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David Chang, Artistic Integrity, + Authenticity.

I’ve been listening to David Chang’s memoir, Eat a Peach, and it’s nothing like I expected it to be. Where I anticipated the slick and smug persona that has become synonymous with his celebrity, I have found instead startling vulnerability and the unmistakable ring of honesty. (There is also some showmanship and self-roister, but it is refreshingly self-aware.) In his book, Chang grapples with the conditions of his success as a restauranteur, his lifelong mental health journey, and what I can only describe as raw, unstilted philosophizing about the nuts and bolts of his profession. These musings are recherche in the sense that Chang is well-read, often citing classical authors from The Canon and beyond, and also deeply conversant in the philosophies and perspectives of many of the most highly-respected figures of our times in the realm of culinary arts–but he is also a free thinker, somehow untrammeled by the trappings of tradition. Hearing him talk about cooking and menu design and plate composition and restaurant concepting almost affords the impression that he has discovered it all on his own, though it is clear he is a studied professional. There is something about his tinkering inquisitiveness (i.e., “this flavor is too assertive, what if we tried x instead?” and “our customers find this too hot, but we still need the szechuan peppercorns to numb the tongue”) and his confidence in his own tastes (“no one likes umeboshi except for when drinking”) and his fearless cross-pollination of ideas (noodle bars, in America, before they were a thing — but in a category of cuisine he determinedly labeled “American” rather than “Asian” or, as was the now-rightly-denigrated term of art when he started his career, “ethnic”) that solidifies the fact that this is a man who truly thinks for himself. It’s not so much outside-the-box thinking (though this is also probably a fair assessment of his creativity) but the kind of ego-centricity that, at its worst, disrespects the culinary history of which he is a part and, at its best, demonstrates a kind of authenticity that is rare and precious.

I also last week watched an episode of Jon Favreau’s show Chef in which he and his co-star Roy Choi make flatbread with Pizzeria Blanco co-founder Chris Bianco and Tartine co-founder Chad Robertson. In it, Bianco displays a somewhat similar (though more approachable) variation on Chang’s M.O. when he says that he’s not sure how to classify what he’s making — flatbread, pizza, focaccia — and that he doesn’t much bother with labels anyhow: he cares about what tastes good and the provenance of his ingredients. He implies that he has been head-down working on making something delicious rather than positioning his work within a culinary framework. He later says, shruggingly, “All cooking is appropriation.”

I’m fascinated by the casual, almost flippant, anti-establishment ethos of both these artists — and they truly are, in my opinion, artists. They are familiar with the canon and yet they somehow appear to be operating outside of it, or imagining that they are, or inviting us to envision that they are capable of such outlander status. “That’s tradition over there, and that’s cool,” they seem to be saying, “But I’m just doing what feels interesting and fun over here.” Is it disingenuous? Is it pretentious? Or is it the exact opposite — radically authentic?

I have always felt that much of art is pastiche and allusion, the patchwork of influences that talented craftspeople are able to combine and transform into magical new iterations, driven by the force of their rare intellect and aesthetic impulse. It is alchemy. But references are the key and bulkiest ingredient. “No man is an island” (John Donne), and all that.

In my own narrow experience, I find that my writing materially improves the more I read. That is, my creativity is borne of the work of others: I stand on their shoulders and perch on the branches of trees they have planted.

But what share is theirs and what is mine? How much credit do we give? And what is the purpose of such — how to call it? — attribution or bean counting or divination? — anyhow?

It’s hard to say how Chang or Bianco would respond to a direct line of questioning along these lines, or whether they would bristle and reply: “Who cares? Don’t think so much.” (I could see that reply as well.) But these are the kinds of intractable rhetorical questions that their bright and startling comments dredge up, and they feel like the stuff of artistic integrity.

Any thoughts on this conversation on a Wednesday morning? Has anyone read the Chang book or watched the Favreau show? Free-wheeling commentary encouraged — a lot to chew on here.

Post-Scripts.

+What are you reading this fall? I just finished Shari LaPena’s latest thriller and I can’t remember the last time I stayed up until midnight reading a book. I had to finish it! I didn’t think it was quite as good as some of her previous novels (the conceit of marital infidelity and misgiving is starting to feel a bit old), but she is a master of suspense and specifically of sowing the seeds of doubt. You can trust nobody in a La Pena novel. It makes for fun reading. Strongly recommend if you want something you can’t put down!

+I’m currently reading The Lions of Fifth Avenue on the recommendation of multiple Magpies. Stay tuned for a full review.

+I am working on a gift guide for gentlemen that will be coming out soon, but wanted to let you know now that Mr. Magpie absolutely raves about his Apple AirPods Pro — there are a ton of enhancements over the original design (which I own and love), like noise cancellation, earpiece controls (i.e., you can tap the airpod in your ear for various features), and more. At the time of editing this post (10/27), they are marked down to 20% off so I had to share in case you want to buy now and save a little money!

+This $68 cardigan is a dead ringer for this $850 Zimmermann.

+Speaking of dramatic knitwear, this tres popular Vita Grace style was just re-stocked!

+I polled my Magpie Instagram followers to ask for recommendations for masks to wear while exercising. The top recommendations were these by Athleta (NOT the ones on their site marketed specifically for exercising — many readers said those are in fact horrible and suffocating!) and the disposable surgical ones on the grounds that the wire makes them easy to mold to your face and sort of cup around your nose/mouth so that the material doesn’t keep getting “sucked in,” which has been my major issue using fabric masks while running. I tested running with the latter because I already had some at home and I found it so scratchy on my face! Am I a baby or what? Contemplating ordering the Athleta ones unless anyone has any other suggestions to throw on the table?

+Some of my favorite face masks for everyday.

+Speaking of masks, mask-ne (mask-induced acne) is a thing now. One benefit to adding this retinoid to my regimen: it also combats acne. (I will write a full review on my experience with it in a few weeks!) Also on the unseemly topic of breakouts: my dermatologist recommends this inexpensive body wash post-exercise. Also going to test and will report back.

+Into these fair isle plates for a holiday tabletop situation.

+I’ve loved Self-Portrait for years and years now — several of my favorite dresses are theirs. Currently dying over this velvet midi for the holidays and this satin bow style, too. (The eyelash neckline!)

+Sophisticated plaid midi skirt. I’d pair with a dramatic/on-trend black sweater to keep the look fresh.

+Two additions to my pastels-for-fall roundup: this LSF (imagine with light-wash denim and clogs) and this $35 cable knit.

+Such pretty fall dresses for little girls here and here.

+October Amazon finds.

+If you are a new mom and need some encouragement, read the incredibly warm, compassionate, and encouraging comments here.

+First day of school vibes

+So into the statement vest this season, and this is now my top pick. CHIC.

+I saw a chic pea coming back from a run in Central Park wearing all black exercise gear and this running hat and…shamelessly bought it to copy her.

+Lake Pajamas has some super cute Christmas jammies for little ones available for preorder here. (A couple of other darling Christmas pajama finds here.)

+As always, in case you need to hear it, you are enough.

18 Comments

  1. Re: mask-ne (ugh): one thing i learned from a dentist is to brush teeth (if possible) and use mouthwash before using a mask, as much of it is caused by bacteria from the mouth that goes out when you exhale and gets trapped in the mask and on the skin (sounds gross, I know).

    I would also add a tongue scraper if you aren’t already – been using this for years and I feel like my my oral care routine isn’t complete without it! So much gunk gets left behind on the tongue. TMI but you’ll see it when you use a tongue scraper. I will say though that I saw the biggest difference in terms of reducing the congestion in my skin from mask wearing when I added the mouthwash on top of the brush + floss + tongue scraper.

    Tongue Scraper 2 Pack Professional Stainless Steel Metal Tongue Scraper Cleaner for Adults, Kids – with 2 Pack Great Carrying Box – 100% Cure Bad Breath – Built To Last https://smile.amazon.com/dp/B07GSW224G/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_api_i_Z7AMFbR2G35WD?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1

    1. Seconding the tongue scraper! My Ayurvedic practitioner turned me on to this tool and it’s AMAZING. In my opinion, it’s kind of like the electric toothbrush, in that once you try it, it’s hard to go back!

      P.S. Mia, I always appreciate your very thoughtful comments! I read through what you wrote below about appropriation, and wow — so much to think about there. I am still learning, too, but I appreciate the space you made for us to chew on all of that!

  2. I’m going to add this memoir to the list of audiobooks my husband and I have for road trips, thank you! We both very much enjoyed David Chang’s Netflix series. In the vein of food media, may I recommend Phil Rosenthal’s Netflix series Somebody Feed Phil? He treats everyone he meets on his travels with such warmth and respect, it is the perfect antidote to these wild (and often depressing) times.

    I’m in the midst of a deep dive into Jhumpa Lahiri’s work, and I cannot believe it has taken me this long to read her! So so beautiful, all of it.

    1. Ooh thank you SO much for the Netflix rec! Always looking for new shows, and we love ones that center around food.

      Jhumpa Lahiri is AMAZING — so glad you are enjoying her work. What are you reading right now? I’ve loved her since I first read “Interpreter of Maladies” in high school.

      xx

  3. I have to admit I don’t know much about David Chang — my only “encounter” was an interview he did with Padma Lakshmi on her series “Taste the Nation”. The statement “all cooking is appropriation” is something I’d been thinking about. It fascinates me, for example, how so many different cultures have their version of a dumpling or something encased in some kind of dough (gyoza, pierogi, empanada, etc) — and I wonder if one can really trace its origins? (I haven’t studied the history of food).

    However, I bristle at cultural appropriation as, by definition (from what I’ve read), the uncredited borrowing is done BY a dominant culture FROM a historically oppressed/marginalized culture for personal gain, whether profit or recognition, and I think, done by someone considered an “expert” in that field — which for me means it is their job to take the time and do the research on the origin of something. This speaks to me as an academic as any type of plagiarism has serious consequences.

    But with Chang being a POC himself, does it make appropriation ok? Is there ever a time when appropriation is ok? Is it different from, say, Alison Roman appropriating her recipe “The Stew”, as a white person? Yes, Chang is a POC, but he does have a certain status or authority in his industry, which makes it different from a home cook “creating” a recipe influenced by a different culture and sharing it with a friend.

    On a somewhat related note, is all fashion appropriation too? For example, I think of the very trendy puff sleeve, and it reminds me so much of the traditional Filipino dress with what we call “ butterfly sleeves”. From what I read it was designed for the warm, humid tropical climate. But we were under Spanish rule for centuries, so is it truly Filipino or can its origins be traced to Spanish culture?

    Much to consider… I’m still learning more about this. I know this probably wasn’t the original intent or direction of this post, but I’m interested to hear what others think.

    1. Mia! This is fascinating — the phrase “all cooking is appropriation” also jumped out at me as a provocative way to think about food. I think you raise some complicated and worthy points on this front and might find his section on his “Fuku” restaurant concept particularly jarring. Chang lined the walls of Fuku with imagery of Asian villains and characters throughout American cinematic history and wrote on the wrappers of his food “dericious” with the intention of addressing and subverting expectations of Asian stereotypes, but he was also — at the end of the day — repurposing and spotlighting hurtful language and imagery that was misunderstood by some of his patrons. Some were offended but others found it funny in the worst way: Chang speaks specifically about a moment where he observed “the wrong kind of laughter” by two white men reading the wrapper. All of this actually feeds right into some of the work that Sasha Baron Cohen puts out (most recently in his just-launched Amazon Prime movie), which is horrifically but intentionally caricaturish of different lifestyles/cultures/etc in a way that — he contends — is designed to bring people’s true prejudices to the fore. However, the line is really delicate. At what point is he profiting off of and furthering those stereotypes and prejudices? Does the fact that he is NOT a member of those underprivileged categories further complicate things?

      All incredibly complex.

      Thanks for chiming in here.

      xx

    2. Jen, thank you for your additional thoughts on this… “dericious”? Ooof.

      I have so many thoughts on this too, but I fear I might stray too far from the original topic of your post. But… I have been reflecting a lot after the events of this year (George Floyd, Breonna Taylor) and thinking about my own prejudices and privilege. As a woman of color I don’t have the privilege of whiteness, but I believe my education is a form of privilege too — an education for which my parents paid all through undergrad (and for which I’m endlessly grateful); and while my grad school was through scholarships, my parents still paid for my plane ticket over here and I had my parents’ help in getting “set up” in a different country. So in my mind it is definitely a privilege as I had unearned advantages going in (my parents’ support). Privilege to me also brings to mind who possesses power and who doesn’t. In a way, my education puts me in a position of power (perhaps?). I’m not saying this to be boastful, but in an intent to check my privilege.

      I have had some conversations with my fellow first-generation immigrant friends on this, most of whom also came to the US for education. One of my realizations is how classist my (home) culture still is. Accents are a big part of that — as an accent that more closely resembles an American accent signifies a certain status, based on education, wealth, or a combination of both. Not always, but often. And perhaps not so much in the previous generation; my father for example has 2 advanced degrees but a thick local accent — but definitely in the current generation. I remember watching a stand-up comedian with some family and friends many years back, and in one of the segments he was poking fun and impersonating someone with a thick local accent — and at the time, we all found it hilarious.

      However, this year’s events really made me reflect more deeply about race and class. One thing that came to my mind is how people have commented upon my arrival in this country about how I barely had a foreign accent, which perhaps made it easier for me to assimilate — and this is a result of the opportunities my parents provided (again, the privileges I have had). So all this to say, I now feel it was very insensitive for me to have a good laugh at that comedy, with the unearned advantages I have had in my life. One might argue, isn’t it all in good fun — it is a comedy after all. But then it’s always at someone else’s expense, isn’t it?

      Ok I think I’ve written too much already (I need to work on my long-windedness), but in Chang’s case – I don’t know enough about what kind of privileges he has enjoyed in his life, if any, but his status in the industry does put him in a position of power, at least to a certain extent. I believe that especially for anyone with this kind of influence/status, it is worth examining which actions/messages (such as “dericious”) offend, at minimum, and worse, oppress certain subgroups even within the same culture. I’ve heard the argument from someone else about how we’re so concerned with being too “politically correct”, but I think that’s easy to say when we are not the ones at the lower end of the power dynamic (and what is wrong with being respectful anyhow?). Plus, our language is a reflection of our attitudes -– in the same way that I learned about “person-first” language in disability studies (e.g., “a child with autism” vs an “autistic child”; “a person who uses a wheelchair” vs a “wheelchair-bound person”). These are some preliminary thoughts I have been mulling over…I’d love to know if this resonates with anyone (I hope I didn’t go waaaay off on a tangent), as I continue learning and reflecting on this!

    3. Hi Mia – Thanks for circling back with these thoughts. This has definitely been a year of reckoning for me, too, and I appreciate your laying out all of these well-considered points so vulnerably. Some of these insights called to mind a strange and recurring phenomenon for me — I’ve been watching a lot of older movies (classics from my 80s and 90s childhood) during the pandemic and so many of them read SO DIFFERENTLY and problematically in 2020. It’s almost mind-boggling how different things look and feel, what is permissible vs. what is not, etc. Another huge difference has been how, in the 80s and 90s, villains were so much more easily drawn. The trend now is to dive into the psyche of the villain, or to complicate the villainy, or to tug at the thread of “well, what is right and what is wrong / nobody is all good and all evil / etc.” I think this goes hand in hand with some of the broader work we are doing as a culture on questioning stereotypes, de-stabilizing norms, etc. Interesting to observe. Are there “bad guys” any more? If so, who are they? I think that’s changing profoundly right now.
      xx

  4. Ahhh! I can’t wait to read this book, which I’ve been blathering about in your comments for eons (or 2 months 😉 ) — I am so excited to start. I’ve been in a real reading rut, since I started 4 separate virtual volunteer commitments this month (!! — I may be insane) but Eat a Peach is on the tippy-top of my list, and I can’t wait to discuss it with you.

    I have to say, I was tempted by the AirPods Pro when I bought my regular AirPods, and I still find the noise-cancellation feature highly attractive. I’ll definitely upgrade when my pair dies!

    Also — for anyone interested — HHH tartan nap dresses launch at 12 noon EST today! I am so excited to try and snag one. 🙂

    xx

    1. Also, re: running masks: bear with me, but I love to use Le Lion’s masks! I know they’re more “fashion”, but they’re so lightweight AND have nose wires. Love.

    2. Yay to all of this (100% MUST GET THE NESLI IN RED TARTAN ON THE HHH NAP DRESS FRONT) and amazing to hear about your volunteer commitments!! Can’t wait to discuss the Chang book further. I’m very intrigued by what Mia has just written above and am now re-thinking some of my reading of the book. xx

    3. Yes!! I’ll report back as soon as I’ve started reading and feel more informed to contribute. And: I’m lol-ing because I pre-ordered the Nesli in red tartan myself! So perfect for a shot of festivity around what is sure to be a very strange holiday season!

      xx

  5. Haven’t read his book, but now I’m intrigued. When I think of David Chang I think of him in the first episode of Ugly Delicious making the Lucali owner eat Domino’s. Now, Lucali was one of my fave spots in BK, and perhaps the best pizza in NYC in my opinion, but over my 3 years going there, I grew weary of all the fanfare. The waiting in line for HOURS to put your name in to then wait for hours before eating. (You were expected to be there within 10 minutes of them calling you to say, “table’s ready!” though you didn’t know when the call would come.) The time my husband (coming from work) was 5 minutes late so they gave our table away and made us wait another 45 minutes, despite me saying “he’s in a cab 3 blocks away, I promise!”, etc, etc. I have so many stories about getting a table at Lucali. Maybe I should have pursued something besides pizza while living in New York. 😉 There’s something about David Chang being like, “hey, it’s just pizza!” that struck me as both repulsive (to compare Dominos to Lucali?! Gasp!) AND refreshing. It IS just pizza, isn’t it? I cannot quite make an intelligent connection here back to the art world, but there’s something humble and daring in his approach that I respected. [That being said, did that episode make the Lucali lines notably longer? I think yes. Ha!]

    1. OMG – this is so “in the thread” of what I am talking about! Thanks for sharing this experience. (BTW I’ve never been to Lucali, but it’s on our list — we have made it to Di Fara twice, though, and it’s super similar…exceptional (!!!) pizza but such an annoying consumer experience with long waits and idiosyncratic ordering processes, etc, etc.) This is what I mean about him: he is both obsessed with food and dismissive of (irritated by?) the hype around tradition. I think sometimes he says things and does things JUST to be contrarian, or just to make the point: “But why? Who says? Who cares?!” Etc. At the same time, he DOES care. He has such respect for food and those who have dedicated their life to the metier of culinary arts, and he does, earnestly, worry about reviews and the reactions of diners. It’s so difficult to tell whether it’s unbridled creativity and ingenuity or adversariness.

      Anyway, this tangle of experiences with Chang and Lucali really illustrate the point!

      xx

    2. That’s exactly it! He DOES care. I played basketball in college, and it reminds me of those basketball players or coaches who had clearly devoted their entire lives to the sport but also insisted on always saying, “Hey, it’s just a game!” Ha.

      I enjoyed Di Fara too, but yes, it’s an ordeal! Re: Lucali, I present you with my tips. (Part of me thinks maybe I commented these before? Forgive me if so.)

      1. If at all possible, do not go on Friday or Saturday. But also I think they’re closed Tuesday. [And one time we went on Monday with out-of-town guests only to find a homemade “Closed Tonight” sign penned on the back of a pizza box taped in the window. Sigh.]
      2. BYOB and Cash Only.
      3. If I remember correctly, they start taking names at 5:45. However, lines can form as early as 4pm on weekends. If you get there 5ish on any day, you could very well be told to expect your table at 7 or 8pm by the time you get to the front of the line. [Or later on weekends.] They call you when your table’s ready and your entire party must be there within 10 minutes of the call.
      4. I recommend hanging in Carroll Gardens while table-waiting (esp since you live on UWS). Bar Great Henry is a nice a waiting spot.

      I do think it’s worth it, at least once! And my guess is the pandemic situation has made the lines shorter due to lack of tourists. 🙂

    3. Thank you for all of these! Great idea – maybe Landon and I will make a trek out there one night before it gets too cold. I wonder if you can eat outside anywhere around there? Not sure how COVID has impacted all of this!

      xx

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