I didn’t expect to find David Chang behind the counter at his Momofuku Noodle Bar in New York, but there he was, finishing bowls of ramen with a sprinkle of sesame seeds, arranging slices of pork in soft white buns and handing plates of fried chicken to star-struck customers. Chang is no longer the kind of chef who actually has to cook.
The white-hot celebrity chef presides over one of the fastest-growing culinary empires in the world: five restaurants in New York, one in Sydney, two cookbooks and a quarterly magazine for food obsessives (Lucky Peach). This month, he’ll open four—yes, four—more restaurants as part of Toronto’s new Shangri-La Hotel complex: Daisho, Shoto (a tasting-menu counter), Nikai (a bar/lounge) and the more casual Noodle Bar. One might call that a full plate. Others might surmise that the Korean-American cook is spreading himself thin.
Chang is not the first celebrity empire to invade Canada. In 2009, Daniel Boulud—he of the $32 foie-gras-stuffed burger—opened in Vancouver only to shut down two years later. (Now there’s a Maison Boulud outpost at Montreal’s Ritz-Carlton and two more concepts scheduled for Toronto’s Four Seasons this fall.) Last year, Gordon Ramsay bought a share of Montreal’s Laurier Rotisserie BBQ, but pulled out months later, leaving lawsuits in his wake. There have been happier tales, too: Jean-Georges Vongerichten has been happily ensconced in Vancouver’s Shangri-La Hotel since 2009. And Jamie Oliver recently announced plans to open a Montreal gastropub—Maison Publique—though his role will be more investor than chef, leaving the top billing to his friend Derek Dammann.
So what makes Chang’s chances better than those who came before him? The chef’s coziness with Shangri-La developer Westbank is a start. Developers typically offer top chefs sweetheart deals on rent and other incentives, such as custom built kitchens. (See: Vongerichten and Boulud.) Chang is also arriving in a city obsessed with food. Toronto’s enthusiasm around Chang’s arrival has been described as “Momofuku mania.” And yet the chef doesn’t appear to bring an outsized personality. Instead he’s soft-spoken and humble: “We’re going to get there, and things are going to evolve,” Chang has said. “I don’t know Toronto nearly as well as anybody that lives there…so I have a lot to learn, as we all do at Momofuku.”
It’s that lack of braggadocio that appeals to Canadians. As David McMillan, the chef behind Montreal’s Joe Beef and a man who has toiled in celebrity kitchens, tells me, “I wouldn’t trade his life for mine. Not even for $200 million would I want to fly to Australia four times a year. My ambition is to work in my garden and cook for my customers as often as I can.”
Chang’s ability to separate his jet-setting business plans from his hands-on persona remains his secret weapon.
Chris Johns is an award-winning food and travel writer who curates all of his own dinner playlists