David Chang is a smart guy. Since opening Momofuku Noodle Bar in 2004, the 38-year-old chef has managed to launch a burgeoning culinary empire, juggling 13 innovative restaurants, two fledgling bars, a cooking lab, a magazine, and a number of other groundbreaking projects. And while Chang has long been lauded for his creativity—hosting the premier season of The Mind of a Chef in 2012—the restaurateur recently penned a cover story for the August issue of Wired magazine, detailing the more esoteric principles behind his culinary philosophy.
Though Chang does reminisce a bit about the early days, detailing how Momofuku’s famed pork buns were born in 15-stroke of genius, but the majority of the piece deals with a theory the chef calls “the Unified Theory of Deliciousness.”
“I’ve struggled to put this into words, and I haven’t talked to my fellow chefs about it, because I worry they’ll think I’m crazy,” Chang writes. “But I think there’s something to it, and so I’m sharing it now for the first time.”
Using Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach—a 1979 book on neurological mechanisms in math, music, and art—as a springboard, Chang dives into his lofty thoughts on cooking. From dealing with his own limitations in the kitchen to the childhood memories we all associate with food, here are five pieces of wisdom from Chang’s inspiring essay.
On chasing the perfect dish.
“A great dish hits you like a Whip-It: There’s momentary elation, a brief ripple of pure pleasure in the spacetime continuum. That’s what I was chasing, that split second when someone tastes something so delicious that their conversation suddenly derails and they blurt out something guttural like they stubbed their toe. The Momofuku Pork Bun was our first dish that consistently got this kind of reaction.”
On overcoming limitations in the kitchen.
"Cooking, as a physical activity, doesn’t come naturally to me. It never has. To compensate for my lack of dexterity, speed, and technique, I think about food constantly. In fact, I’m much stronger at thinking about food than I am at cooking it."
On the complexities of taste.
"Set out a few glasses of water with varying amounts of salt in them. As you taste them, think hard about whether there is too much or too little salt. If you keep experimenting, you’ll eventually hit this sweet spot. You’ll think that it’s too bland, but as soon as you form that thought, you’ll suddenly find it tastes too salty. It teeters. And once you experience that sensation, I guarantee it will be in your head any time you taste anything for the rest of your life."
On the link between memory and food.
“To me this is what separates the good dishes from the truly slap-yourself-on-the-forehead ones. When you eat something amazing, you don’t just respond to the dish in front of you; you are almost always transported back to another moment in your life. It’s like that scene in Ratatouille when the critic eats a fancy version of the titular dish and gets whisked back to the elemental version of his childhood. The easiest way to accomplish this is just to cook something that people have eaten a million times. But it’s much more powerful to evoke those taste memories while cooking something that seems unfamiliar—to hold those base patterns constant while completely changing the context.”
On the power of simplicity.
“I’m making this all sound like a very intellectual exercise. And creating this food can be just that, but eating it shouldn’t be. These dishes should taste seamless; they shouldn’t feel like math equations. In fact, the more obviously conceptual a dish is, the less powerful it will be.”