personal stash of knives which they treated like royalty, I sheepishly had to borrow knives from Prep throughout my shift.) I got to work, methodically trying to produce a perfect pile of thinly sliced scallions that were used as garnish for many of their dishes.
Chef Chang came back about 10 minutes later to inspect my of handiwork – the miniscule amount that was available for him to critique — and he admonished, “NO, NO – you’re going too slowly. Do it like THIS.” Chef Chang took the knife away from me, blazed through a pile in scallions in one smooth, tat-tat-tat gesture, then said, “Now it’s your turn.” I anxiously began hacking away at the scallions as quickly as possible, hoping it wasn’t too much of a butcher job.
Later on, Chef Chang assigned me my second daunting task of the night: making the “family meal” for the staff. Now the pressure was really on, as I didn’t want to screw up the one meal all of the staff would eat before embarking on their long shift. He told me there were some chicken legs, rice and some leftover ingredients I could use for the early dinner.
I decided to braise them and set to work browning the chicken legs on the stove. As they were frying up, he’d come down periodically, glancing suspiciously over at my sluggish progress. I was now sweating profusely from the relentless heat of the oil in that small, cramped space and my increasing stress. Chef Chang finally marched over to me, loomed over my shoulder and shouted, “What the f— ARE you doing?”
“Uhhhhh….I’m braising chicken, Chef.” He gave me an incredulous look that basically said, “What in the actual f—“ and said, “That’s going to take WAY too long. Prep, help her broil this chicken and get this family meal finished NOW.” We hurriedly loaded the chicken legs onto sheet pans, stuck them in the oven, then busied ourselves with getting everything else ready for the meal. (I vaguely recall it being edible and we even received a compliment or two.) Chef Chang informed his staff he’d put up a list of food critics to watch out for on the wall, so, “PLEASE be on the lookout for these VIP’s.” Service began shortly thereafter.
At the end of the evening, after the last customer had left, the doors were shut and we had finished cleaning up the prep kitchen, I went over to talk to Chef Chang privately.
“I want to thank you for giving me a chance today, but you were absolutely right. I’m not cut out for this,” with a slight quaver in my voice. He gave me a sympathetic look, a solemn nod and shook my hand.
“Good luck with whatever you do,” he replied. I said my goodbyes to the rest of the staff and returned home to Brooklyn, feeling demoralized and even more adrift than before. Years later, after several other attempts of working in the food industry, I left New York City, relocated to San Francisco and returned to producing stories for public media.
One of my friends, a professional chef who spent over a decade honing his craft in many high-end New York City restaurants within the fine dining world, advised me: “Chances are you’ll be on your feet for 14+ hours a day with low pay for many years. There’s no reason to do it unless you really, really love it.” I knew that I didn’t have the kind of commitment, drive or talent it takes to survive in the business; my unrealistic, overly romanticized notions of food and paltry amateur skills weren’t going to translate into a successful career.
It’s been great watching Chef David Chang’s star rise over time as his burgeoning empire (and sometimes, even his notoriety) continues to expand internationally. I’ve got his Momofuku cookbook and several issues of Lucky Peach on my bookshelf and consider myself honored that I was able to spend one night in his kitchen, toiling away over a box of scallions. While I’m sure my knife skills haven’t improved much since then, at the very least, I came away with some valuable insights about myself.
*I learned later on that he was one of his co-chefs and partners; he’s since gone on to open up the acclaimed restaurant The Brooklyn Star.