If you haven’t heard of David Chang, he’s your favorite chef’s favorite chef.
The 40-year-old creator of the international Momofuku restaurant empire has a Netflix show, a burgeoning podcast, a best-selling cookbook, and an in-your-face, intensely honest persona that exudes confidence. What separates Chang from his celebrity chef counterparts, however, is an unrelenting transparency and progressive perspective about what goes on behind the double doors of world renown restaurants. A perspective where people, not food, have become the pièce de résistance.
From a business perspective, the restaurant industry is primed for success like never before. Americans are eating out more than ever, and with delivery services like Uber Eats on the rise, Chinese food and pizza no longer have a corner on chronic Netflix-and-chillers. As a result, restaurant owners are facing an equal and opposite reaction to increased opportunity: A war for recruiting and retaining top talent. Chang describes it best in his podcast The David Chang Show, “Cooking has become a blue collar job with white collar expectations.”
There’s a hint of patronization in his tone, a trace of back in my day disdain. For decades, kitchen culture has enshrined images like those in a Marco Pierre White book, embracing the gritty glamour of culinary savants with bipolar management styles. For those unfamiliar with White’s antics, he is the estranged mentor to Gordon Ramsay, star of hit TV shows like Hell’s Kitchen and Masterchef. Despite his success as a chef and international restaurateur, Ramsay is perhaps best known for his ability to verbally obliterate any contestant in his path. Where did Ramsay develop such an appetite for devastating public humiliation? White tells a story about berating him so viciously day after day that Ramsay finally just broke down, hiding in a corner with tears streaming down his facing saying, “I don’t care what you do to me. Hit me. I don’t care.” Tales like this are canonized in kitchen lore.
Such a hyper-masculinized, “blue collar” approach is how Chang and his ilk were raised. For them, 18 hour shifts and borderline emotional abuse all in exchange for minimum wage isn’t about right or wrong, it just is. And as Ramsay’s complicated relationship with White attests, when that’s the only model you know, the cycle continues.
But times have changed. New, young employees in particular are much less willing to endure these rights of passage, showing little regard for traditional notions of loyalty. Rather than take the heat in hopes of ruling their own fiefdom one day, cooks and staff have no qualms ditching toxic environments for “white collar”, progressive kitchens promising more collaborative cultures and enticing benefits packages.
This shift has left many chefs in the middle of a dialectical tension, or as Chang puts it, Jedis from Star Wars choosing between the light side and the dark side. He expounds on this analogy in an article for Madfeed,
“In the old school, the dark side, there was only one way you could be successful: you had to be an asshole….Those on the light side, whether they were always on that side or came to it later by traveling the dark side first, choose not to sacrifice life or the celebration of it, of food, of farmers, of the joyous occasion eating should be…. I think we’re just beginning to embrace the light side, and that a hundred years from now, cooking will be better than ever before. I truly believe that.”
This “light side” is a new kitchen culture Chang and his Momofuku leaders are hard at work implementing from the top down. In a podcast describing the opening of his newest restaurant in Las Vegas, Chang remarks that some cooks have been able to buy houses and felt stable enough to move their families to the same city. This would be a rare feat under the old guard, as cooks would hardly ever earn enough money for a home much less have time for family or feel enough job stability to uproot what family they had.
Other prominent players in the industry are embracing the light side as well.
Danny Meyer, CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group (USHG), has garnered attention for eliminating the traditional tip structure for food servers in exchange for higher wages. But artifacts like better pay and paid parental leave are merely byproducts of Meyer’s deeper connection to making hospitality the focal point of USHG's purpose. “[H]iring … emotionally intelligent people with hospitality in their DNA—has always been challenging,” Meyer tells FastCompany. So leadership has turned their attention to “building a culture where employees focus first on pleasing one another.” This keeps current employees happy while also attracting new ones.
Renown chef René Redzepi recounts his recent journey from dark side to light, despite earning two Michelin stars using the old school approach (FYI, three stars basically means you’ve conquered food),
“It wasn’t uncommon to reach for a pan only to find that someone had stuck the handle in the fire and then put it back on my station just to mess with me….I watched chefs—mine and others—use bullying and humiliation to wring results out of their cooks….This was how I had been taught to cook, and it was the only way I knew to get a message through. I can’t say that it didn’t work for a time. Noma has succeeded beyond whatever I could have imagined for it….[Changing the culture] has worked for us. I genuinely do see the improvement in the staff’s morale, in our guests’ satisfaction, in the quality of our creativity and execution.”
In an industry steeped in religious rigidity, Chang and his band of light-side Jedis are paving the way for a new hope– kitchen culture dedicated to empathetic, engaging, and human-centric tactics while maintaining the highest standard of excellence.
It can be easy to dismiss these ideas as trite platitudes, visions of utopic oases in an otherwise wasteland of command-and-control kitchens. But that is perhaps what makes Chang’s mission so captivating. David Chang is not a pie-in-the-sky idealist. In fact, he’s a self-proclaimed pessimist with a short temper. He is not a neatly packaged paragon of servant leadership. He’s real. He’s growing. He’s learning.
Which is why that twinge of condescension in Chang’s voice about cooking's new collar still lingers. He knows the promise of the light and the detriment of the dark, but more often than not the dark side is his default state.
“I’m learning that any Jedi can turn to the dark side...I see now—which is not say to I live the example—that when you manage using fear, cooks are going to do whatever they can to lie about their mistakes, to blame other people, to avoid accountability.”
Chang, Meyer, and Redzepi are at the top of the food pyramid. They’re some of the most highly decorated and critically acclaimed players in the game. But in a time when popular culture likes to deify singular personalities in the food industry, these three share a secret to success that has little to do with them as individuals and even less to do with cooking itself. Here is that secret in their own words:
“As my years in the profession stack up, I find myself caring less about cutting-edge cooking and more about the well-being of my employees and how my customers feel.”
“If one of our restaurants closes, I want people to say, ‘Something just went missing in my life.’”
“When we started trying to [change the culture] at Noma, we did it for the sake of our own happiness. I didn’t expect that it would also make us a better restaurant. But it did.”
Words. Actions. Feelings. People. Culture. They aren’t line items on a P&L sheet. They’re not variables in complex business school formulas. They aren’t catchy KPI metrics. Nevertheless, Chang, once lauded as the “bad-boy of cooking”, is leading the charge with these light-side values as his main ingredients.
Chang’s journey is a testimony to the need for self-aware, empathetic leadership even in one of the world's toughest, most monolithic industries. He is propelling the food business forward. Now it’s time for the rest of us to start paying attention.