The first thing I should tell you about the Momofuku Kitchen Lab is that I can’t tell you very much about it.
Like, I can’t tell you where it is or most of what happens there or even what’s inside. It’s a place that few have seen, and fewer have been able to talk about. “Do you want to give us an overview of what you’ve got here in the kitchen?” I asked David Chang. No, he didn’t.
Chefs are cool. (Thank you, Anthony Bourdain.) David Chang may be the coolest. You might've heard of him and his Momofuku restaurants. He's been a GQ Man of the Year, Time 100 person, lectured at Harvard, has picked up few James Beard Foundation awards and a couple of Michelin stars. (Momofuku, if you're wondering, means "Lucky Peach", also the name of their awesome new food quarterly . And it's the guy who invented instant ramen, Momofuku Ando.)
The Momofuku Culinary Lab is the tiny space where Chang, along with chefs Dan Felder and Dan Burns, "document mistakes and [try]to create new ideas." (One such idea from our visit: Chang wandered why nobody cooks with strawberry tops. "I've always accepted that as something you just throw away. But we've never investigated, I've never been told why, other than it doesn't taste good. It's our jobs as cooks to take product that doesn't necessarily taste good and make it taste good." He tweeted this a few days later.)
So what goes on at the Momofuku Lab? "Science and cooking," says Chang. "That's what it is - it's one in the same. Trust me, I'm not a science guy, but I'm trying to learn because I've realised that there's so much more to learn about food."
Right now, Chang and the Dans have microbes on the brain. They're working on stuff like trying to create their own miso and soy sauce, growing their own koji moulds - the mould that ferments soybeans to make that stuff. As Chang talks, a small barrel filled with shoyu sits in a dark corner of the lab, secreting flavour crystals through the cracks, looking like the world's tastiest barrel of toxic waste. "Microbes, I feel is without a doubt - food on a microbial level - is going to play a massive role in the near future, or now. I mean, even now people are saying let's make pickles, let's do it all in house, let's cure our own meats, let's do all this stuff. That's all happening because of fucking bacteria and fungus."
Momofuku works surprisingly like a software company: The lab operates independently of the restaurants, separately developing new recipes, ideas and techniques, but the restaurants are free to grab anything the lab's developed - or they can ask the lab for help to make something happen. But that's partly why the lab is, from a super nerd standpoint, sparsely equipped. "If we can do it with a whisk and a bowl, so can they at the restaurant," says the taller, redder of the Dans, Burns. You won't find any crazy gear like a centrifuge, as you would at the Modernist Cuisine Kitchen Lab (which you'll also see later this week) or the Fat Duck's lab in London. "The biggest thing for us is we wanna work with what we have," adds Chang. "That's sort of the philosophy of what we do here is, trying to find that great idea that is staring us right in front of the face. If we have all the gadgets and toys in the world, we're going to be searching - not for the wrong stuff, but for us it'd be fool's gold." The most used gadget in the lab? It just carbonates water. That said, Chang would "love" an industrial freeze dryer.
According to Chang, most of what goes on at the lab is "failure after failure after failure." But that's a typical bit of Changian understatement. Failure is the constant companion of innovation, and one of the most important drivers of progress. Ultimately, failure is science: you try new things, you fail (a lot), and you try again. And every now and then something brilliant happens. And while he and the Dans might be loathe to admit it, there's a fair amount of brilliance coming out of their lab. You can taste it.
Video by Woody Allen Jang