David Chang on the long, hard, stupid way

I recently came across a great quote from David Chang, “Just because we’re a casual restaurant, doesn’t mean we don’t hold ourselves to fine dining standards. We try to do things the right way. That usually means doing things the long, hard, stupid way.”

David has elaborated on this quote

When your back is turned and you’re no longer supervising them and they’re on their own making the decision are they going to make the right decision versus the wrong decision? And the only thing that’s separating them from making the wrong decision is personal integrity because no one’s ever gonna make… No one’s going to know. So many times in a kitchen you’re trying to teach someone to do the dumb long way. And like let’s just say you have a cook that’s making a dish and one of the steps that they do can save them 30 minutes if they just cheat, and the reality is the end result will lead to no one ever knowing the difference. I have to try to create an environment where I’m trying to get that Cook to take the long stupid way. It’s so inefficient. And ultimately I think being a chef is one of the hardest jobs to motivate people because there’s no lure of a giant paycheck or bonus or stock options. You’re really trying to teach someone to better themselves through their own personal integrity.

In real life, here’s what this looks like. David writes in Eat a Peach:

For example, one of my favorite Majordomo dishes is a whole boiled chicken. We present the bird to the table in a big pot, bring it back to the kitchen to carve it, and then return with a beautiful platter of rice topped with the sliced breasts and two different sauces spooned over the top. Once guests are finished with that, we bring out a soup made from the carcass. It’s so good.

One day, David gets this email from his team:

We’ve been cooking a “presentation chicken” lately to help get the chickens out earlier. That is, when the first bird is fired, we usually cook two & have one just for presenting so we can butcher the chicken that’s rested, while we slow the other chicken, which speeds up the time it takes between seeing the chicken & receiving the rice. The extra chicken at the end of the night is also butchered into our stock the next day, since we always like to use those bones from carcasses for the soup that follows.

His response:

They had cooked enough services to realize they could improve flow and make things easier on the staff with a little bit of bait-and-switch. A smart decision and common practice. The guest would have no idea that the chicken they’d seen wasn’t the same one they were eating. 

I wrote to Jude and the rest of the Domo team saying we would discuss it upon my return, which they accurately interpreted to mean we were going back to the hard way. 

It had nothing to do with integrity. I didn’t care about fooling the diners. What concerned me was the precedent we were setting. I worried about the mindset of the server whose job it would be to parade a stunt chicken around the dining room. I was terrified of our culture stagnating. The dish was meant to be a difficult pickup that required constant coordination between the front and back of house. That was what made it great. If they wanted to sandbag it, they needed to figure out how they would make up for the lost energy elsewhere.

There are a lot of reasons why the Momofuku brand of restaurants gained the popularity that it did, but no doubt this emphasis on quality is part of it. It’s this realm I think about when I’m discussing longcutting, and building the capacity for it.

In a world where 600 words are one click of a button and a prompt away, writing a blog post—in 2024 at that!—sounds pretty stupid. I write it because I think it will help me with all of the non-writing parts of writing. Asides from enjoying the practice—I write for fun—it also improves my taste, keeps me finding important things to say, and helps me figure out the right contexts for stories.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *