Chef David Chang–in a Weird Way, a Leadership Role Model

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by: John Caddell

On vacation, you’re supposed to catch up on your reading. But when you’re chasing five- and seven-year-old boys around all day–beach, fishing, mini-golfing, etc.–till they finally crash at 9pm, you get even further behind. Which is why it took me this long to get around to reading the recent New Yorker profile on wacky restaurateur David Chang (sorry, only abstract available on line).

What interest could he be to Shop Talk readers? For one, the author Larissa MacFarquhar cannily focuses on Chang’s many eccentricities and (self-described) weaknesses. So much so that you wonder how he could manage to get out of bed in the morning, never mind start two (going on three) highly-successful New York restaurants.

Secondly, through his nearly nonstop chatter, Chang lets us in on his biggest secrets to success. Read this:

[Chang said,] In four years, we’ve gone from this small-ass Noodle Bar to this f-ing big restaurant, when the whole goal in the beginning was, let’s serve better food than that place across the street. I know we’ve won awards, but it’s not because we’re doing something special–I believe it’s really because we care more than the next guy

And this:

[Chang said,] Recently, over at Ssam Bar, a sous-chef closed improperly, there were a lot of mistakes, and I was livid and I let this guy have it. About a week later, I found out that it wasn’t him, he wasn’t even at the restaurant that night. But what he said was, "I’m sorry, it will never happen again." And you know what? I felt like an asshole for yelling at him, but, more important, I felt like, Wow, this is what we want to build our company around: guys that have this level of integrity…. If we start being accountable not only for our own actions but for everyone else’s actions, we’re gonna do some awesome s–t.

And this:

Cory Lane began setting up for service: a cork at each place to rest chopsticks on, then a folded napkin, then a menu tucked inside the napkin, then a water glass. He measured to make sure that each napkin was exactly one thumb-length from the edge of the counter. Then he crouched down at the end of the row and squinted to check that everything was lined up.

Managing the details, accountability, teamwork. It works in the restaurant industry. It works most everywhere.

(Photo: the interior of Ko, from the restaurant’s website.)

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