The busier-than-ever superstar chef explains the origins of his new dishes created specifically for L.A.
David Chang is sleep-deprived and ready for an extremely busy day on the morning we have coffee in L.A. His calendar is stacked, but he says he doesn’t know what he’s doing the rest of the day. He’ll deal with it when we’re done and he has time to look at his phone.
“All I know is I do a bunch of stuff, and then I’m back at the restaurant by 5 o’clock,” he says.
Chang laughs when he says this. He laughs a lot during our conversation. He’s being good-natured, but some of this is nervous laughter because he’s going to have an insane month.
It’s February 2, a week and a half after Chang opened his first L.A. restaurant, Majordomo. It’s a few days before Chang’s heading to South Korea, where he’s working as a Winter Olympics correspondent for NBC Sports.
“This whole opening is happening at the worst time possible because of all these other commitments,” Chang says. “I’m [at the Olympics] for like ten days, which is extraordinarily nerve-wracking.”
Then on February 23, Chang’s Netflix show, , drops.
“This is like a nightmare,” he says and laughs. “Restaurant, Olympics, Netflix, it’s a bit of a nightmare. Listen, I’m not complaining. It’s an amazing opportunity. It’s a nightmare because I want to do my best to represent in the best possible way. That’s why. It’s a lot.”
Despite his stress-inducing schedule, Chang is generous with his time as we get deep into what’s happening at Majordomo.
The whole-plate short rib and the Majordomo dining experience
A friend recently messaged me about how “interactive” her meal was at Majordomo, where Chang’s created a menu specifically for L.A. There are dishes finished tableside. There are dishes guests assemble, stir and pour sauce over. There are dishes involving scissors and dishes involving gloves. There are dishes where you must wait for it to understand the magnitude of what’s happening.
For example, I was already pretty full before the best thing I ate at Majordomo arrived. A few minutes after slicing a whole-plate short rib tableside, executive chef Jude Parra-Sickels returned to the table and made rice with orange zest, freshly grated horseradish and fat and scraps that were scraped off the bones. I pounded every grain of the glistening rice even though I had already eaten a lot of bread and noodles.
When I meet Chang for coffee, I tell him that people have been talking about how dishes are presented and completed at Majordomo. He laughs. One reason Chang serves the rice with fat and scraps is because it’s an homage to how Mapo Galbi, a chicken specialist he loves in L.A.’s Koreatown, ends feasts by making fried rice with whatever’s left in the pan. Another Koreatown restaurant, Sun Ha Jang, does something similar with duck.
“We’re not doing anything new,” Chang says.
Also, the short rib, which feeds four to six, is $190. Chang doesn’t want guests to feel ripped off.
“Plate short ribs are incredibly expensive,” Chang says. “It’s probably going to have to go up, but we want to keep it $190. That’s a serious commitment, man. I don’t want anyone to feel like, well, fuck, I didn’t get enough or it’s too expensive.”
The rice is there to make sure you leave full.
“That’s not a new concept,” Chang says and laughs. “Asians have been doing that for a fucking millennia.”
The beauty of what the Korean-American chef is doing is that he’s honoring Asian and American traditions while making food that’s calibrated for the rhythms of L.A. in 2018. Chang uses his mom’s marinade for the whole-plate short rib, which is slow-roasted and lightly smoked for eight to nine hours.
“Adam Perry Lang taught us a technique that’s really brilliant,” Chang says of what’s described as smoked bone-in APL-style ribs on the Majordomo menu. The wondrous result is something like a hybrid of Texas barbecue and Korean barbecue. And having it sliced tableside adds excitement.
“It’s sort of an homage to Lawry’s, sort of an homage to many different things,” Chang says. “But it’s still galbi. It’s short rib, cooked with charcoal, with a little smoke.”
It’s served with banchan, shiso rice paper and condiments, so you can make Korean-style wraps. I also highly recommend gnawing on the bones.
Bings and things
The first section of Majordomo’s menu is dedicated to bing breads.
“I debated calling it bong for a while because it’s one of those words that’s 'bread' in many languages in Asia,” Chang says. “Bing, bong, whatever.”
Chang’s got bing toppings like Benton’s reserve ham that’s only available at Majordomo. Chang asked Allan Benton to select and cure some hogs specifically for him about two and a half years ago.
“No one else is getting that, and I take pride in that,” Chang says.
The grilled-to-order bings happened because Chang started thinking about serving hotteok, a stuffed Korean bread he’s using for dessert at Majordomo. Then he went “down the rabbit hole” as he thought about hotteok’s origins.
“What if we didn’t stuff it and just griddled it?” Chang says. “Because the only leavened bread in Korea is hotteok. Where the fuck did we get that? It came from Chinese immigrants, from Northern China. People are like, 'Oh, there’s bread in China?' Yeah, there’s bread in China. You’re not the only one that domesticated wheat. I’ve spent a lot of time there. And they eat more bread than rice oftentimes, and it’s really great bread.”
Majordomo’s been serving bing toppings that range from cultured butter with black pepper honey to chickpeas with a box of uni. There’s an option that’s cave-aged butter and caviar because Chang has Russian buddies who like “a thick layer of butter with a ton of caviar.”
“So we can do that,” Chang says. “We can incorporate a lot of experiences that are real.”
Other Majordomo dishes and respecting the scissor
“I’ve been begging Allan Benton for years to give me a sack sausage recipe,” Chang says. “After 13 years of needling him, he was like, fine, take it. I’m not serving it in biscuits and gravy or some traditional Southern dish. We’re stuffing it in gochujun, the traditional Korean stuffed pepper that’s been pan-fried. It’s just finding connections that someone in L.A. might understand. Someone in L.A. might look at it as a chile relleno. Someone that’s Korean and going to be open to the idea of having something nontraditional might like it too.”
But Chang doesn’t care if his gochujun reminds you of a jalapeno popper or if you have no reference point at all. He just wants guests to enjoy it.
“We don’t give a shit if people get it or not,” he says. “Who cares? Just eat it. … I wanted this restaurant first and foremost to be fun. I was just trying to think how Los Angeles diners want to eat, without dumbing it down. It’s like how I want to eat.”
So there are scissors used to cut dishes like spicy black cod that’s cooked in parchment paper and presented tableside with steam coming out. Chang wants to “pay respect” to the scissor because, again, he’s celebrating old traditions. He remembers being in Singapore and seeing four grandmas take scissor boxes out of their purses and cut up their food. That blew his mind. He frequents Koreatown restaurants like Soban that cut meat with scissors.
As somebody who’s struggled with his Asian-American identity and learned to cook with classic French technique, the 40-year-old Chang remembers that he once thought scissors “were bush league.”
Now, he says, “I’m beginning to see, wow, it’s incredibly efficient. It’s the best thing you can use!”
This is the type of revelation that’s driving Chang’s food in 2018. His cooking is much more Korean than it’s ever been. Also, he’s proud to serve flavor-packed dishes that look ugly. He’s been messing around with crab “that’s an homage to Wu’s Garden,” a Chinese restaurant he grew up eating at in Virginia. But the crab with scallions, garlic, chicken stock and chicken fat is also influenced by meals Chang’s had in L.A.’s San Gabriel Valley.
“One of my favorite things to do in the SGV is just to go to any fucking great seafood restaurant, because they’re all awesome, and get crab: steamed, deep-fried, country-style, whatever,” Chang says.
Chang is obsessed with galbijjim, the Korean short rib stew he’s eaten a lot at Koreatown’s Sun Nong Dan, but he doesn’t like the cheese that’s often melted over it. So he’s using raclette for his version of this large-format dish.
“I’m happy that people are eating galbijjim,” he says. “It’s my favorite thing my mom’s ever made for me. I’ve never been a fan of cheese on Korean food in the sense of using the shitty American cheese or shitty mozzarella. For me, the greatest melted cheese in the history of the world is raclette.”
Chang doesn’t want to rehash his greatest hits at Majordomo. There are no pork buns or ramen here. But a lot of people asked for bo ssam, so he compromised.
“We’ll give it to you, but we’re not going to do it the same way,” he says. “We’re going to make it very spicy, and we’re smoking it. Every day, we’re trying to make it spicier and spicier and spicier until we get a complaint.”
Chang’s being cheeky, but he’s also making a point about how chefs can push the boundaries in L.A..
“People have a tolerance for heat out here,” Chang says. “People eat more acidity and more spice and more texture than anywhere else in America because of the convergence of all the cultures.”
Being in Los Angeles
“I’ve just been coming to this town for a long time,” says Chang, who’s had other L.A. restaurant opportunities that never quite made it to the finish line. “So I think one thing I’ve always known, and this isn’t blowing smoke up L.A.’s ass, is that the national food world underestimated the food savviness of L.A. for many many years. Just because there wasn’t a three-Michelin-star restaurant doesn’t mean that a taco truck or the pupuseria or the jajangmyeon shop is less amazing. That’s the kind of food that I think most people want to eat all the time.”
Meanwhile, Chang recognizes that “it’s redundant” to be one of those chefs from New York who can’t stop marveling about the ingredients available in L.A.. But he still can’t believe what he gets to cook at Majordomo.
“We have produce here that’s just genuinely amazing, and everybody in California has known that,” he says. “But to able to work with it, it’s awesome. We just bought asparagus yesterday. It was February 1. I could not get that out of my goddamn head.”
Talking to farmers and suppliers, and finding out how they’ve been affected by disasters like fires and mudslides, has made Chang feel a serious connection to the food he’s serving. He’s been working with marine biologist/ co-founder Sarah Rathbone at chef Michael Cimarusti’s Cape Seafood and Provisions to get sustainable fish. (Rathbone is also helping Chang try out different crabs.)
“I grew up eating rockfish, the Atlantic version,” Chang says. “To have the Pacific version considered a bycatch is fucking wild to me. This is crazy to me, how great it is. Black cod out here, what the fuck? It’s so good and it’s so abundant.”
The night before I see Chang, a solo diner went to Majordomo. He ordered some appetizers and a whole rockfish. Then he started letting strangers sitting next to him try his food. Nothing could have made Chang happier.
“It’s the best,” Chang says about seeing customers share food. “He’s sharing his fish, and it’s like a pay-it-forward effect, so everyone at the counter is sharing.”
Ten years from now, Chang says, rockfish is going to be a lot more expensive because everyone will realize how good it is.
Maybe by then, Chang will have a few more restaurants in L.A. He isn’t planning another one yet, but he’s willing to consider opportunities if he can build the right teams for them through Majordomo.
Chang’s been looking at houses in L.A. His wife Grace has family on the West Coast, so she’d be happy to spend more time here. Chang likes to say that he might want two homes in L.A.: The second one would be a place in the San Gabriel Valley where he can chill after eating. For now, he’s renting a house near Hollywood. He’s still getting used to having more space and amenities than he does in New York.
“There’s a swimming pool, and I’ve used it once because it’s just weird,” Chang says. “I’m like, what the fuck do you do with this?”
Chang will have lots of time to figure things out in L.A.. His 180-seat restaurant has been packed every night, and people have been lining up for a chance to dine there. Majordomo, down the street from L.A. artist Shepard Fairey’s new exhibit, is in an emerging area that doesn’t even really have a name yet. It’s on the edge of Chinatown, but it’s not in what people think of when they think of Chinatown.
“I think it’s very perfectly symbolic of who we are, who I am,” Chang says. “It’s neither here nor there. Right when you cross that little bridge, you’re in a completely different kind of L.A.. I think it fits us perfectly.”
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