Chang Down Under Looks a Lot Like Chang Up Here: Ego-Driven

Two weeks ago, David Chang opened Momofuku Seiobo, giving the good people of Sydney, Australia, their first taste of the cultlike devotion that attends his every move here in the States. Located in a casino, Seiobo features such Chang hallmarks as an online reservation system, a soundtrack notable for its decibel levels, and buttocks-punishing stools. Asked to describe his new restaurant, Chang told The Sydney Morning Herald, “It’s not the norm.” He later added, “We don't have a feel for our audience yet. We have to develop a relationship with the Sydney public.''

So far the Sydney public seems to be viewing that relationship with the same mix of reverence and skepticism that the New York public reserves for All Things Chang. Chang’s Asian crossover cooking isn’t new in Australia—thanks to the country’s proximity to Asia, plenty of restaurants in Sydney and Melbourne are using all sorts of Southeast Asian ingredients and techniques, many of which are also familiar to the ordinary home cook. What is new, of course, is Chang himself, and the reputation he brings.

After giving the restaurant four out of five stars in The Sydney Morning Herald, Terry Durack followed up with an appraisal titled “Why Momofuku Seiobo Will Change Sydney Dining.” “The best thing that Chang does—and what he has brought to Australia,” Durack wrote, “is that Chang does what Chang likes.” The reason his restaurant will change Sydney dining, Durack concluded, “is that it forces our chefs and restaurateurs to think again.”

Whether or not it actually does, the idea of Chang doing what Chang likes in a nation famous for Tall Poppy Syndrome has already invited criticism, at least from commenters to Durack’s story. “Noisy, bright, expensive, pretentious—might be good food but I can't see it appealing to Australians who actually have a European attitude to food, wine and dining, not an American one,” wrote R.Ross. “Give it twelve months.”

“After dining here recently our summation is that Momofuku is for people who like expensive, pretentious, very small servings of food delivered over an extraordinarily long time. And I mean small,” opined Balmain Foodie.

“It sounded great until I got to ‘Chang does what Chang likes. He likes to cook to loud music, so the music is loud.’ What is with ‘loud’? The food might be the best in the world, but I find it difficult to enjoy myself when my ears are bleeding. And I thought the restaurant was about the diners, not stroking chef's ego,” wrote Axl.

Axl's comment suggests that Australia’s Cult of the Manly-Man Chef may not be quite as well-formed as it is in America, where drooling magazine profiles, TV appearances, and myriad product endorsements have a funny way of making actual cooking seem quaint, if not irrelevant. Regardless, Sydney’s feelings for Chang himself may also be irrelevant: Dude, after all, has got a small empire of restaurants to tend to, so his time in front of the burners at Seiobo will necessarily be fleeting. That could be a problem. Critical or adoring, Sydney diners will expect a nightly command performance from the rock star himself, not covers by his backup band.

Image source: Momofuku.com