As Stupid As This Sounds

Eddie Huang and David Chang dropped a podcast yesterday, and it was as good as I thought it would be. David’s voice kinda sounds like Joe Rogan’s, so it was almost like Eddie was back talking about TED and stuff.

There’s a moment in the first year of Eddie’s restaurant Baohaus, when Eddie personally delivered baos, and he recalls delivering to David in a tenement building on Grand street. David was already a prominent chef, and Eddie couldn’t believe David lived there.

“Nobody gets into this business to truly make money,” David says. “As stupid as that sounds.”

“No man, you do [it because] you love it,” says Eddie. “It’s also most of us that ended up in the restaurant business, it wasn’t our first choice…. I grew up in a restaurant, I saw how hard my dad worked, and I saw how lucky he had to get to get the run he had and then how quickly the rug was pulled out from under him. He had, maybe like a seven year run, where he broke bread and the rest of it was just bleeding.”

Two successful artists, running two successful businesses, that may or may not make it through this pandemic. It reminds me of author Robert Caro, who could’ve made a really handsome living writing shorter, faster, good books. Instead, he chose to spend decades researching Robert Moses and Lyndon B. Johnson to make probably the best books in his time. He’s got the trophies to show for it too. He writes in his book, Working:

“It’s the research that takes the time—the research and whatever it is in myself that makes the research take so long, so very much longer than I had planned. Whatever it is that makes me do research the way I do, it’s not something I’m proud of, and it’s not something for which I can take the credit—or the blame.”

Despite being a man of many words, Robert can’t quite put his finger on it. Neither can I, but I’ve something similar. It’s certainly not for research, but for writing and business. I know a lot of market-driven entrepreneurs, who optimize purely for financial returns. “If it’s not ecommerce or SaaS, don’t talk to me.” Frankly, I honestly think that they have what Caro describes as well, and can’t optimize the other way around. They feel a need to chase the money.

But it’s got to be OK for that not to be the goal. We need more businesses, whose interests are tied more locally, to have thriving communities. More businesses that are genuinely mission-driven, and still see money just as oxygen. That’s not just geographic, but can count digitally too, where a lot of people congregate. We can’t let the unicorns and VCs hog entrepreneurship.

There almost has to be something greater, if not just for cognitive dissonance. The numbers don’t work otherwise. Eddie and David talk about how most restaurateurs make 10–12% profit margins, and how some chef-owners work 72 hour weeks to take home $60,000.

I’ve always thought, and still think, there’s a way to balance it out; to make money, and to stay true to the vision. To compromise on inessentials. To hedge bets. Outside of Baohaus, Eddie writes books, did a TV show, and now directed a movie. Outside of Momofuku, David did the very great Lucky Peach, he’s getting that Netflix bread, the podcast, and I don’t know what else. They don’t have portfolios; they have bodies of work. If you don’t know… you won’t know.

The freedom to make these choices on how to spend your time, the currency of life, could bring anxiety and tension. But that’s the cost of choice. It’s never a bad decision to think twice about stupid, easy, money. Your bank account might be poorer for it, but your life could be richer.