Did David Chang have culinary heroes growing up?
For every chef that grew up in the ’90s, let’s say anyone that’s like 28 to 35 or 40 even, [it was] The French Laundry Cookbook. When that came out, I can tell you it changed everyone’s lives. No one had seen anything like it before. They might have had cookbooks like that, but it was in another language. But to see that it was an American chef doing French food in his style, in an incredible, unique, personal way — and the book was probably the best cookbook to distill Thomas Keller’s culinary philosophy. It’s something that nobody had ever seen before, as young cooks or aspiring cooks.
That really set the tone for everyone. So I think a lot of people are indebted to him. A lot of people are maybe a little bit more obscure, but for me, it was Alex Lee. Chef Alex Lee was the chef at Daniel for Daniel Boulud. I always looked up to him because he was a highly intelligent Chinese-American man that ran Daniel and could have been doing anything. But he had been with Daniel a long time, and here’s a guy — this big, big Chinese guy that’s running an entire French brigade, speaking in French, telling the French sous chefs what to do. The passion and the hard work that he showed was legendary.
I always wanted to work for him; I always wanted to be like him, emulate him. Then when he quit because he was just burned out or whatever those reasons were, it really had an impact on me. He�s done everything you’re supposed to do, and he’s like 36 years old, and he’s calling it quits. Because what else is he going to do? He’s reached every goal that he’s wanted to reach professionally. What else is there? Is he going to open up a bistro now and go down a level? I think him quitting fine dining really changed that for me.
I have so many chefs that are heroes: Wylie Dufresne (who’s become a good friend of mine), Tom Colicchio, Marco Canora… I could go on and on. When I talk about chefs, it’s like collecting baseball cards.