David Chang’s Latest Momofuku Closure Marks the End of an Era

Bon Appétit

Do you remember the 2010s? You were obsessed with going to speakeasies, you still loved updating your Facebook status, and David Chang was the hottest chef in town—make that the world. That highly specific era of renegade chef-driven restaurant culture is very much over, as made clear on October 24, when Chang revealed that he will close his fine dining flagship in New York, Momofuku Ko. One of the most influential chefs of the past 20 years, Chang built a global network of Momofuku restaurants and updated the template for the modern celebrity chef. But after a series of closings since 2020, he’s left with just a handful of sit-down restaurants.

Opened in 2008 in New York City’s East Village, Ko was Chang’s third restaurant and his first dedicated to fine dining. “Ko looks to the future, ignoring the old rules and beckoning epicures open to new ones,” then-Times critic Frank Bruni wrote in an early three-star review, which described the spare tasting menu spot as Chang’s “low-key coronation.” In 2009, the restaurant earned two Michelin stars, which it has retained ever since. Chang showed up to break the news of Ko’s closure at the October 24 staff meeting, according to employees. “There’s nothing the restaurant has done wrong,” he reportedly said. “I think part of it is ending things on a high note.” November 4 will mark Ko’s final dinner service.

A statement from Momofuku sent to Bon Appetit suggests that Ko fell victim to a changed restaurant landscape. “The culinary world,” reads the statement, “is much different than it was 20 years ago.” When Chang opened Momofuku Noodle Bar in 2004, he played a major role in shaping today’s dining scene by serving cheffed-up takes on comfort food made with well-sourced ingredients and served with a considerably more approachable (or at least stripped-down) aura than other fine dining spots of the day. Ten years after Noodle Bar’s debut, food writer Greg Morabito distilled the impact of Chang’s iconic pork buns by noting that they were “now a part of our modern American restaurant vernacular.”

While American high-end dining of the time was fussy and thoroughly obsessed with the cooking of France and greater Europe, Chang introduced a daring vision of gastronomy to a younger, decidedly more punk rock customer base: Substitutions were refused, vegetarians were, frankly, unwelcome, and good food took precedence over comfort and over-the-top displays of hospitality. Chang experimented with flavor and technique, blending high and low (bacon was a frequent flier on those early menus, before bacon was, like, a thing; a signature Ko dish is a soft-cooked egg served with caviar and fingerling potato chips) to the delight of critics and diners. Chang inspired a generation of chefs with his irreverent, delicious, boundary-breaking cooking. Now this kind of pseudo-scandalous approach underlines an entire era of “casual” and “dinner party” fine dining. At the time, it was nothing short of revolutionary.

Momofuku Ko’s imminent shuttering caps a wave of closures for the Momofuku restaurant group that began in 2020. That May saw the closure of Momofuku CCDC in Washington DC and Momofuku Nishi in New York, as well as the relocation of Ssam Bar into the space formerly occupied by the short-lived Bar Wayō. “This crisis has exposed the underlying vulnerabilities of our industry and made clear that returning to normal is not an option,” the company said at the time, in reference to the COVID pandemic and its impact on restaurants. If Chang’s early years were driven by a desire to innovate and break barriers, his more recent ones have been shaped by the difficulties of running restaurants during and after a brutal pandemic. Seiobo in Australia and New York’s Kawi both shuttered in 2021. His three-story Toronto Momofuku location closed in 2022, as did two restaurants in Las Vegas. Earlier this year the relocated Ssam Bar closed as well.

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Sam Stone | www.bonappetit.com

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