By Stett Holbrook
DAVID CHANG hates the Bay Area. We all know that, right? C'mon, Fig-gate and everything? He's been tried and convicted in the media of crimes against "local and organic, the NorCal code of culinary conduct. The verdict: He's out to ruin our reputation, plain and simple. What more is there to say?
It's funny, when I first heard what Chang had said—the bit, in case you somehow missed this, about "fuckin' every restaurant in San Francisco is just serving figs on a plate ... do something with your food"—I knew two things. One, he said it onstage with Anthony Bourdain, which means he was required to say something as outrageous as possible. Have you ever seen Bourdain onstage? The man makes his living saying crazy shit. His very presence forces everyone around him to try to be crazy, too. And yet, he's the only one who ever gets away with it. That same night, Bourdain called Alice Waters "Pol Pot in a muumuu," but it's Chang's dinky fig comment that takes the heat, getting him disinvited from a signing of his new book Momofuku for the Bay Area's Asia Society? That's sort of hilarious.
Second, I knew something had been taken out of context. It's almost always the case when someone's entire conversation on any topic has been boiled down to one sentence. But when the hurt-feeling-a-thon began over Fig-gate, there was no stopping it.
Luckily, Kepler's bookstore in Menlo Park had Chang in for an event, allowing South Bay foodies to size up Chang's post-game analysis. Of course, he got asked about Fig-gate, to which he answered, "I got myself into a big media mess." But he didn't back off his comments, suggesting Bay Area cuisine is neither as "progressive" or "diverse" as it should be considering the talent and cultural cross-pollination here. But it was the next question that was more illuminating: are there any cities that are measuring up to what they should be achieving? His answer: San Sebastian, Spain. And that's it. So basically, there's not a single city in the United States—not his native New York, not Los Angeles, not anywhere in the Northwest, Southwest or entire East Coast that satisfies him. So it's really not a Bay Area thing, is it? Listening to his talk, it was clear that it's much more of a David Chang thing: the guy is driven to change the culinary world, almost to a fault. He doesn't trust success, and jokes that the two Michelin stars awarded to his restaurant Ko were "the worst thing that ever happened to me." He can be moved to completely reinvent his restaurants almost on a whim, and he even admits to sabotaging them with bizarre approaches just because—though he himself didn't use this word—what they were doing wasn't revolutionary enough for him. The guy wants the whole world to be on the culinary edge, and he isn't scared to slip off of it. Instead of reacting like a bunch of crybabies, the Bay Area food world could rise to the challenge put out by chefs as ambitious as Chang.
Another thing that was clear at Chang's Kepler's talk was that he hasn't familiarized himself nearly well enough with South Bay food. But he has nothing but the utmost respect for David Kinch, who introduced him. He said he'd never open a restaurant in Los Gatos, because Kinch "could cook circles around me." He even ended by saying that Kinch does nothing less than keep food in America relevant. I'm sorry, but Fig-gate or no, that could only be said by someone who does understand what's exciting and innovative about Bay Area cuisine.
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