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Determination, deliciousness and depression – ‘Eat a Peach’

September 9, 2020
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Food as entertainment has become big business in the 21st century. Food-based television programming and celebrity chefs are major parts of the culinary landscape, with their importance spiraling upward as each enhances the other. Food TV makes more famous chefs and famous chefs make more TV.

One of the beneficiaries of this development is David Chang. Founder of the Momofuku restaurant empire and host of Netflix’s “Ugly Delicious,” he could be considered one of the poster children for this new chef culture … though it’s not necessarily a distinction that he ever really wanted.

In his new memoir “Eat a Peach” (Clarkson Potter, $28) – co-written with Gabe Ulla – Chang walks readers through his unusual and checkered journey to the top of his profession. From his early days in a strict and religious Korean-American family to his start in restaurant kitchens to the early uneasiness of his Momofuku endeavors to his ultimate ascendance to the upper echelons of the food world, we’re given insight into how he got to where he is.

But that’s just half the story. We also learn about a life lived in constant fear of failure. Chang is brutally honest and forthcoming about his up-and-down fight against depression and his ongoing struggles with anger management. It’s a success story that features plenty of misfires. The one constant throughout is a deep-seated and genuine love of cooking, both in terms of culinary exploration and cultural storytelling.

We start with an overview of sorts regarding Chang’s upbringing. Growing up in Virginia with parents whose lives revolved around work and church, he struggled to find his path. He wasn’t particularly gifted academically, but an affinity for golf in his youth opened a few doors for him; unfortunately, his early precociousness leveled out – he got into his own head and started losing to players he had once beaten easily.

He was by his own admission a mediocre student, first at prep school and then in college; he majored in religious studies because he found it the path of least resistance. After school, he bounced around a bit before landing in the one place his strict entrepreneurial father didn’t want him to be – a restaurant kitchen.

At least he was in a good one, winding up working under a number of exceptional culinary figures at Craft, the famed eatery helmed by Tom Colicchio. He learned as he went, slowly educating himself (largely by making mistake after mistake), before moving on. He worked in other kitchens, but it wasn’t long before a trip to Japan inspired him to make the biggest leap of his life.

His experience imbued him with the belief that he could bring the kind of high-speed, high-quality dining he found there and translate it to the States. Specifically, he wanted to bring ramen to America; not the cheap, mass-produced packets that were ubiquitous in dorm rooms across the country, but the real deal.

Thus, Momofuku Noodle Bar was born.

In the years since, Chang has built Momofuku into an empire, albeit not without a few bumps in the road along the way. He opened multiple restaurants, all driven by the same basic sensibility, but he freely admits that he has been incredibly fortunate at almost every turn. Even his failures – misfires that might have sunk another restauranteur – turned out better than he ever could have expected.

But all along the way, Chang was haunted. Haunted by a fear of failure, a fear that drove him to push himself and those who worked for him far beyond healthy limits. His fits of anger became legendary; even as his profile grew, he would still find himself raging at the slightest misstep. His relationships with his friends, family and peers all suffered. He overreached, self-medicated … the whole nine yards. Even as he pushed for more, he steadily lost track of his own well-being. It would take a drastic shift in his own personal priorities to turn things around – a shift that would require him to take a long and honest look inward … and accept help.

“Eat a Peach” isn’t your usual celebrity memoir; Chang proves to be brutally honest about many of his own shortcomings. He celebrates his successes, of course, but he is also forthcoming about his failures. And his willingness to speak frankly about his mental health struggles is especially welcome; even now, there’s a stigma that comes with those kinds of conversations. His feelings of otherness, of being an outsider no matter where he was, come through with a heartbreaking clarity.

He’s also a hell of a storyteller, a gifted and charming raconteur who breathes enthusiastic life into his tales – culinary and otherwise. Chang’s ability to capture the intensity of life in the kitchen makes “Eat a Peach” a fiery and compelling read. We also get a glimpse of the business side of things, a sausage-making aspect of restaurant entrepreneurialism that isn’t often fully reckoned with in memoirs like this.

(Note: The book closes with an absolutely dynamite section titled simply “33 Rules for Becoming a Chef.” It is a frank, thoughtful and hilarious dissection of the realities of becoming a chef, packed with good advice. Chang is unafraid of dealing in harsh realities; at times, it borders on the antagonistic. But it all springs from a place of honest love and affection for the vocation. As with the rest of the book, Chang’s combination of genuine affection and deep-running pessimism regarding the craft is prominent.)

“Eat a Peach” is a delight, a book that will prove fascinating to anyone interested in the culinary world. Chang’s honesty and humor are just two of the many quality ingredients that make up the recipe for this delicious reading. Whether you’re a full-on foodie or simply a Food Network junkie, you’ll want to dig into this one.

Last modified on Wednesday, 09 September 2020 08:49

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