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Can a Great Restaurant Be Cloned?

When a restaurateur opens a second place—then a third, then a fourth—what's gained, what's lost? Pete Wells ponders this at Manhattan's Megu, the 32nd restaurant from Japanese visionary Koji Imai.

I think about the future at least three times a day. But once I've figured out what I'm going to eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner, I occasionally have the freedom to engage in some long-range planning. That's when I try to figure out what I'm going to eat 10 years from now. Lately, I've been doing my crystal-ball gazing in a couple of local restaurants. Both are Japanese, in one way or another; both are in Manhattan; both opened just over a year ago. (Sometimes the future takes a while to reveal itself.)

One is the size of a small cruise ship. Two hundred and thirty-six people can sit down without bumping elbows. About $6 million was spent on interior details like a wall of silk kimonos, columns built from interlocking sake pitchers and rice bowls, and a giant replica of a temple bell suspended over a life-size Buddha carved from a fresh block of ice each afternoon. The restaurant is called Megu, and it's the first American project of 35-year-old Koji Imai.

Some chefs are married to their restaurants; Imai is a cheerful polygamist, with 30 restaurants in Japan and new ones—in Hong Kong, in London, in Vegas—slated to open every six months. Obviously he can't be in all his kitchens at once, so Imai leaves behind recipes so detailed the parking valet could follow them. Once a month he flies to New York City and spends an afternoon coming up with new menu items, which attendants photograph, measure and enter into a black three-ring binder. Food Scope, Imai's company (or, according to the Web site, his "global food conglomerate") has revenue of around $71 million a year and is about to merge with a company that provides nursing care and outsourcing services. Sometime next year Imai will open a second New York Megu, in a skyscraper that Donald Trump owns near the United Nations. Megu at Trump World Tower will be half the size of the original Megu, in Tribeca, and will focus more on tasting menus.

The name of the second place where I've been hunting the future is Momofuku—Japanese for "lucky peach." It's as large as a birch-bark canoe, and if more than 30 people show up at once, the fire marshal may come storming in. The walls are plywood and the only life-size figure on display is the chef, 28-year-old David Chang. He almost never takes a day off. After traveling around Japan, he decided to open a noodle bar in the East Village. But his would be different. He would start with prime ingredients, like heirloom pork. Within months of opening, he had a line out the door every night.

You see where this is going, no doubt. I'm using the little guy who cooks from the heart to bash the clock-punching, check-cashing corporate chef, right? Not quite. Because Koji Imai's first restaurant, which opened in Japan eight years ago, had 30 seats and no decor to speak of. Imai had spent two years traveling around Japan looking for exciting ingredients, like heirloom chicken. This chicken, skewered and grilled, tasted so much better than the yakitori served everywhere else in Tokyo that he had a line out the door. For the first year, Imai never took a day off. Imai's early career, in fact, is so similar to Chang's that it's worth asking: Will Momofuku's purist be opening a chain of Mega-Megus five years from now? And, for fans like me, will that be good news or bad?

Velvet ropes and a red carpet lead from Thomas Street in Tribeca to Megu's front steps. On the night my wife and I dropped in, they stood alone, unattended and unused, like an installation art piece commenting on the emptiness of celebrity culture. As we threaded our way past the slowly melting Buddha to our seats, sushi chefs on our left bellowed "Irashaimase!" All around us was a light show the likes of which I haven't seen since Pink Floyd played the Providence Civic Center. Oysters rested on platters of chipped ice that glowed a radioactive green. A waiter spooned flaming Hennessy Cognac over a $70 Kobe steak. I didn't notice exactly how the man at the next table caught fire, but the next thing I knew he was dousing his shirtsleeve with water. In a way, Megu is a high-style descendant of those 1950s Polynesian restaurants; simply substitute a Buddha for the tiki god and flambéed Kobe for the "volcano bowl."

At least that's what I thought before I tasted the sushi, which was better than any I've eaten anywhere but in a handful of temple-quiet sushi bars. The rest of the meal fluctuated between not-quite-right (silver cod glazed with miso so sweet it could frost a red velvet cake) and extravagantly delicious (slices of chu-toro, fatty tuna).

As it happened, Imai was in from Japan that week, so I came back a few days later to meet him. His face was open and relaxed, apart from his precise eyebrows, which looked like they were applied with a thick black Magic Marker. Over a T-shirt he wore an unbuttoned short-sleeved silk shirt printed with the Louis Vuitton logo. For a man who'd had a hand in the design of every square inch of Megu, right down to the wooden serving pieces his father had crafted, he was reassuringly casual.

Through a translator, Imai described how he had worked with a farmer in Arkansas who harvests a rare strain of rice to his exact specifications. He told me about haggling with the owner of a fishing fleet in Massachusetts for a fire-sale price on tuna heads, which most captains toss overboard. (Imai prizes the forehead meat.) Pointing to the top of his rib cage, he described the cut of beef that he'd persuaded wagyu ranchers in Oregon to flash-freeze so he could serve it raw, in tiles the size of dominos. He asked a cook to bring us a plate of this "Kobe sashimi" and gestured for me to swab it in soy and wasabi. I told him it was like eating toro. He liked that. And I told him it was better than any cooked wagyu I'd ever had. He really liked that.

Megu dishes may glow like Times Square billboards, but underneath the best of them lies the beating heart of Japanese cuisine: prime ingredients offered up in an almost ritual tribute to their natural goodness. Two years ago on a trip to Tokyo, chef Daniel Boulud of New York City's four-star Daniel visited Imai's flagship restaurant, Ogon-no-Shita (the name means "golden tongue"). Imai serenaded him with about 20 courses—and almost as many sakes—during a meal that lasted until five in the morning. "I was very impressed," Boulud says. "It was all about the simplicity of the ingredients, but at the same time he is very elaborate in the presentation. He made a small igloo in ice and inside he served little live shrimp resting on the ice. It was very cute, and a lot of labor, but for something very simple."

I told Imai that, as well known as he was in Japan, the name Megu was more famous in New York than he was. He nodded and said, "Yes." Then he smiled amiably.

The first time I went to Momofuku, I had the Momofuku ramen. The noodles come from a lo mein shop in Chinatown; the broth is made with bacon and pork bones instead of kelp or dried bonito; the egg is poached rather than soft boiled. It's not authentic at all. What it is is out-of-bounds delicious. David Chang imbibed all the lessons of modern, farm- focused American cuisine, but he's busted out of its predominantly French and Italian framework. He understands that Japanese food, too, is about making the most of a few perfect ingredients.

Momofuku's original concept was simple: a ramen bar as seen through the eyes of a Korean-American. In 2002, David Chang quit his job cooking on the line at Craft, one of New York City's most serious restaurants, and moved to Japan. He wound up working for a man named Akio, who had been making soba for 20 years. Between washing loads of dishes, Chang watched Akio mix buckwheat flour and water, roll out the dough and cut it into noodles.

"When you're just so focused on one thing, it's like a Zen culture: Every day I'll make soba and it'll get better and better and better," Chang says. "That's what we intended to do at Momofuku. But we don't have the patience for it! So in order to keep our sanity, we have to change things up." Changing things up means a late-summer lobster roll with Kewpie mayonnaise from Japan ("the best mayonnaise in the world, because it has MSG") on a roll baked from the sweet, cushiony dough used for Chinese pork buns. Changing things up means that Chang's business partner and co-chef, Joaquin Baca, came up with a stewed tripe dish by using only Asian ingredients to recreate the taste of the menudo he ate growing up in Mexico.

Chang, who is built like a tree trunk, works behind the counter, bumping into Baca, the waitstaff and whoever else happens to be back there. It's cramped and awkward and uncomfortable. Naturally, I hope he stays there forever. But someday he will want to work in a kitchen where walking from the stove to the sink isn't a contact sport. And then he will face the dilemma of the modern chef: How to bring us more venues to enjoy his food without destroying the thing we loved in the first place. Most of the responsibility will be Chang's, but some of it will be ours. As diners, we need to stop complaining about the wrong things.

Coca-Cola can be sold all over the world, but Jean-Georges Vongerichten can sweat over just one stove at a time. It's simple physics, but still many people—including some who should know better—want to see the famous face. Or they blame a bad meal on the chef's absence. This idea that the boss's physical presence in the kitchen automatically makes the food taste better has always struck me as a superstition. Anybody who's ever worked in an office knows better.

Megu's solution to this is a fixation on quality control that Henry Ford would have admired. Koji Imai records his recipes down to the last gram, then leaves the actual work to anonymous cooks who wear stopwatches. "In order to maintain quality and consistency, everybody here has to do the same thing," explains Hiro Nishida, who takes care of the business side of Imai's restaurants outside Japan. "I don't care if you worked in a French restaurant for 10 years—if it says this dish has to be fried two minutes, it can't be two minutes 10 seconds. What's difficult is when cooks start to create—99 percent of the time, that's not good."

Imai and Nishida are sincerely trying to address the complaints that diners and critics make about empire-building chefs. But as I said, they're the wrong complaints. The chef's hands and the chef's face don't affect your meal very much. The chef's brain does. You can replicate a recipe, but you can't clone the intellectual engagement of a living, breathing chef. Imai and Nishida have forbidden their kitchen staff to think.

Megu's corporate approach yields tangible—and better yet, edible—benefits for patrons. Having more than 30 restaurants gives Imai access to extraordinary items that Americans (and even the Japanese) rarely see, like edamame flash-frozen on the branch or giant wasabi roots that waiters grate tableside. Nishida says Food Scope uses its leverage to demand lower prices for luxury ingredients, allowing it to charge less for Kobe and toro than it normally could. (If my $300 dinner for two was a discount, I'd hate to pay retail.) Finally, the company could dig into its deep pockets to build a restaurant that is both spectacular in scale and intimate in its small details. Yet Megu, for all the genuine deliciousness on offer, can feel a bit like a Broadway show after the original cast has moved on.

Meanwhile, Momofuku has all the drawbacks of a small East Village joint opened on the cheap—the stools hurt your butt, there's nothing for dessert—yet it has a pulse. I went three times in the past week alone, and the menu was different each night.

There is, in fact, a way that David Chang can build an empire without losing the things that make Momofuku great. But he'll have to go off in the opposite direction from Koji Imai. He'll have to give up some control.

Daniel Boulud now owns five restaurants (in New York, Las Vegas and Palm Beach) and at each one he has ceded some autonomy. Running a restaurant by remote, Boulud says, "is a problem because, for me, cooking is something very emotional. It's something very guttural." Guttural? "Coming from the gut, right? It's very spontaneous sometimes. So the executive chef has the freedom to change anything, or to come up with new dishes. You can come every week and you'll never be bored." Instead of turning his far-flung kitchens into assembly lines, Boulud has built something like a magazine. His chefs are the writers while Boulud acts as editor, guiding and directing them and, when he has to, reining them in.

Can we, as eaters, find a way to celebrate the talented people who make us happy without taking away their freedom to respond to this morning's weather, the urgent arrival of fresh raspberries, or some odd idea that popped up last night on the way home? Daniel Boulud would say the answer is yes. Now that's a future worth contemplating.

Megu is at 62 Thomas St., New York City; 212-964-7777. Momofuku is at 171 First Ave., New York City; 212-777-7773.

Published November 2005
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