Lucky me—I recently got a double helping of David Chang, who unwittingly reaffirmed my culinary quest to try and make the leap from critic to cook.
First, at the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium last month in Oxford, Mississippi, I shamelessly ingratiated myself by offering the superstar chef a little "Trick or Meat" on Halloween, sharing some salumi I toted from Salumi in Seattle. Chang and his crew were at the awesome annual event to make lunch for the 300-plus participants. (One highlight of the meal was beautiful, paper-thin slices of Allan Benton's country ham draped over tender salad greens.) After sampling some salumi, I think "mole" might be David Chang's new favorite four-letter word. He loved that slightly spicy cured meat packing a hint of cocoa: "That is one of the #@%#-ing best things I've ever put in my mouth!"
I got my second encounter this past week when he was in Seattle on his book tour. At an informal Q&A with local food bloggers, Chang said some encouraging words: When asked what he looks for in an employee, he said he'd rather roll with a crew of hard-working cooks who might not have the best skills, but were always trying to improve themselves, than an arrogant SOB who thinks he/she knows it all.
"Cooking comes too easy for some people, it's just intuitive," said Chang, while the small crowd savored Momofuku pork buns prepared by Mark Fuller at Spring Hill. "But those people aren't necessarily the best to have on your team."
It's not a big surprise that Chang measures success by how much heart and soul a cook brings to the table. From the very first time I ate at Momofuku Noodle Bar, I could taste the love. I can still conjure the image of a deeply satisfying bowl of shrimp and grits—an egg and Allan Benton's super smoky bacon on top—even five years later.
So, seven months into my journey from keyboard to kitchen, I seized on Chang's words like an Elvis tribute artist clings to his sequined jumpsuit. If grit and determination are as important as the ability to execute a surgically perfect brunoise, then maybe I can hold my own.
Lately though, I've had doubts—it seems like I'm getting slower, not speedier. I asked my boss at Alpha Sigma Phi for an on-the-spot evaluation and she gave me the ultimate back-handed compliment: "Well, you're reliable. She had to fire her last assistant because he flaked. He had mad skills, but he just didn't show up one day. Maybe showing up, having a good attitude, and offering to stay late if there's more to do is just as important as having stellar cooking chops.
Looks like I might get to put that theory to the test again in the pressure-cooker environs of an upscale kitchen—after David Chang's presentation, chef Mark Fuller invited me to come do a stage at Spring Hill.
About the author: Former Seattle Post-Intelligencer restaurant critic Leslie Kelly has been working in professional kitchens since the newspaper folded in March and chronicling her culinary journey from pen to pan for Serious Eats. She also blogs at LeslieKellyWhiningandDining.blogspot.com and recently launched a story-telling project for Northstar Winery following one wine from the vine to the table.