All photos by Liz Barclay (@liz_barclay)
A decade ago, we thought Momofuku Noodle Bar was a mere ramen joint. Then, we started shoveling in the pork buns and spearing the spicy rice cakes, and we realized that noodles were just the beginning of David Chang’s full-throttled assault on the city’s dining habits.
Chefs have come and gone from the Chang’s East Village temple of rapturous Asian-Southern cooking, and the menu has evolved, but we’re just as eager to pull up a stool there now as we were a decade ago—especially when given the rare opportunity to devour the old-school dishes we fell for for in the first place.
This week, the restaurant is commemorating its milestone anniversary with a special throwback menu, featuring nostalgic favorites from some of the restaurant’s former head chefs (get there quickly, as this is only a thing until August 24). Here, a few Noodle Bar alums talk about the archived dishes that stood out for them, divulge a few tales from the Momo vault, and share what they learned working in the trenches with the one and only Chang.
Scott Garfinkel (creator of Furn Shawarma)
On Working With Chang: “My time at Noodle Bar changed the way I think about food. At the same time, it was changing the way we think about restaurants in general. For the first time, I could cook for my friends in an atmosphere that was fun and funky, and any of them–whether cooks or lawyers—could pop in and afford the meal and watch me cook it while listening and dancing to our favorite songs. From David, I learned to make honest, simple versions of ethnic food while changing it to our own sensibilities, but without corrupting it, or forcing elements together, or having superfluous components. I try to think about every dish I make like this. It has shaped my interpretation of shawarma, a food I have been obsessed with, and pushed me to take the medium to the next level, while staying true to traditional flavor profiles.”
My time at Noodle Bar changed the way I think about food. At the same time, it was changing the way we think about restaurants in general.
His Favorite Memory: “There were so many good, fun, crazy times at Noodle Bar. Cooking right in front of celebrities and industry heavyweights who were regulars like Mario Batali, Dan “the Automator” Nakamura, Adam Yauch, and Molly Ringwald. One of the coolest things was working on the recipes with Peter Meehan for the Noodle Bar section of the Momofuku cookbook and hanging out with him and Mark Ibold—I am a big Pavement fan—for the photo shoots, and then seeing myself in the book and in the credits. I watched it go from funky industry hangout to crazy heights in the four and a half years I was there. It was the experience of a lifetime. My goal with Furn Shawarma is to try to capture the vibe of the original Noodle Bar space, though it is unlikely to ever happen again.”
Kevin Pemoulie (chef/co-owner at Thirty Acres)
“I think the noodles came out of the fact I had been eating Dan Dan noodles somewhere and I just really wanted something on the menu that was super, super hot with peppercorns and chiles. Really, it was a selfish dish because it was something I wanted to eat. The cashews added mild sweetness, texture, and relief to the full-throttle spice bomb.”
On Working With Chang: “When you work there a lot is expected of you, so you’re constantly under pressure to improve and work through mistakes. There’s never any downtime or any kind of slacking off. When we were just one single restaurant it was internally competitive and kept everyone on their toes. The company was an intense one to work for, and I mean that positively. It improved my confidence, too. Not in my food, necessarily, but in my abilities to problem-solve and manage. This was all incredibly helpful to me when opening the restaurant. Nothing could prepare me for this except doing it; I had the necessary tools to open it and it was still a fucking nightmare.”
His Favorite Memory: “My first day working at Noodle Bar was hilarious. I knew I needed to go to the bank so I gave myself plenty of extra time. I’m walking down First Avenue an hour and a half before I’m supposed to start and Dave calls me, screaming ten feet away that I had to get there now because it was a crazy lunch. I threw on a shirt and apron and got behind the line for a frantic service. It was just such a whirlwind. I didn’t even know what ingredients were. But it was the most jarring and appropriate entry to the company.”
Joaquin Baca (chef-owner at The Brooklyn Star)
His Favorite Dishes: Oxtail stew (daikon, roasted onion, rice), braised tripe (chile, Benton’s bacon, onion)
“[The tripe] is inspired by my grandmother’s menudo (Mexican tripe stew), something that I never appreciated as a child. She used to cook it in the garage so as not to stink up the house. It’s always impressive when one is able to coax pleasing flavors and textures out of something that is inherently weird. Tripe is one of those things. My theory has always been to surround it with strength so as to complement it while covering up some of the excessive funk. Smoke and spice in this case. It makes it more accessible to the general palate.
We realized we weren’t an authentic anything, least of all ramen shop, and we started cooking whatever we felt like.
“When I started working with Dave, I was pushed to incorporate ingredients that were less familiar to me. Trying to cook tripe within the parameters of Asian ingredients led to ginger and gochujang replacing the cumin and ancho that were more the norm for me. Heavily smoked Benton’s bacon is the perfect partner, and the smoky gelatin resulting from our confit chicken wings give it the body. At that time, we were just starting to realize we weren’t an authentic anything, least of all ramen shop, and we started cooking whatever we felt like. A lot of it never made it to the table. A lot of people accidentally ate cow stomach and enjoyed it before asking what it was they had just eaten. Success.”
On Working With Chang: “The original Noodle Bar was easily the most fun I’ve ever had cooking. Those years helped me understand what it was I really loved about this work. The collaborative and adaptive way we ran that place became the only way I ever wanted to work again. It was spastic at times, but never stagnant. It’s the model I still strive towards. And, of course, the loose constraints of vaguely Asian cuisine that we operated in, and the participation of cooks from all different backgrounds, exposed me to ingredients and techniques that I still use. An ingredient that seems out of place culturally is fine, it’s just another tool. I know that some people think the Brooklyn Star is a Southern restaurant, but some people still think Momofuku Noodle Bar is a ramen shop.”
Pork buns make people do crazy things sometimes.
His Favorite Memory: “One night just after we had closed, some belligerent drunk from Company bar came in demanding pork buns. Dave and I were standing across the counter talking about the night or something, so he was harassing one of the line cooks. I went over to tell the guy to take a hike and he glazes over and takes a swing at me, popping me on the side of the head, and then bolts for the door. Dave gets crazy eyes. The guy barely made it out the door before we were both all over him. Dave’s got him in this body slam bear hug and I think I’ve got a bar stool over my head. The guy gets thrown to the ground and starts crawling away. An undercover cop driving a taxi the wrong way down First Ave pulls up and jumps out where Dave and I are sitting on the guy, while he’s bleeding onto the white lines in the crosswalk between Ninth and Tenth. I’m pretty sure we’re both wearing whites and aprons, or at least I am. Cops took him away and we went back to close up. All in about five minutes. Pork buns make people do crazy things sometimes.”
“Most of us liked creating dishes for the menu that were a lighter contrast to the buns and Momo ramen. You can only eat so much salty, heavy pork products. Eckerton Hill Farm has such awesome local tomatoes that we wanted to do a salad with them that was a play on the classic Caprese of tomato, basil, and mozzarella, but with shiso and tofu. It’s a simple, delicious summer salad in classic Momofuku style.”
On Working With Chang: “Working at Noodle Bar was hard work, but it was also really fun, and sometimes we lose track of the fun part as chefs. The open kitchen aspect made the connection between your work as a chef and your guests direct and most of the time rewarding, especially after working in closed kitchens for so long where you had almost no contact with customers. Most of our dishes weren’t genius, or culinary masterpieces. We always wanted simple, well-executed food, and I think that’s what keeps people coming back.”
His Favorite Memory: “Noodle Bar sous chef Pedro Dominguez. He’s the real machine behind Noodle Bar. Without him most of us chefs that have worked there over the past 10 years would’ve been in the shits every day. I could always rely on him to get anything done that I asked of him. He’s also the employee who’s been with Momofuku the longest besides Dave. Pretty impressive.”
On Working With Chang: “Noodle Bar influenced me in many ways—introducing me to ingredients I had never really worked with, and just the style of food. I will probably have that with me as long as I come up with dishes. I really enjoyed how things could seem all over the place, but come together so well on the plate.”
His Favorite Memory: “We had a trail who stepped out back to have a cigarette and locked himself out. The back of Noodle Bar is super hot and pitch black. He was out there for I think an hour or so when I went looking for him.”