David Chang's Question to Entrepreneurs: Are You Doing Good or Bad?
“It’s hard for me to appreciate the good things that have happened,” David Chang says. And there have been many. His Momofuku restaurant group made him one of New York City’s most celebrated chefs and restaurateurs, he’s the star of the Netflix series Ugly Delicious, he is a best-selling cookbook author, and more. This month, Chang releases a new book — a memoir called Eat a Peach, which chronicles his rise, as well as his struggles with mental health. Chang is open about his depression and self-doubt, and he now worries for the future of his business and his industry — but hopes that talking about these things sparks positive change in himself and others. “The thing I’m wrestling with is, ultimately, I know I’ve done good,” he says, “but I think I’ve done a lot unintentional bad by getting to my goals.” In this conversation, he talks about the power of difficult self-reflection.
Eat a Peach is a memoir, but you say in the opening that you think of it as “a textbook for what not to do when starting a business.” Why focus on what not to do?
I feel like the platitudes of being an entrepreneur are all about what you need to sacrifice, and what you need to do to get to your goal. When I look back on all that’s happened, I found that no one was telling me if the sacrifice was worth it. What do you do after you get to your goal? And I think what I was trying to say is, “Be careful what you wish for.” The idea of going full blast on something, sacrificing everything — is that sensible?
I’ll tell you this, and really genuinely not as a cliché: I feel less confidence now in anything I know or have done. When I look back on it, even though I’m still relatively young, I ask, Did I do more good in this world? Did I actually make a difference, or did I increase suffering? That’s a question I really ask myself.
And yet you’ve achieved basically everything that someone in your position could hope for.
That’s what I’m trying to say. Whenever I’m in pursuit of me, that might be a temporary good feeling. But it almost inevitably ends in bad shit. I’ve talked a lot about my anger. I was a really bad boss — yelling, screaming.
I wasn’t prepared. I didn’t know anything. I didn’t learn to question the world. I didn’t learn to question myself. And I’m looking back being like, Man, I got there, but were there other ways? I don’t want to repeat the same mistakes twice. I want to make sure I find better avenues.
“Did I do good or bad?” is a hard question for anyone to ask. What do you think entrepreneurs should do if they ask themselves this and don’t like the answer?
If you can’t face that question, and the hardships that answer might result in, then you shouldn’t go into business for yourself. I don’t think you can go into business just to make money. Like, do I want to make money? Yes. But I feel like it’s got to be done right. To me, that’s the question: Have I done it right?
And you know, I’m at a place now where my [restaurant] industry is going to potentially disappear. There’s a bigger percentage that Momofuku doesn’t make it out than it does. And maybe it was supposed to end a long time ago. Like, my industry is broken. It’s built on a horrible foundation. With coronavirus, there was opportunity to have solidarity to ask the hard questions — like, why do we want to go back to February 2020 if we have the opportunity to really assess what was working and what wasn’t working?
What problems are you talking about here?
First of all, people need to get paid more. We need to be more equitable. We need more diversity. We have environmental issues.
I hate Chipotle with a white-hot heat, but I have to say that they changed the industry at large because they forced it to move to better husbandry of chicken. They moved the needle just a little bit. That’s positive. So I have to extrapolate and be like, OK, maybe we do this and it’s so successful that it can change the industry. Pay our employees at this level, provide benefits and a 401(k) package and healthcare and paid time off and sick leave — and all these things.
The question is, are we operating better? Are people happier? Do people have a better work-life balance? Are we taking care of our vendors, farmers, customers, without increasing pain and suffering?
Is that how change happens, you think?
Chipotle made a change in how chickens are raised, and they changed it because of their profitability, growth, and success. So for me, I’ve always looked at it as: How do you take a company that can be wildly profitable and effect change through that success? It’s one of the reasons why we tried so much shit. We tried to do media. We were the first ghost kitchen before ghost kitchen was even a term; I believe in it so much that I did it twice, partly because I saw the rent and I saw the labor issues, and it was like, if we can create a model that works, I believe it would be able to let people work less and put more money in their pocket.
We tried a variety of restaurant concepts. We started an equipment company. Because if any one of those things hit, the dream would really be Oh my God; it’s making so much money that we can now operate our restaurants, maybe at a loss.
You beat yourself up a lot — it’s a theme running through your book. You describe learning that you earned two Michelin stars and being filled with dread. There’s only so much that someone can control their feelings, but is there a strategy you aspire to, to feel better?
I can convince myself that I’m being selfless in my goals, when in actuality they’re totally selfish. So many entrepreneurs can convince themselves of anything, which is why I feel like we see a lot of entrepreneurs become wildly successful, make a ton of money, and then that’s the point where they’re like, “Now I can give back.” And I’m like, maybe that’s not the point. Maybe you should do that simultaneously with your job.