Chef Chang’s House

No, the beloved Boston Chinese restaurant hasn’t re-opened.

I just couldn’t resist using the phrase to describe the last of the Science and Coking public lectures at Harvard. This was student final projects week, and since David Chang had been invited to be a judge, he was also asked to deliver the final lecture. His talk, titled Creative Ceilings: How We Use Errors, Failure and Physical Limitations as Catalysts for Culinary Innovation, was the only one of the lectures I attended where the chef actually cooked. In fact, the lecture hall was suffused with the smell of the dashi he had bubbling away on the counter.

Chang began by compressing the very compelling story that forms the structure of his Momofuku cookbook into a series of self-deprecating explanations of his working methods.

Comparing himself to the other chefs who had lectured: “We’re average, so we work harder.”

About his approach to creating new dishes: “We’re good at making mistakes.”

Where his ideas come from: “We’re constantly fighting the building,” referring to the cramped kitchen spaces in all of his restaurants. The space constraints forced him to re-evaluate how he prepared his famous ramen soup base. I’ve made it myself; it takes an entire day and uses quite a bit of meat as well as dried shiitake mushrooms. Chang looked at one of his storage units full of bags of dried mushrooms and asked if there was a way around that storage method. He and his chefs come up with the idea of pulverizing the mushrooms and storing the powder in vacuum bags, which take up less space.

According to the recipe, the mushrooms are added to dashi, simmered, and then strained out before the meat is added. The mushroom “sludge” that is left behind can be spread into thin sheets and baked into “mushroom chips.” Chang’s research chef Daniel Burns (former pastry chef at Noma!) prepared some samples for us to try:

“Research chef” implies “food lab,” and yes, Momofuku now has a food lab. The tasty, crunchy mushroom chip – not yet incorporated into a menu item – was “the best idea we had this year.” Chang turned his attention to the other ramen components, arriving at the idea of using powdered freeze-dried beef, pork, and chicken to infuse the dashi to make the final soup base, a process that takes only forty five minutes. For now, the process is still experimental until Change can get a full freeze-drying rig set up in one of his facilities; his test meat came from camping supply web sites.

Chang was told that he had just invented instant ramen. His reply: “Yes we did, but on our terms,” which elegantly sums up his entire approach.

Continuing on with the ramen soup (Did he build an entire lecture around a pot of soup? Yes, yes he did.), Chang began looking for an alternative to katsuobushi, the dried, fermented, smoked bonito shavings that are the other essential component of dashi. Good katsuobushi is expensive and the commercially available stuff is decidedly inferior. He realized that the primary flavoring components came from the fermentation and smoking; it might be possible to recreate the taste with a different protein.

The Momofuku kitchens pile up a surplus of pork tenderloins, an unused byproduct of all of the pork they break down. (“I like pork tenderloin, but only when it’s well marbled and only when it’s in Spain.”) Chang dried a few tenderloins, then shoved them into a bucket of uncooked rice, where they sat for weeks. They developed quite a constellation of fungi and bacteria, enough to have a sample sent to Harvard for analysis. The microbial growth was proved to be food safe, related to the koji fungus that is used to start sake fermentation.

This “pork bushi” can be smoked and shaved just like katsuobushi. The sample that was passed around looked similar and smelled exactly the same.

By the time the lecture was over, everything I knew about ramen soup was wrong, but I was happy to see that demonstrated.

Chang and Peter Meehan were available after the lecture to sign copies of the cookbook. I exercised extreme self control by not turning into a squealing fanboy when it was my turn, but I did say “This is my favorite cookbook. You convinced me to make and eat kimchi.” They both signed the inside cover:

I noticed that Meehan scribbled something else in the margin of one of the inner pages, but I didn’t think to look at it until I got home. On page 284, next to the recipe for Cereal Milk Custard, Meehan wrote “THIS RECIPE DOESN’T WORK.”

I hadn’t planned on making that dessert soon, but now I have to. It’s a challenge, don’t you think?

(ETA 12/20/10: The complete lecture os now available for viewing.)

This entry was posted in science and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Chef Chang’s House

  1. Justin says:

    “Kimchi Cures SARS”… so great. The Cereal Milk Custard is one of the next recipes on my list to make. I even started acquiring the ingredients. I guess I’ll have an excuse if it fails.

Comments are closed.