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Momofuku Ko (Part 1)


BryanZ
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If I had a small restaurant, I would ban all photography just as I would ban use of laptops if I had a cocktail lounge.

I might be perceived to have a conflict-of-interest in this. That said, my perception is that photos of the food have had a significant role in building Chang's reputation. If indeed this is the new standing policy at the restaurant, it sounds like he's kicking down one of the ladders by which he has risen.
I recalled that Gordon Ramsay at the London had such a ban in its opening days.  I wonder if that rule has been tabled (pun intended).

I can confirm that they don't have that rule any more.
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People aren't just taking pictures of food, many times they're taking pictures of the chefs. I'm the type of person who hates to have any photo taken of me at all. If I worked in an open kitchen and some stranger was snapping away a picture of me while I was working, sweaty and caught unaware, and then posted that picture of me on their blog or wherever, I'd feel like my privacy was invaded.

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I'll try to find out the restaurant's justification, as well as confirm what the policy actually is. Anyone else in a position to do so please try to do the same. The purported policy sounds idiotic to me at first blush but maybe there's some great reason for it that I haven't thought of.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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(I didn't realize I was such a fascist.)

You're not.

It would just be nice to know (for certain) that this is the reason for the "ban." Curiousity always kills the cat, doesn't it?

“Watermelon - it’s a good fruit. You eat, you drink, you wash your face.”

Italian tenor Enrico Caruso (1873-1921)

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If I had a small restaurant, I would ban all photography just as I would ban use of laptops if I had a cocktail lounge.

I might be perceived to have a conflict-of-interest in this. That said, my perception is that photos of the food have had a significant role in building Chang's reputation. If indeed this is the new standing policy at the restaurant, it sounds like he's kicking down one of the ladders by which he has risen.

I was never going to say this publicly, but I believe you can probably find a YouTube webcasting of Chang's acceptance speech at the James Beard Awards for his award for Best Chef New York, so I might as well offer my 2 cents.

I was in the hall when he accepted the award, and I think his humility was palpable in that acceptance speech. Maybe he wasn't surprised that he won, but I got the feeling that he might have been afraid to win; and was a little more than upset when he did win. Borrowing from the late, great, Billy Shakes, "uneasy lies the head that wears the crown;" especially if it's the youngest head in the room. Nobody likes the teachers pet. And, often, nobody likes the press' pet. A quick and high climber falls the longest and the hardest.

We can debate all we want as to whether he was the "right" winner for that award this year. The fact remains that all of the other nominees have been in the restaurant business for a much longer time than Chang. Many of them might be considered culinary dinosaurs today, but even dinosaurs ruled the world in their day.

All of this is to say: maybe he doesn't *want* that ladder.

Edited by ulterior epicure (log)

“Watermelon - it’s a good fruit. You eat, you drink, you wash your face.”

Italian tenor Enrico Caruso (1873-1921)

ulteriorepicure.com

My flickr account

ulteriorepicure@gmail.com

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I didn't see them stop anyone from using a camera, I just heard one of the guys mention that they we not allowing cameras anymore. I think it was all cameras, not just flashes. My impression was that they just got annoyed by too many people doing it. I suspect that lots of people were fine, but some people did not do it responsibly by either taking too long, or using flashes, or taking pictures of the guys cooking, or jostling other patrons, taking up too much space, etc, and they got tired of asking people not to do this list of 20 things, and it was just easier to tell everyone no and be done with it.

I did have to wait 15 or 20 minutes after my 8:30 reservation on Monday, I think it was because the people before me were taking extensive notes, since I noticed one of them had a notebook out. On their way out they apologized and thanked the hostess for letting them take a bit longer. I didn't really mind the wait, I just got to watch the guys cook a bit longer. (I could see easily since the 4 corner seats were empty until after I sat down.)

Ed aka Wordsmithing Pantagruel

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Incessant photography is supremely annoying at any restaurant, flash or no. At a small restaurant the effect is magnified. At a small restaurant like Ko it annoys the chefs as well.

Fine by me. Eat your food, talk to your date, talk to your neighbor, talk to the chef. I appreciate those here that have shared their photographs, but I'd rather have their words.

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I was in the hall when he accepted the award, and I think his humility was palpable in that acceptance speech.

There's a lot that comes out of Chang's mouth that's plainly unbelievable. The latest was the comment after the price increase: "In a month it could go back down again." Yes, and in a month I could be King of England.
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I was in the hall when he accepted the award, and I think his humility was palpable in that acceptance speech.

There's a lot that comes out of Chang's mouth that's plainly unbelievable. The latest was the comment after the price increase: "In a month it could go back down again." Yes, and in a month I could be King of England.

It wasn't *what* came out of his mouth. It was the *way* it came out.

That is why I specifically used the word "palpable."

Edited by ulterior epicure (log)

“Watermelon - it’s a good fruit. You eat, you drink, you wash your face.”

Italian tenor Enrico Caruso (1873-1921)

ulteriorepicure.com

My flickr account

ulteriorepicure@gmail.com

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I was in the hall when he accepted the award, and I think his humility was palpable in that acceptance speech.

There's a lot that comes out of Chang's mouth that's plainly unbelievable. The latest was the comment after the price increase: "In a month it could go back down again." Yes, and in a month I could be King of England.

It wasn't *what* came out of his mouth. It was the *way* it came out.

That is why I specifically used the word "palpable."

Whether it's humility or something more complicated I certainly have gotten the sense from my few conversations with Chang that he is conflicted about his success. I've never paid him a complement that he didn't try to deflect towards someone he felt to be more desserving. He's a complicated guy but he's never struck me as deliberately manipulative or disingenous.

I also find picture-taking annoying in restaurants. The only place I've ever done it is at El Bulli where it was happening at virtually every table.

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It seems pretty clear, just based on the public record, that David Chang has both a humble-and-insecure streak and an angry-and-imperious streak. I'm not sure why any of that matters, though. In the end, while some reasons for the policy have been given here (none of them compelling, in my opinion), we don't actually know the policy or its justification yet.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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On Serious Eats, they've done an examination of this issue, complete with a quote from David Chang:

"It's just food. Eat it."

It's more like eat it, pay for it, write about it, answer emails on your iPhone while you're eating it, have loud and inane conversation during dinner if you like (including settling arguments by accessing Wikipedia from your iPhone), but if you want to take a photo -- even without flash, with a small camera (even that iPhone) -- well, we draw the line there. We're not going to give you real service, real chairs, more than exactly 120 minutes to eat, or any of those wussy creature comforts that other restaurants give you, but we sure are going to protect you from intrusive cameras.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I was discreetly informed by the server that the restaurant is asking all patrons to refrain from photography. And in fact, the chef in front of us seemed rather stiff for about half the meal, until perhaps it seemed clear we weren't going to be complete jerks about it.

The reason was that it was "distracting to the chefs."

Chang's "it's just food, eat it" comment is disingenuous and at best reflects his unease. Quite obviously it's not "just food," as all the awards, press, and blogging show. What I find somewhat ironic about the situation is that Chang more or less built a mini empire around the notion of fine-ish dining in casual circumstances, and now he's coming down stiffer than Jean-Georges.

However, to be fair, I can see how this could be a problem in a restaurant the size of Ko. Who knows? Maybe they tried to be nice, and then it just became unmanageable. Except for the two seats in the front, there's about 8 inches of space between the diner's back and the wall. The servers are constantly going through that tight area, and most people are bound to lean back to take their shots, causing problems. Even the smallest restaurants I ate at in Vietnam (3 concrete walls and a roof) had more space. And I'm sure that annoying newbs with flash photos flat-out annoyed the chefs while they were cooking.

If you've been shooting in restaurants for a while and have half a brain to observe your surroundings, you can be considerably less intrusive than the annoying couple next to you who won't stop yapping. I mean, if we're going to ban photography, why not ban stupid, loud conversation? Or people who linger forever at the end of their meal, holding up everyone else? You don't have to be taking pictures of your food to do that. Taking photos during a meal is neither the first nor only way to ruin a pleasurable meal.

In the end, it's Chang's business and he can run it how he sees fit. And I still had a fantastic meal. There will still be enough buzz to keep people coming.

As for people who make a fuss about photography and argue we should just type it all out, I say that some people are better photographers than writers. (and some are good at both) Let people express their pleasure as they will.

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I did have to wait 15 or 20 minutes after my 8:30 reservation on Monday, I think it was because the people before me were taking extensive notes, since I noticed one of them had a notebook out.

A camera would have been much more efficient. Picture, thousand words and all that.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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larrylee: Nicely put.

Timh: Hmm. Maybe. Doubtful if we'll ever get to test that theory, though.

But, that's not going to stop me from commenting on this ridiculousness.

Edited by ulterior epicure (log)

“Watermelon - it’s a good fruit. You eat, you drink, you wash your face.”

Italian tenor Enrico Caruso (1873-1921)

ulteriorepicure.com

My flickr account

ulteriorepicure@gmail.com

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  • 2 weeks later...

I had an excellent meal and meal experience at Ko tonight. If it's possible to generalize from my early snapshot and tonight's snapshot, I'll say the restaurant is very much moving in the right direction.

The notion of a service-free restaurant seems to have been abandoned. A woman introduced herself as the beverage director, the servers (more of them than before) were attentive and really knew about the wines, and overall there was much more confidence and poise among the front-of-house staff than what I experienced before. Still nothing approaching the level of service I'd expect at a three-star restaurant, but plenty skilled and friendly enough to avoid having service be a negative for the restaurant as I thought it was before.

My chef interaction may have been atypical, because David Chang was working the line tonight and was at the station in front of me. I'd never met him before. He was utterly charming and engaging, in the way cooks need to be if they're going to act as servers. I also watched the other cooks interact with the customers farther down the counter and it seemed there was a lot more of an upbeat, positive dynamic than what I saw before.

And the menu was a winner. I didn't bring a camera or a notebook and there's no printed menu, so I'm going by memory here, but I think the meal was:

A trio of amuses -- little heirloom cherry tomatoes, a pork rind, and that English muffin thing -- all pretty forgettable. I think the English muffin could be worked into a better amuse -- it could be the base of a good amuse, maybe topped with some actual pork. But that was the only sign of life in the amuse trio.

Fluke (raw) with buttermilk-poppyseed dressing. This sauce is a Ko classic and deserves its permanent spot on the menu, whether it's with fluke, scallops or whatever. It's great.

Tofu-skin-wrapped morels and Louisiana crayfish tails in a vibrant spring pea soup. The crayfish in particular were fine product.

An overwrought and ultimately unsuccessful (though components of it were promising) dish of escargots, pasta, ricotta foam (or some kind of fresh cheese foam) and various vegetables. It was a one-dimensional dish -- not subtle, just flat. A failed attempt at a deconstructed lasagna.

The "smoked" egg and caviar dish with soubise onions etc. that has been so widely reported on here. I would prefer a runnier egg (I have the same complaint about the current asparagus dish at Noodle Bar), but it's still a delicious dish.

Trout with I guess you'd call it bacon sauce. They take a hunk of bacon and cook it in a pressure cooker with aromatics, then puree the result. It works. The dish pushed right up to the limits of the acceptable salt frontier but stayed just in bounds -- actually a lot of the dishes at all the Momofukus do that.

The frozen, Microplaned foie gras with lychees. Another Ko classic and deservedly so. The sake paired with this course -- no I don't remember the name -- was a triumph.

The slow-cooked, then deep-fried, then sliced short rib. I like that it's a big, honkin' portion, making for a grand finale to the savory portion of the menu. Very few tasting menus resolve themselves so satisfactorily.

The best sorbet I've had since Claudia Fleming left Gramercy Tavern: cantaloupe, capturing the essence of the fruit with startling realism, served over a wonderful salty praline goo.

The last course was a remarkably weak dessert. Like, an order of magnitude less delicious than the fried apple pies which were only okay to begin with. There was a smear of avocado puree on the plate and a slice of a two-tone custard-type thing topped with crunchy bits of something. Not good.

The menu was well worth $100 by any standard other than the standard that notes it used to be $85. There are three wine pairing options: $50, $85 and $150. I got the $50 option and found it to be as good as I needed it to be. I'm sure there are some nice wines in the more expensive pairings, but I was none the wiser as I enjoyed my cheapo pairing very much. I can't think of a restaurant that gives you as good a pairing deal for $50.

My only serious gripe (aside from the various idiotic policies the restaurant maintains): the stools are ridiculously uncomfortable for 2+ hours of sitting and should be replaced with comfortable bar stools with backs. There's enough space to do that and no good excuse not to.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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My only serious gripe (aside from the various idiotic policies the restaurant maintains): the stools are ridiculously uncomfortable for 2+ hours of sitting and should be replaced with comfortable bar stools with backs. There's enough space to do that and no good excuse not to.

They should just visit Adour and ask Ducasse who supplied his bar stools. With a change of upholstery, they would fit just fine.
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My chef interaction may have been atypical, because David Chang was working the line tonight and was at the station in front of me. I'd never met him before. He was utterly charming and engaging, in the way cooks need to be if they're going to act as servers. I also watched the other cooks interact with the customers farther down the counter and it seemed there was a lot more of an upbeat, positive dynamic than what I saw before.

Did you actually intorduce yourself to Chang, as in Shaw from eGullet?

Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

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No. We didn't "meet" in that sense. The reservation was in my name, however it's not clear that he knew or cared. He did recognize and acknowledge the person I was dining with (somebody in the industry), but that didn't seem to affect anything as far as I could tell.

(Edited to add: for a few minutes we watched Chang compose two orders of the egg-and-caviar dish, and he was so incredibly meticulous that I thought, oh, he's definitely trying to impress us or at least my guest; then that order got picked up and taken to two other customers; later, our egg-and-caviar order came down the line -- I think from one of the other cooks because I didn't notice Chang preparing it -- and was recognizably less well put together.)

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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No. We didn't "meet" in that sense. The reservation was in my name, however it's not clear that he knew or cared. He did recognize and acknowledge the person I was dining with (somebody in the industry), but that didn't seem to affect anything as far as I could tell.

(Edited to add: for a few minutes we watched Chang compose two orders of the egg-and-caviar dish, and he was so incredibly meticulous that I thought, oh, he's definitely trying to impress us or at least my guest; then that order got picked up and taken to two other customers; later, our egg-and-caviar order came down the line -- I think from one of the other cooks because I didn't notice Chang preparing it -- and was recognizably less well put together.)

I don't mean to suggest anything by asking, but I'm just curious: were either you or your industry friend comped? It's not clear from your earlier post.

“Watermelon - it’s a good fruit. You eat, you drink, you wash your face.”

Italian tenor Enrico Caruso (1873-1921)

ulteriorepicure.com

My flickr account

ulteriorepicure@gmail.com

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If we'd been comped I'd have said so.

The bill came to $325.13 with tax (2 x $100 + 2 x $50 + tax), before tip.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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