David Chang was stressed out.
This was not unusual for Chang, one of New York City's most driven and overextended chefs. The 33-year-old has been running hard on a mix of daring, military discipline and raw emotion since 2004, when he opened Momofuku Noodle Bar in Manhattan. The tiny East Village hole-in-the-wall quickly became a culinary phenomenon, and in 2006, F&W named Chang one of America's Best New Chefs. His sudden success, though, has seemed only to heighten his angst.
On a spring day last April, Chang was testier than usual. His fifth restaurant, Má Pêche, was about to open in midtown Manhattan, but instead of tweaking dishes and micromanaging his staff, he was in Seoul on the way to a remote Korean Buddhist temple, famed for its vegetarian cuisine.
"It's like your wife is in labor and you're not there by her side," he said after climbing into a van parked outside the Park Hyatt hotel tower in Seoul. For the first half of the ride through the city's industrial sprawl, he furiously worked his BlackBerry. An hour later, when the city's undistinguished block-style high rises were replaced by deforested hills and flooded rice fields, he put on the Bose noise-canceling headphones he'd purchased with some recent gambling winnings, blasted the Kinks and, almost immediately, started to snore. Really loudly. Even asleep, Chang is a force to reckon with.
If anyone deserves to be tired, it's him. Chang's staff has grown from two (including himself) to almost 500; he spends much of his time now as a manager rather than a chef. The stress of it all frequently makes him feel like his head is going to explode. "There are days when I think I should just give it all up and move to Jackson Hole," he said.
Instead he was taking time out in South Korea, where both his parents were born and raised, to explore temple cuisine, the traditional vegetarian food that has been cooked and eaten by Korean Buddhist monks and nuns for centuries. The trip gave Chang a rare five-day pause from his busy life. It also gave the pork-loving chef, whose menu once read, "We do not serve vegetarian-friendly items here," a chance to learn more about cooking without meat.
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The truth is that for the last year or so, Chang has become obsessed with vegetables. He's been rethinking the now-ubiquitous pork belly, an ingredient he once championed. "Maybe we'll stop selling belly soon," he said. "It would be nice to find other cuts of pork that aren't so played out. You want to be sustainable; you want to use the whole pig, man."
Sustainability has been at the core of the Korean Buddhist diet for centuries. Korean temple cuisine follows several strict rules: no meat, no fish, almost all ingredients (like mugwort and deodeok, herbs prized for their medicinal qualities) must be grown or picked on or near temple grounds.
During a brief stop at a food festival at Yongsusa, a temple for Buddhist monks near the city of Andong, Chang was jumped by a small group of journalists who ambushed him with questions about South Korea, and it set him on edge. He has a love-hate relationship with the homeland of his ancestors. The country's strong Confucianist custom of respect for one's elders clearly rubs him the wrong way. "I have a problem with authority figures," he said. And then grinned at the understatement.
There's no denying that Chang is inspired by Korean dishes and ingredientshe combines roast pork with oysters, as traditional Korean cooks do, in his signature bo ssäm at Momofuku Ssäm Bar. But he vehemently dislikes being tagged a Korean chef: "I'm an American chef." His cooking also shows his respect for Japanese cuisinea provocative stance given Korea's complex and often antagonistic history with Japan. For instance, he adds Japanese-inflected udon-style noodles to his supremely comforting chard-shiitake soup, made with mushroom broth.
What most inspires Chang, ultimately, is envisioning how a traditional dish might evolve in a different culture. "I like to imagine what would happen if, say, a Korean immigrated to the American South in the 17th century. What would the food be like? Or what if the Portuguese came to Korea and stayed?" He added, "I don't care about authenticity. It's one of my biggest pet peeves. I just want to make something delicious."
Chang finally began to relax after arriving at Yunpilam, a 14th-century temple complex for Buddhist nuns that is an outpost of the Daeseungsa temple near the city of Mungyeong. The drive from Seoul had taken almost three hours. Above us were narrow stone paths leading up to wooden structures with screen doors and colorful Buddhist symbols painted in a strip under the pagoda-style roofs. The buildings were set into the gentle slope of Sabulsan, a sacred mountain blanketed with umbrella pines.
The temple, which at other times of the year serves as a small academic center for as many as 30 nuns, housed only a half a dozen women at that moment. A nun in gray robes with a shaved head greeted us and led us to the temple's Buddha hall, where arriving visitors are required to greet and bow to the Buddha. The altar was empty; instead of the typical three golden Buddhas positioned grandly in the center, there was a vast window framing the sky and a mountain peak topped by a sacred stone. The peak was said to be formed from an enormous rock carved with four Buddhas that had fallen from heaven sometime in the sixth century.
Outside, behind the kitchen (often located in the center of a temple complex), was a collection of 20 or more enormous black ceramic pots filled with fermenting pastes and liquids. "Korean food is all about the fermentation process," Chang said. He pointed to a few pots. "This is the holy trinity right herered-pepper paste, soybean paste and soy sauce. The foundation of Korean cooking."
Soon, we were introduced to the mistress of the temple, Eunwoo, a roly-poly woman in her fifties or sixties with a shiny shorn head and a flowing robe of thick gray linen. The Venerable Eunwoo is much respected in the Korean Buddhist world for her dedication to teaching and temple food. She led us to a courtyard surrounded by beautifully landscaped terraces of azaleas and magnolia and cherry trees, all about to explode in spring blossoms. Our guide, Dr. Jeong-Woo Kil, an entrepreneur who founded the Korean Temple Food Festival in 2009, explained that the nuns normally eat only three or four banchan (side dishes) at each meal, along with rice. But before us was a spread of at least 20 vegetarian banchan in copper bowls: cabbage-and-miso soup, kimchi, kong jeon (soybean pancakes with vegetables), baek kimchi (white kimchi with pine nuts), pickled ginseng-and-radish salad, tempura-style mushrooms. These last two dishes later inspired Chang to create his own sweet-sour, soy-and-honey-glazed radishes and turnips to serve with rice crackercoated mushrooms.
Chang was impressed by the spread. "These sisters got it going on. I've got to bring Ferran here," Chang said, referring to Ferran Adrià, the chef at Spain's famed El Bulli. Chang couldn't believe dishes prepared without meat, onions or garlic could have such intense flavor. (Korean Buddhists are prohibited from using vegetables like garlic and onions that are considered "hot" and distracting to meditation.)
Chang tried some homemade potato chipsthick, crispy and full of flavor. "Like a Pringle, but better," he said. The chips were his kind of dish: harder to make than they seem. After much charming on Chang's part, Eunwoo gave up the recipe: Basically, the nuns soak sliced potatoes in water overnight, then shock the chips with boiling water and fry them.
On our way back to Seoul in the van, Chang reflected on the experience. "I had no idea there were such endless varieties of namul," he said, using the Korean term for seasoned vegetable dishes usually made from sprouts, roots or greens. "I wish I had the time to find all kinds of edible mountain vegetables in New York." He laughed, imagining himself in Central Park digging around in the bushes on his hands and knees. He continued, "There's a big movement in Europe towards naturalism right now. And Asia was doing it before Europe."
Another afternoon we visited Jinkwansa, a 12th-century temple on a mountain in a national park in northwest Seoul. We changed into light gray Buddhist robeswhich, despite Chang's initial reluctance, suited him well. Our guide, a young nun named Doan, showed us how to bow and pray to the Buddha with controlled breathing and movements similar to yogic sun salutations. Doan was so radiantly enthusiastic, it seemed beams of light were shooting out of her eyes when she urged us, "Open your mind! Fly! Bright! Bing!"
"Done. I want what you're drinking," muttered Chang, who stared at her with admiration and wonder.
Our other two hoststhe temple mistress, Kyeho, and senior nun, Jimyungwere equally cheerful and hilarious, like bald Korean Golden Girls. "I want to put them in my pocket," said Chang. They served a feast of 26 banchan in his honor (Kyeho had seen Chang on television and said she'd hoped to meet him one day). The nuns personally fed everyone bites from a variety of dishes. Afterward they led us to a cozy little 100-year-old stone-and-bark house in the courtyard for tea.
When Chang asked Kyeho what she thought about Buddhists embracing fame, she replied that it was OK as long as the reason was the greater good of Buddhism. Chang, who often feels both wary of and guilty about his relatively sudden celebrity, was clearly surprised by her answer.
As we left, we bowed to our hosts. Jimyung asked Chang if he would save her a table at his restaurant if she came to New York. She pulled out a cell phone, pretended to dial Momofuku and asked for David as if she was channeling Paris Hilton. It was so sarcastic and surprising, especially from a nun in robes, that everyone howled with laughter, including Chang. It's rare that he's beaten to the punch line.
Three months later, Chang was back at Má Pêche. His schedule hadn't slowed down, but he'd carved out time to experiment with new recipes inspired by his trip. His biggest challenge was to make an intensely flavored vegetable stock that tastes as good as a meat one; he was also working on replicating those potato chips. Chang smiled when he thought about the Golden Girls of Jinkwansa. "For the rest of my life, I'm going to wish that I were as happy as those nuns."
Gisela Williams is the European correspondent for Food & Wine. She lives with her family in Berlin, Germany.
Korea Travel Tips
Getting to Korea
Korean Air flies direct to Seoul from the US. koreanair.com.
Templestay Arranges meals or longer visits at temples.
Banyan Tree Club & Spa Four rooms per floor, all with private plunge pools.
Park Hyatt Seoul Guests rooms have fabulous views of downtown.
W Seoul-Walkerhill W's first Asian hotel, with egg-shaped chairs in the lobby.
Balwoo Gongyang In the Templestay Center, serving vegetarian meals that might include sweet potato porridge topped with sesame seeds.
Sanchon On the menu: vegetarian dishes paired with home-brewed fruit wine.