On the second episode of The Dave Chang Show podcast, the star chef explains how he crafted the Majordomo menu to fit the Los Angeles lifestyle, the greater appreciation he’s gained for his family’s food—and Korean food as a whole—as he’s gotten older, and the ways in which delicious food can break through cultural barriers.
Listen to the full podcast here. This transcript has been edited and condensed.
Bill Simmons: At some point [during the process of opening a restaurant], you have the onus of—this restaurant has to have great food and stand out some way.
Dave Chang: So we’re going to talk more about the food, but the food more or less is still hard for me to describe. It’s been evolving and changing.
Simmons: So where do you start? What’s step one of the process?
Chang: What is something that people will come and eat? That [they] will go out of their way to eat? And I think, to me, it was a place that was going to highlight the market that you can get here at Santa Monica and the amazing produce. And the other thing is, people think that people in L.A. eat super healthy, but that’s not always the case.
Simmons: Nah. They’ll cheat.
Chang: It’s completely a misconception. People eat a lot of meat here. It’s really more of a steakhouse type of town.
Simmons: The problem is they don’t eat heavy lunches, but dinner, yes, they’ll eat.
Chang: So part of it is like, OK, we gotta do something that’s meat-oriented. And I’ve had a hard time trying to decide what that food is going to be because I feel like [New York restaurant] Nishi is a very different restaurant now than when we opened up, but it was an incomplete version in how we executed, how we spoke about it. ... And I spoke about it too much and there was no sense of discovery.
Simmons: You were like a movie actor who did too many interviews about the movie and what was in it, and then I felt like I didn’t need to see the movie.
Chang: I felt like I should just shut up, you know?
Simmons: Do you feel like, because you’re Korean, people expect the [L.A.] restaurant to have an Asian bent?
Chang: Well it’s definitely going to, because the older I’ve gotten the more I’ve accepted the fact that my skin color’s not going to change.
The strange thing is, many people come up to me and they’re like, “I don’t even like your food but I really want you to do well because we don’t have a lot of people that are Asian in the spotlight, that are pushing culture forward.” I don’t like being typecast as Asian. I’ve worked my entire career to not make Korean food, even though people say, “Oh, you make Korean food.” I think it’s always been a little bit more Japanese, a little bit more of the American South, a lot of French—this hodgepodge of stuff.
So you can’t just say, “I’m making Korean food,” but simultaneously, if I say I’m Korean or I’m making Asian food but with French ingredients, they’re going to say, “Oh, that’s fusion.” But if I’m a French chef saying, “I’m making French food but we have some Asian ingredients,” they’re going to be like, “Oh, that’s cool and that’s sexy.” That’s not considered fusion.
Simmons: What’s the balance between repeating dishes that you know are already worked and creating new dishes that nobody has tried yet?
Chang: Well, everything’s been done already. That’s the most important thing to understand. Nothing is new. … I’m excited that galbi jjim, or Korean braised short ribs, is a thing now because I’ve always struggled my entire culinary career. My final project in cooking school was Korean braised short ribs. The most elevated version of that we did at Ko, when we did a deep-fried short rib with the same flavors.
Simmons: Oh, that sounds delicious.
Chang: It’s delicious because you cook it for 48 hours to where the collagen and the muscle fibers break down, and the short rib almost turns into a juicy New York strip ... and people love it. I was like “Oh, people like this shit. It’s not just me.” It’s the validation that I’m not crazy. My family’s food isn’t fucking crazy, it’s actually delicious. Not just my family, like, Korean culture at large makes delicious food. And it sounds crazy as a 40-year-old Korean American to finally have that ability to be like, “Huh, I don’t have to be embarrassed about the food that I grew up eating.” In the scheme of Asian food, it’s something that is as complex and as delicious as you might find in China or Japan.
Simmons: One of the things you’re passionate about—like with pizza. Why do people think Italians make the best pizza? The best pizza could come from anywhere. And that reinvention of people’s stereotypes about foods seems to be important to you.
Chang: Yes, and a lot of it is because I just grew up not having the acceptance that I wanted. And for a lack of better expression—if I could connect the dots—I feel like I’ve used food to talk about the things that you couldn’t talk about, because food is always seen as this harmless little thing. And if someone can eat something delicious, maybe that’s one way to break down the barriers. More than anything, what gets me going is just getting acceptance. It’s funny—I barely learned anything in college, but I remember certain things quite well and I seem to have adopted this culinary version of this UCLA professor Jared Diamond, who wrote Guns, Germs, and Steel. Which, not to go too deep down that rabbit hole, but basically it says we’re all the same. Everyone wants to eat delicious food. Culturally speaking, you may not understand what we’re doing, but doesn’t mean you should take a shit on it. There’s a lot of similarities, and I think that if you look at a lot of dishes, there’s a lot of overlap. You just you have to have an open mind.