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David Chang: Whiskey and rye

Momofuku’s owner blames his whiskey passion on an overconsumption of country music .

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David Chang, one of the Time’s most influential people, owner of restaurants that have changed the way people eat and creator of what is perhaps the world’s most famous pork bun, is a man with a lot of feelings about things. Dude food?  “What does it mean? It’s a good term for people to understand some of the food being served, a generational thing ... [but] I don’t like being labelled that way.” Describing food as ethnic? “What’s not ethnic food? “  Buying “fresh fish”? “What else are you supposed to do?” And whisky? Chang has a lot to say about whiskey. Which is lucky because Chang is currently in Australia with Bulleit whiskey . A small batch Kentucky label first established in 1830 for whom Chang has created a new take on the classic pickleback shot. 

“I don’t think I’m a whisky man, but it’s certainly the drink that I fell in love with,” says the affable and chatty Chang, who first took to whiskey when starting out as a chef in the early 2000s.

“I wanted to know about what was American. And I thought that I could just learn in a week. It’s turned out to be a  life-long process of learning about the different bourbons, grains and distilleries, the history of stuff. The new renaissance has been happening over the past 15-20 years. We’re getting away from the larger batch Jack Daniels stuff and into smaller batch bourbon. I hate to use the word artisan, but it is about finding out the cooler, smaller things that are going on.”

Tastemaker ... David Chang.

Tastemaker ... David Chang. Photo: Marco Del Grande

For Chang, who says that the project with Bulleit is something that the success of his restaurants has allowed, “I can work with brands that I actually like”, finding out the cooler, smaller things applies not just to his taste in spirits but his approach to his work.

“That’s how we’re working to do something like the pickleback – while it’s a historical drink, we didn’t necessarily want to drink pickle juice. I thought it would be more interesting to do something that we’re actually doing at our restaurants. We’re focusing on pickling, fermentation, microbial activity in food, it’s just one of those many things that are coming in right place at the right time.”

Going back to old techniques such as pickling is something that Chang describes as part of a cycle, but hopefully, he says, something that allows us to learn more about how things work,

David Chang's steamed pork bun Momofuku Seiobo.

David Chang's steamed pork bun at Momofuku Seiobo. Photo: Jennifer Soo

“I don’t want it to be cyclical in the sense we wind up in same point we started, I hope that we’re able to get a better understanding of what’s going on.”

That idea of questioning the way things are done is what Chang credits the great food game changers – and he rattles off a list at bullet speed that includes Heston Blumenthal and Alain Passard– with.

“With the food innovations we’ve seen over the past 15 years I think it was more important to say why. The game changers ...  were doing food that made you question why. Why do we do this, questioning the status quo. When you question something you get a better, more edited idea,” he says.

Creating ideas that will get the tick of the burgeoning food as a subculture/religion and instragramming public is all part of the enjoyable challenge.

“I think it’s great. I definitely think you have a dining public that is much more savvy and because information is now more readily available than ever, you have to offer something, tell them something that exceeds that expectation. “

For Chang, who describes his crazily successful Sydney restaurant Momofuku Siebo as “being in a weird part of a casino” coming up with the unexpected, the surprising and using things that might have been passed over is something that he loves.

“ I like to focus on the things that most people don't focus on. I hate to say that I’m contrarian by nature ... but  before I move on to other meatier topics I want to look at all the scraps first. Work with that and see what happens.”