By the time it’s David Chang’s turn to serve his course, more than six hours into a special event in an unnamed European city, his frayed nerves are starting to show.
All that stands between him and the finish line is the task of doling out his untraditional take on Hungarian goulash. To his annoyance, drunken chaos fills the kitchen where he’s supposed to be working. Food journalists are ambling through the stations, prodding ingredients and acting chummy. Many of Chang’s peers are long gone, having wrapped their courses many hours earlier; those who remain, however, can see the rage starting to paint his cheeks.
Then a journalist saunters to Chang’s stove, peeks into the pot of stew, and shoves a spoonful into his face. René Redzepi, perhaps the most influential chef of the last decade and a friend of Chang’s, watches the storm brewing from across the room. “His expression seemed to say, Get out the popcorn, friends. It filled me with shame. I still couldn’t stop myself,” Chang writes in his new memoir, Eat a Peach.
And so, Chang snaps. In slow motion, the scream comes out: If you’re not a fucking cook, get the fuck out of here or I will fucking throw you out myself.
In a different book by a different author, this moment might feel like one of those chest-pounding chef war stories — the kind that illustrates the camaraderie of professional cooks, and how differently those in the industry operate compared to the rest of us. But in Eat a Peach, the outburst is a moment played for horror. Chang’s regret is immediate, and there’s no recovery: “Silence fell. The rest of the night was different. I was crushed,” he writes.
We’ve seen the archetype of the domineering male chef whose pride seems entangled in masochism. Nobody helped define and unpack that trope quite like Anthony Bourdain, whose groundbreaking 2000 memoir Kitchen Confidential revealed the egos, debauchery and abuse rampant in the restaurant business. Most obviously, Bourdain’s book answered the question of why people choose to cook professionally, even if it’s just to sling Eggs Benedict for 30 years. Meanwhile, his admiration for the fine-dining elite belied his own lack of experience at the upper echelons of cookery. No matter — a long career as a B-level chef made him a perfect guide to the culinary underbelly.
But what happens when a misfit transcends any notions of that underbelly and becomes an outright superstar overnight? What happens when rage and antagonism turns you into a gravitational force in modern American cooking? What happens when the underdog gets the Michelin stars and the James Beard Awards and starts to become a target?
Bourdain’s memoir could never answer such lofty questions, but Chang does. Even after nearly 300 pages of reflection, the 43-year-old seems in disbelief — not just that he developed the hugely influential Momofuku brand with one shitty lease and sparse support, but that he even lived beyond the age of 35 at all. This isn’t the traditional feel-good story of hard work, tough licks and big dreams at the flat-top stove. It’s more of a thriller fueled by cynicism, paranoia and ruthless self-analysis, with Chang jumping at every opportunity to wonder whether he’s the asshole in the scene. Considering the current examination of abuse and aggression in the restaurant industry, Eat a Peach feels like a necessary evolution of the story Bourdain wrote and embodied 20 years ago.
Bourdain was self-deprecating, insecure and keenly aware of luck and privilege — and how they’re sometimes the same thing. Chang is all of those things too, but he seems far more curious about how these traits, combined with the high-pressure world of New York City restaurants, created trauma for himself and everyone around him. Bourdain was forthcoming about his flaws as a human, but we never heard him mull the cumulative impact of screaming, threatening and belittling anyone he can while building an empire. He never had that context to reflect on. Chang does.
“I didn’t have a space and I didn’t have money, but at least nobody wanted to work with me,” Chang deadpans as he narrates the formation of his very first restaurant.
Loneliness, and the unnerving sensation that he doesn’t fit in anywhere, is a central theme throughout the book. Chang isn’t book-smart like his friends and hates his Korean church youth group. He gets mocked for eating “smelly” kimchi. His childhood dream of becoming a pro golfer falls apart in high school as he struggles with self-esteem and motivation.
As with Bourdain, it’s obvious that Chang turns to cooking as a form of solace — a place where mistakes are expected and perseverance counts for at least as much as talent. But unlike Bourdain’s story in Kitchen Confidential, here we see how a rising Chang can’t help but risk money and relationships, again and again, in pursuit of more. In his manic throes of increasing achievement, rejection by anyone and anything is cause for a literal and spiritual middle finger. Being the underdog means proving everyone wrong, all the time.
Turns out, that attitude isn’t worth it in spite of the damage it causes — it’s just damaging. In one heartbreak, Chang is told by an executive coach that it’s a miracle so many people have stuck by him for years, despite the fact that they can’t stand him. Elsewhere, he’s struck by how so many people have died around him, including a mentee that Chang regrets scolding in their final conversation. (Chang’s therapist reminds him that the guilt is the side effect of a savior complex.) Imposter syndrome follows him everywhere, whether he’s accepting two Michelin stars for Momofuku Ko or giving a press interview.
So many similar doubts seemed to follow Bourdain, too, and his death by suicide in 2018 punctuated the sad reality that our brightest artists and thinkers often disguise the turmoil with alarming efficacy. I think that’s why it feels like a balm to read Chang unpack the baggage from so many elements of his life; it’s overwhelming, but relatable. Bourdain introduced us to the misery, joy and insanity of cooking for a living; Chang urges us to comprehend by peering beyond the bullshit braggadocio that often cloaks it.
In a late chapter titled “Blind Spots,” Chang talks about how much he once loved that toxic braggadocio, as well as Bourdain for portraying the debauchery with such clarity in writing. Now, it sounds like Chang feels a sense of duty to push back on the past. “I know it pained him to think of his role in glamorizing this part of chef culture, but we forgave him because we could see that he was evolving,” he writes. “My hope is that the people in this business can undergo the same kind of growth without leaving the kitchen.”
Eat a Peach doesn’t do much to make that growth seem easy. But during a time when the restaurant industry is undergoing an existential reckoning, Chang’s introspection feels as essential as Kitchen Confidential did 20 years ago.