- Eat A Peach, by David Chang. Square Peg. $42.99.
There's a scene in David Chang's new memoir, Eat A Peach, that reads like what you might get if you put an Ocean's movie script, a colourful Tony Bourdain dispatch and a couple of glasses of choice Burgundy through a blender.
It's April 2009. Chang and some of the world's top chefs are in the kitchen of Copenhagen's Noma restaurant preparing a dinner as part of the Cook It Raw festival, the annual event that sees chefs explore local ingredients, swap ideas and, well, eat a whole lot better than most people ever will.
The cast at Noma includes Albert Adrià, "one of the most innovative pastry chefs of all time", Pascal Barbot of l'Astrance in Paris and Massimo Bottura, whose mind-bending creations at Osteria Francescana are wowing gourmands and irritating traditionalists in equal measure. But it's a scruffy, punk-loving Basque named Iaki Aizpitarte who ends up stealing the show that night - when he finally arrives.
After staying out the night before to polish off one last magnum of champagne, Aizpitarte turns up, settles in to work next to Barbot, and proceeds to make what Chang describes as "one of the most outrageously good dishes I have ever tasted".
"Iaki began pulling ingredients from Barbot's garbage. From a pile of mushrooms and eel scraps, he made a consommé, then Cryovac'd it with pieces of raw lobster... He grated pistachios and mixed them with orange zest and a handful of sea salt to produce what seemed to me a psychedelic fruitcake. He puréed squab liver and sliced the lobster into thin medallions." And so it goes.
You can just imagine the kitchen full of heavyweights watching this wunderkind, a former dishwasher who taught himself to took, mouths well and truly agape. The night at Noma certainly left an impression on Chang, who writes that he's often asked if one can be born a great chef.
"If Iaki didn't exist, my answer would be no, but the guy is a natural culinary genius."
Chang, on the other hand, is not. The son of god-fearing Korean immigrants, Chang was a child golf prodigy who did well enough at school to get into a small college in Connecticut. After graduating, he worked for a time in finance and taught English in Japan before turning to food.
"I'd become a cook because it was the only job available to me," he writes.
"Somehow, my grades and disposition had landed me - a former golf prodigy with a liberal arts education - in the same place as the other misfits, ex-cons, alcoholics, and newly arrived immigrants that the kitchen tends to attract."
After a short apprenticeship at some top New York restaurants, Chang went out on his own, opening the storied Momofuku Noodle Bar at 163 First Avenue in Manhattan's East Village. In a heartfelt passage, Chang recalls how his dad loaned him $100,000, no questions asked, to get the restaurant off the ground.
"When I think back on the bright moments of our friendship, this one stands out," he says.
The Work Memoir invariably veers towards it-was-the-best-time-of-our-lives territory and Chang makes no effort to avoid it in Eat A Peach. But what's interesting about Chang's detour is that those early days, what with the faulty appliances, fraying tempers and "f*** yous", don't come across as having been all that great.
What Chang and his crew did have, however, was a camaraderie that he hasn't experienced since, which is both sad and telling.
Not long after getting Momofuku up and running, Chang set out to open another restaurant. Others soon followed, as did a magazine with the indie press McSweeney's, TV deals and various other commitments.
To all outward appearances, it seemed like Chang was doing pretty well for himself, but of course, appearances can be deceiving. When Chang went to buy an apartment, the bank knocked him back, telling him he was too leveraged on his restaurants.
Personally, things weren't going too well, either. Chang admits to doing little more than drinking and hanging out with Sydney's B-List during the year he was in town setting up Momofuku's outpost at The Star, and he writes with candour about his depression, which by that point had come back to haunt him.
If that all sounds pretty heavy, that's because it is. Chang's memoir - which, by the way, he feels genuinely ridiculous about having written - offers an uncommonly frank portrayal of life inside the hamster wheel of capitalism.
Thankfully, there's no hustle porn to be found here. Instead, Chang offers a warts and all account of the costs, personal and otherwise, incurred in the building of his restaurant empire.
And some of those scenes, it has to be said, are worthy of the silver screen.