The chef talks seafood divers, street food and snowboarding.
The Korean-American chef was in Jeju Island filming with the haenyeo, the sea women who brave treacherous conditions as they dive into the water without breathing equipment and then harvest shellfish by hand off the ocean floor.
“That was super intense and bitterly bitterly cold,” says Chang, who’s covering food and culture for NBC Sports and other parts of the NBC family during the Pyeongchang Winter Games. “Jeju’s like the Hawaii of Korea where everyone goes for honeymoons. I had never been. For whatever reason, I was thinking it was going to be relatively warm. Everything was so fucking cold.”
Chang left Jeju Island with a deep admiration for its seafood divers.
“That was really eye-opening just to see,” he says. “You read about it, but until you see it … You’re like, ‘Oh my God, what these people do is truly insane.’ They do this every day, and it’s not safe at all with these undercurrents. There’s no oxygen, and they go down really deep. And many of these women are really old, well over 60, some in their 70s.”
After Chang watched them dive, it was time to prepare lunch. (Haenyeo clans often have their own restaurant.)
“We made abalone porridge,” Chang says. “We made sea cucumber salad, like a banchan of sliced raw sea cucumber. We made a sea snail salad.”
For a different segment, Chang explored Korean food around Seoul. He tried street food and barbecue and the cuisine at three-Michelin-starred Gaon, a restaurant owned by his friend Lucia Cho. He also explored “Buddhist nun food.”
I ask if he’s referring to the famous Buddhist nun chef, Jeong Kwan, who was featured on Netflix’s Chef Table. (Chang’s own Netflix show, Ugly Delicious, debuts February 23.) He’s not.
“I like my nun better,” he says with a laugh.
Chang, who’s been busy cooking at his new L.A. restaurant Majordomo since it opened on January 23, is heading back to South Korea today for the February 9-25 Olympics. Beyond his NBC Sports segments, he’ll be doing podcasts for Vox. He might appear on CNBC and The Today Show.
“Basically anything that’s NBC, I have the potential of doing,” he says.
A lot of his schedule is still to be determined, but Chang, who’s been enjoying 80-degree winter days in L.A., knows he should dress warm.
“I’m going to a lot of winter sporting events, and many of them are outside,” he says and laughs. “I read it was two degrees last week.”
Chang has gotten to know some of the American athletes competing in Pyeongchang and is excited to watch hockey and figure skating. He’ll be there to see if South Korea can win another speed-skating medal.
“I don’t know what I’ll see, just hanging out and being in the Olympic Village,” Chang says. “It’s going to be a trip. I have no idea what to expect. I’ve never seen a halfpipe at the Winter Olympics or any halfpipe event. And then you get to root for a 17-year-old California kid who’s arguably the greatest snowboarder we’ve ever produced, who should have won it the last Winter Olympics but was too young.”
Chang is, of course, talking about Korean-American snowboarding phenom Chloe Kim.
“I love sports,” Chang says. “Not that I cover professional sports, but when you talk to these [Olympic] athletes, they’re just far more interesting than a professional athlete. Because this is what they do: They’re just going after something they really believe in, and there’s nothing else.”
He see similarities in “the stupidity of cooking,” where you can be singularly focused on something that’s ephemeral.
“You work your ass off, you do something, you make it, and then it’s gone,” he says. “I think a lot of people wonder why you would do it.”
This is a topic Chang can discuss at great length. But on one level, the answer is simple: You do it because it’s what you do. Just like the haenyeo wake up every day ready to plunge into the sea.