What David Chang’s Momofuku Nishi Means for Fusion Food
When I dined at David Chang’s newest Momofuku outpost last week, I was disappointed. Not because the food was bad -- it was memorably delicious, in fact -- but because numerous reviews had advertised “Italian-Korean” dishes, and as a Korean-Italian, I was excited by the prospect of my identity come to life in culinary form.
Kimchi stew with meatballs? Seaweed soup with parmesan cheese? These were the Korean variations I grew up on, and what I giddily envisioned would be on Chang’s menu at Nishi.
But David Chang never promised “Italian-Korean fusion.” “We didn’t even say Italian,” pointed out Nishi’s Manager Gabrielle Nurnberger. “That was a rumor and it stuck.”
What Chang did promise was tasty food -- traditional associations aside -- and that’s all we should expect at Nishi.
For dinner, my meal consisted of raw black bass set in tiger’s milk, al dente noodles made with a somehow-better-than-cheese fermented chickpea paste, and a dense pistachio bundt cake with a side of ricotta.
The feast was identifiable by no less than five distinct cuisines... it definitely was not “fusion.” At least not the kind I’m used to seeing labeled that way.
In an exasperated line that perfectly conveys fusion’s failed mainstream form, and the way Chang hopes to serve it, the chef declared in Lucky Peach earlier this month, “If people want to call it fusion, well fuck you. It is fusion. Tell me what food isn’t fusion?”
And he’s right. “Fusion food" has become an antiquated term, a cheesy, outmoded way of insta-exocitizing a menu to make it trendy. In theory, it implies a harmonic, original marriage of diverse flavors. In practice, it often results in the in the poorest execution of ingredients, to create kitschy frankenfoods like cream cheese-filled wontons and wasabi-seared steaks.
Like "smartphone" or "tomboy," "fusion" developed as a necessary descriptor for a trend that had yet to become standardized. Now, it's simply outdated and meaningless language for something commonplace. As Chang said, what food isn’t fusion?
But there are also dangers involved with this branding, the kind that chefs think of when restaurant critics cry “fusion.”
To name a food “fusion” today could arguably denote cultural appropriation, and disrespect -- a selfish borrowing of minority experience for marketing and commercial gain. After all, ramen, kimchi, and pasta are not just popular foods, but holistic embodiments of history and social identity.
And Nishi’s soulful offerings pay great homage to these traditions.
Take the Ceci e Pepe, the restaurant’s riff on the classic Italian cheese-and-pepper dish, and one of its most popular items. Chang didn’t create it out of a need to one-up the classics, or because he thought it fell short or needed to be reinvented for a new generation. It is nothing like the atrocious “sushi burrito.”
“You cannot make cacio e pepe better,” Chang told Grub Street. "We have too much respect for Italian food to do that dish. We wanted a dish no one else can make.”
And indeed, Chang, in a case of student-turned-master, observes the classics by essentializing his culinary learnings into inspired creations -- running on separate but parallel tracks -- joining geographically disparate tastes in glorious, palette-enhancing matrimony.
That’s how you get things like chicken with su je bi, beef crudo with dashi ponzu, and chili lobster pasta in xo sauce.
There’s also the less philosophical fact of life that Chang’s split ethnic upbringing has led, kind of organically, to his concoction of unorthodox dishes.
A few years ago, while being interviewed for The Splendid Table, Chang said, "I never realized my diet consisted of all sorts of strange things -- Korean food and then Waffle House-like Southern things on the weekends. I also played a lot of competitive golf as a child, so I would travel, specifically in the South, playing tournaments. I think that left a big impression on me in terms of how I view the world and how I -- in retrospect -- view food."
In many ways, it’s how many Americans today grew up and view the world, and food, and another reason why “fusion” feels more and more like an old-fashioned word for 21st-century eating.
When a culinary master like Chang thoughtfully rearranges flavors to create a delicious plate of food, it’s unfair and lazy to file it under “fusion.”
His menu builds upon the foundations of the classics, sure. Even Chang, who studied at the French Culinary Institute, will assure of that. But the conceptual labor behind his inventions push on a kind of originality that need not rest on the flavor profiles of the established models.
So, when Chang does something like write Nishi’s menu in three languages, with a half page of footnotes, it really just seems like his ironic way of saying: I know my shit. Now please just eat.
Most people will never try the mackerel with daikon or whole shrimp with sansho pepper at Momofuku Nishi. Many will never taste Momofuku Ssam Bar’s bestselling cauliflower with fish vinaigrette sauce. But if the runaway success of Chang’s restaurant empire (case in point: the same week he unveiled Nishi, he was also at Madison Square Garden, opening his 3rd Fuku location) is to be considered, then you best bet his innovation of flavors is not a temporary trend. Call it the “New New American,” or call it delicious. Just don’t call it “fusion.”
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