In 2004, Momofuku Noodle Bar opened in a tiny, stark space in Manhattan’s East Village. Its young chef-owner, David Chang, worked the line, serving ramen and pork buns to a mix of fellow restaurant cooks and confused diners whose idea of ramen was instant noodles in Styrofoam cups. It would have been impossible to know it at the time—and certainly Chang would have bet against himself—but he, who had failed at almost every endeavor in his life, was about to become one of the most influential chefs of his generation, driven by the question, “What if the underground could become the mainstream?”
Chang grew up the youngest son of a deeply religious Korean American family in Virginia. Graduating college aimless and depressed, he fled the States for Japan, hoping to find some sense of belonging. While teaching English in a backwater town, he experienced the highs of his first full-blown manic episode, and began to think that the cooking and sharing of food could give him both purpose and agency in his life.
Full of grace, candor, grit, and humor, Eat a Peach chronicles Chang’s switchback path. He lays bare his mistakes and wonders about his extraordinary luck as he recounts the improbable series of events that led him to the top of his profession. He wrestles with his lifelong feelings of otherness and inadequacy, explores the mental illness that almost killed him, and finds hope in the shared value of deliciousness. Along the way, Chang gives us a penetrating look at restaurant life, in which he balances his deep love for the kitchen with unflinching honesty about the industry’s history of brutishness and its uncertain future.
With the benefit of many years of consultation with a professional therapist, I can tell you that what I was experiencing toward the end of my time at Café Boulud was my first full-blown experience with the depressive phase of bipolar disorder. As simply as I can put it, bipolar disorder is characterized by dramatic swings between high (manic) and low (depressive) states. This particular low lasted for several months and was the longest and most intense I’ve ever endured. But again, I can only tell you that in hindsight. At the time, all I knew was that everything felt shitty and I couldn’t pinpoint a specific reason. I felt dislodged personally and professionally. Things I could always count on, like my palate, were failing me. It didn’t seem normal to feel this way.
High school was where I first noticed that something was off. I’d spoken to the in-house therapist a few times, but I stopped because I didn’t really feel comfortable spilling my guts to someone who had lunch with my teachers seven days a week. Instead I wrote about everything going on in my head. One day, my roommate dug through my computer and mocked me mercilessly for what he found. I saw another counselor in college. It took him two minutes to pull out the prescription pad and prescribe me Paxil. I never took it and I never saw him again.
I was embarrassed. I didn’t feel justified in seeing a therapist or taking pills. For one thing, I didn’t know any other Asian people who saw therapists. A lot of my friends had shrinks in college, but their situations were different. They were wealthy kids with actual bad shit going on at home in Westchester or whatever northeastern enclave had produced them. Rich kids are always the most f***ed up. I didn’t recognize my issues in anyone else.
At Trinity, I grew acutely aware of my otherness. The girls at school were mostly white and therefore off-limits. I’d seen how my parents reacted when my siblings had tried dating non-Koreans, and it wasn’t pretty. Not that it would have mattered. The white girls at school were explicit in their pronouncements that they would never be seen with an Asian man. And so, aside from random drunken hookups, I never dated anyone in college. For years, any kind of meaningful relationship I had was one I found during the summer or while traveling abroad. I simply felt more comfortable somewhere else.
For a minute, I thought I’d attend divinity school after Trinity, but my grades weren’t good enough to get me into a graduate program, much less one of the cushy jobs that my classmates were landing in New York. I didn’t know what else to do with myself, so I showed up to a postgrad career fair and signed up to teach English in Japan, because the booth was closest to the door. I’d come to think that my problems were in America, and I wanted to live the life of an expat. Being away from home would be a fresh start, a chance for reinvention. I fled the States with the intention of being gone for good.
Cut to the cross-country track behind the high school in Izumi-Tottori and the largest Asian man within thirty miles running around and around and loving it: my first encounter with the highs of a manic episode, and the other side of bipolar disorder. I had boundless energy. I felt invincible. At night, I read dense Russian classics, plowing through the entire canon. I finished War and Peace in a couple of days.
I had originally requested an assignment in cold, northern Sapporo. The company sent me to this steamy town in Wakayama Prefecture instead. Imagine Jacksonville, only hotter. At night, I would hear wannabe yakuza riding their dirt bikes and motorcycles around the rice paddy that was my backyard. Most of my students were either the wives of organized criminals or kids prepping for college entrance exams. Once they realized that their English grammar was better than mine, they started using my class as an opportunity to nap. I lived in an apartment with my boss, next to a dorm for Jehovah’s Witnesses, and I don’t think I had a full night of sleep the entire time I was there.
I’d hoped to find something in Japan—a sense of belonging, maybe. No such luck. The women in Japan were no more inclined to date me than the women at Trinity. All the Japanese girls seemed to be paired up with a white guy. If not, they certainly weren’t going to stoop to dating a Korean.
I did a little traveling while there, and saw that many of the Koreans living in Japan were downtrodden or wrapped up in gambling and shadier professions. Finding vandalism on the monuments to Koreans who died in Hiroshima was an early lesson in racism’s ubiquity.
I’d always assumed Japan was a country of extraordinary punctuality, but the train would sometimes be late in Izumi-Tottori. I learned that the delays were caused by people jumping on the tracks, even though the government did everything it could to prevent it. They announced that they would fine the families of the deceased. They painted the station a calming pastel yellow. None of it seemed to have an effect.
Between Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, I read Camus. I spent a lot of time mulling over his famous quote about finding an “invincible summer” within himself. I wondered about the car crash that ended his life, when he took a ride with a notoriously bad driver. When they examined his body, they found a train ticket in his pocket. Did he maybe want to get in that accident?
Excerpted from Eat a Peach by David Chang and Gabe Ulla. Copyright © 2020 by David Chang. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Read more first few pages here on the blog.