He was an angry self-starter and a rebel. He was warned by his father not to go into the restaurant business. Today, David Chang is one of the most famous and richest chefs in the world. His success path broke all the rules—except one.
Business success can seem like a strange and sometimes magical feat. How is it that one person ends up having mediocre success, or fails completely, while the next seems to be catapulted into the stratosphere, that prosperous space that, if not heaven, is darn close.
One such person that fits the latter category is David Chang, the chef and founder of Momofuku restaurants. (Momofuku means “lucky peach” in Japanese.)
In addition to Chang being the founder of Momofuku restaurants, he is a television star, an author, a social warrior and the recipient of several awards as a chef and for his restaurants. He was called one of “the most influential people of the 21st century” by Esquire.1
Certainly, personality, drive and purpose have everything to do with an individual’s success. And there’s no doubt that Chang possesses an abundance of all three. He’s a fiery character with a hand sometimes as heavy as Thor’s hammer. But might there be yet another ingredient that helped “catapult” him into the stratosphere? Yes. And to understand how it works in his business life, we need to delve into his unusual background.
He Was Destined to Make Putts, Not Noodles
Today, at only 41 years young, Chang’s estimated net worth is $60 million—an unusual outcome for someone who once majored in religion at Trinity College in Hartford.2
It gets even stranger. Before Chang entered Trinity, in his youth, at the urging of his father, he strove to be a professional golfer. Hours upon hours were spent on the links in his home town of Alexandria, Va.
During this youthful period, Chang had loved noodles (“like any good Korean,” he jokes). He often ate at a noodle restaurant near their home, where he was, he writes in his Momofuku cookbook, “transfixed by the guy making noodles—the way he’d weave and slap a ball of dough into a ropy pile.” Recognizing his son’s fascination, Chang’s father, who had worked in restaurants for a time, warned David about the restaurant business being stressful, high risk and frustrating.3
Chang eventually gave up the clubs and, after college, endured a desk job just long enough to know he couldn’t stomach the boredom. So, he headed off to Japan where he took a job teaching English. He lived in a little town called Izumi-Tottori, where the biggest charm, for him, was the busy ramen shop that he often frequented.
Not satisfied with teaching, Chang told his father he was considering culinary school. His father promptly told him he was out of his mind. Again, David ignored the memo. Not being the type to follow a path he wasn’t passionate about, David returned home and attended the French Culinary Institute in New York.
The Rocket Ride Began
Four years later, in 2004, Chang opened his first Momofuku noodle restaurant in New York. As with any new business, it wasn’t easy. But he survived, and the ensuing years were a whirlwind of activity and growth, which consisted of him opening new and different restaurants, hosting his own TV show and much more.
In those early days Chang was renowned for his angry temper. Some of this anger he attributes to his simply trying to be the best chef he could be. Understandable. There’s hardly a perfectionist alive who hasn’t boiled over while trying to make the existing scene match the ideal vision in his or her mind.
Fast forward to 2018. Today the temper is toned down. Chang has found a sort of serenity in the stratosphere of success. Well, maybe not serenity, but certainly a more Zen approach to his business. As his colleague, Christina Tosi, puts it, “Dave is a little calmer. He’s more realistic in the way he deals with certain things.”4
Chang admits that what most excites him today, apart from food, is his team. “If I have a really bad cook or a bad manager or bad sous-chef [under-chef], I previously would have fired them or lost my temper,” he says. “But now I realize that if I’m so right, then I should be able to communicate it so clearly that they get it. Can we make them an asset? It completely breaks how I used to do it, which was to explode in temper. I can’t do that anymore.”
All this leads to the original question: What is it that some individuals have, or do, that catapults them into the stratosphere of success that others may not do?
Team Has No "I" in It
A truism of success is that one cannot achieve it alone. No matter how talented, how driven, how cocky, how angry or how motivated one is, it takes a team to reach a high level of sustained success. And where there is a team, there must be a leader.
The little-known story of Chang and the success of his Momofuku brand may lie in how he evolved as a manager and leader—characteristics that have contributed to his success.
The rebel chef with a renowned temper is a different man today. Here’s how Tosi and others who work with him put it: “Dave has this great balance of being a boss and having an ego and a vision, but also knowing when to push someone and say, ‘Stop asking me for guidance; stop treating me as your boss,’” she says. “He’s become really good at reading people.” Ying, of Chang’s Lucky Peach restaurant, calls Chang “a savvy leader” who “cultivates the people he works with.”
Today, Chang realizes the payoff that comes with hiring, training and treating people right. “I get way too much credit for the restaurants,” Chang says. “They’re staffed with what I believe to be some of the best and brightest men and women in the business. Momofuku, I feel, is just a vehicle to give them an opportunity to express themselves. So that’s the way I look at it: we have a really good team that allows me to step away and do stuff.”5
Chang’s success and evolved attitude aligns with something L. Ron Hubbard wrote in January 1951 in “AN ESSAY ON MANAGEMENT”:
“To be effective and successful a manager must understand as fully as possible the goals and aims of the group he manages. . . . He must be able to tolerate and better the practical attainments and advances of which his group and its members may be capable. He must strive to narrow, always, the ever-existing gulf between the ideal and the practical.”
It seems that David Chang’s journey from rebellious start-up chef to “savvy leader” who believes in his staff also aligns with something else Mr. Hubbard said in a December 1956 lecture entitled “PROJECT THIRD DYNAMIC”:
“There is nothing wrong with being the most important person under the sun if everybody else is just as important as you are.”
We all love heroes. We worship success. But it just may be that the hidden and sometimes seemingly “magic ingredient” that catapults one into the heavens is the ability to grant others importance and build a great team.
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