If you’ve read some of my Chow Time features, you guys probably get the idea that I’m quite a bit of a foodie. Complementing my affliction for everything art and design is my love of belly-busting, finger-licking, delectable bites! So when it came time to knock out some of my liberal arts electives, I took a few courses at The New School For Public Engagement (NSPE) in their Food Studies Program. As Parsons is part of the broader New School community, it’s sometimes nice to have a refreshing break from studio courses and take classes at the other divisions. What’s even better is realizing that these two seemingly different topics are actually closely related. Because New York City has one of the world’s best culinary AND design cultures, it’s no surprise that these two scenes frequently intersect.
During the past month, NSPE’s Food Studies Program partnered with the James Beard Foundation to host a three-part series of panel discussions called “Dining + Design” which featured conversations between some of the city’s top chefs and the architects who designed their restaurant’s interiors. Throughout the year, The New School hosts a ton of pretty cool events with some notable guest speakers. Most of them are open to the public and are typically free for all New School students, faculty, and Alumni. You can check out the schedule of events here. Last week, I had the pleasure of attending the final panel, which was held at the Theresa Lang Center at The New School’s Arnhold Hall. The event featured David Chang—Chef and Founder of the famous, award-winning Momofuku restaurants, Andrew Solomon—President and Co-ownder of Momofuku, and Anwar Mekyach—Co-founder of the Toronto-based architecture firm The Design Agency. I’m a huge fan of David Chang, his food, and his restaurants, so I was sure not to miss the chance to see him speak!
If you stroll around the East Village, it’s pretty hard not to run into a Momofuku restaurant. They seem to pop up all over the neighborhood, and you can always tell it’s a Momofuku by the crowd that forms on the sidewalk during meal hours. Noodle Bar was the first to open, which marked the beginning of David Chang’s reign as the city’s culinary king. When the restaurant began serving hungry customers in 2004, it was a tiny, humble hole-in-the-wall ramen house. The restaurant was built with a meager budget of $127,000. Decoration was minimal—the walls were covered with pieces of plywood without other fixtures. Even the furniture was made out of plywood, including the backless stools that would fall apart so easily that Chang admitted that they had to be replaced constantly.
During the event, it was actually kinda funny to hear David Chang confess that he initially had no interest in participating in the panel. His reason is because, as a chef, his focus has always been on the food. Because his goal is to satisfy his customer’s taste buds rather than their eyes, Chang contends that everything else comes second to what is being served on the plate. He actually prefers hole-in-the-wall and concrete box restaurants, arguing that over design diminishes the food. Even though the Momofuku empire has since grown to include restaurants all over the city and the world, the design of his restaurants still remain simple and unpretentious.
Chang’s second restaurant, Momofuku Ssäm Bar, is located on the corner of Second Ave and 14th St. It’s literally steps away from The New School’s Stuyvesant Park residence hall. During my end of my freshman year, I was so excited to lose my Momofuku virginity on my 19th birthday! All the hype was no bluff—the food was incredible. And those pork buns. Don’t even get me started.
What’s even more interesting, though, is the design of the interior. During the panel, they discussed how the sleek wood walls and concrete floors made Ssäm Bar essentially a dark box…much to David Chang’s delight. So when it came time to open the latest Momofuku at the Shangri-La Hotel in Toronto, architect Anwar Mekhayech carefully listened to Chang’s vision and even visited New York to study the design of his other restaurants.
One of the difficulties of designing an eating establishment in New York is that, in most cases, a preexisting space has to be transformed into a restaurant. Besides budget constraints, constructing Ssäm Bar and Noodle Bar in their tiny, East Village footprints posed numerous design obstacles. For example, limitations on electricity meant choosing between proper kitchen equipment or proper heating and air conditioning. The small floor plan determines the relative sizes of the kitchen and dining room. Converting a plumbing system to not only accommodate bathrooms, but also dishwashers and sinks, presents another challenge. As a prominent restaurant designer, Anwar Mekhayech firmly believes that space really does dictate the food. The constant design struggle to choose between form and function is ever present.
At the Shangri-La Hotel, developers gave the Momofuku co-owners David Chang and Andrew Solomon the grandiose, glass cube attached to the hotel to open up a new branch of the Momofuku empire. Much to Chang’s dismay, he felt that this space was almost too extravagant, joking that if they placed a light-up sign featuring Momofuku’s peach logo, passersby might mistake the restaurant for an Apple Store! With the help of Mekhayech, however, the new complex was designed with elegant restraint. Despite having a greater budget with developers, Chang wanted to retaining the simple stained wood furniture and concrete floors. Compared to their New York siblings, the Toronto location is much larger, and customers and employees alike have a little bit more breathing room. The most notable difference? Chang was shocked the first time he stepped into the restaurant during the daytime, since he wasn’t used to so much light! Gone are the plywood walls, as the glass structure lets in as much natural light as possible.
The glass cube houses not one, but four separate Momofuku restaurants on three floor, including the a new incarnation of Noodle Bar, a bar and lounge called Nikai, and higher-end dining room dubbed Daishō, and the 22-seat Chef’s tasting counter called Shōtō. Chang and Mekhayech said the interior is still very much a work in progress. Just like any good design, the space is constantly evolving. Having only been open for less than a year, they’re still figuring out the best table arrangements, furniture, lighting, and music that truly fit the Momofuku aesthetic. No matter how you feel about the importance of dining or design, one things for certain—if you run into the opportunity to eat at Momofuku, DO IT.
If you’re a foodie like me, be sure to check out The Inquisitive Eater, The New School’s online publication devoted to world of food and the culinary arts. You’ll be able to find a full recording of the Dining + Design panel discussions soon!