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Is This the End of David Chang's Momofuku Empire as We Know It?
Momofuku Ko's closure brings the restaurant group down to just two sit-down locations in New York
This is a special Momofuku edition of Free Food, a column that tracks some of the biggest stories in food from across the country. Consider subscribing to help keep Free Food “free” for everyone — and to access the rest of The LO Times.
A restaurant empire, dismantled
Momofuku, in early November, will do something that’s entirely predictable to anyone who eats out at David Chang’s restaurants on a regular basis.
It will do the same thing to Ko — the fine dining jewel of its empire, the home of quadruple fried chicken — that it has previously done to most of its groundbreaking establishments.
Momofuku will close it. The last day of service will be Nov. 4.
“We are pausing Ko as it currently operates and we hope to have something in the new year in this space,” the company told Eater NY on Tuesday. Ko will “no longer operate in the way it has,” it added on Instagram, noting that “we won’t call this a goodbye.”
A goodbye, with respect, is precisely what this sounds like.
The act of closing a good restaurant is becoming a trademark for Momofuku, not unlike Danny Meyer talking about hospitality or Major Food Group opening yet another Carbone.
Chang’s Ssam Bar — the aughts hangout famous for its Korean rice cakes with Sichuan bolognese, its organ meats, and its poster of John McEnroe — ended its brief Seaport reincarnation a just a month ago.
Yet at the same time, Momofuku is doubling down on something else — namely, chocolate bars, seasoned salts, air-dried noodles, and other pantry goods. It has raised nearly $30 million for that consumer business unit this year alone.
It’s a heck of a pivot. Once upon a time, Momofuku attracted (and showcased!) some of the best culinary and managerial talent in a generation: Tien Ho, (co-founder) Joaquin Baca, Eunjo Park, Joshua Pinsky, Kevin Pemouile, Peter Serpico, Sean Gray, Su Wong Ruiz, and others. And now, well, the packaged goods division is hiring for a new class of six-figure salaried brand managers, product developers, sales operations folks, and supply chain professionals.
Perhaps Momofuku will give us the next Tim Cook.
Or perhaps not. That reminds me, there used to be a beautiful section of the Momofuku website where they listed everyone’s names and bios, from the chefs to the accountants. Now I only see Chang and chief executive officer Marguerite Zabar Mariscal on that page (which I have no doubt will be updated quite soon).
Momofuku — long ago — played a role in paving the way for our city’s modern collection of boundary-pushing restaurants. Momofuku in 2023, however, will soon find itself winnowed down to just two sit-down restaurants in New York.
Is this the end of Momofuku? Of course not. But it’s hard not to see this as anything other than the end of Momofuku restaurants as we know them.
The Momofuku ideals, then versus now
The pandemic. Inflation. Staffing shortages. Rising rents. Working from home. The past half decade hasn’t been kind to restaurants — or residents of New York. Just about every big restaurateur has had to throw in the towel on a particular venue or two since the onset of COVID-19.
But other than Momofuku, one would be challenged to think of another group that’s so well funded — the billionaire-backed RSE Ventures joined as a minority investor in 2016 — that has also shuttered such a high percentage of its sit-down spots.
The company, under the leadership of chief executive Mariscal, has closed at least six restaurants in New York alone in the past four years, a number that includes Ko*. The group has also shut down restaurants in Washington DC, Sydney, Las Vegas (two spots, though one remains), and Toronto (a three-story building of restaurants). Majordomo in Los Angeles remains open.
Any closure is a tragedy. But what stings about the local Momofuku shutterings is how each one truly felt like an individual restaurant, rather than a chain restaurant. As other hospitality groups — even the late, great Joel Robuchon — sometimes followed a business plan of copy, copy, copy — early Momofuku felt like a set of loose iconoclastic principles.
Those principles included serving food as creative and ambitious as at white tablecloth spots — but for a few dollars less, to account for the uncomfortable settings with backless stools. Those principles included dotting the menus with tons of chiles, funky aged meats, high levels of salt and fat, and assorted ingredients from Korea, Vietnam, and China — before such a thing was as common as it is now.
Instead of Iberico or prosciutto, you’d get American hams. Instead of quiet and sedate rooms, you’d get loud and crowded rooms. There were no substitutions at first — a fun birdie flip to picky eaters but truly unfair to many others — and often there were no reservations. If you were hungry, you’d just have to show up and wait.
In their brash young years, Momofuku venues served as a fundamental disruption to fine dining — or dining out, period. If only that disruption involved…better working conditions for employees in the earlier days (I encourage you to read that linked piece by Hannah Selinger).
Eventually, Chang stepped away from day-to-day operations. And the restaurants got comfortable (thank god). But the experimental ethos and bold flavors remained. Those ideals were a uniting force behind a group of venues so unique — and (sometimes) so reflective of the individual chefs — that Momofuku at times felt less like a normal restaurant group, and more like a movie studio managing a motley crew of marquee directors.
Forget about the old “Momofuku” restaurant names for a minute, and think about what they served. I remember a French Vietnamese meatery in Midtown — and a Caribbean American dim sum spot that replaced it. There was a stunner of a Modern Korean spot in Hudson Hards, an Asian and Italian pasta spot in Chelsea, and a tasting counter that served one of the best pieces of pressed mackerel sushi I’ve ever tasted.
No more. Momofuku still has a chain of fried chicken shops in the city, as well as a daytime takeout concept called Bang Bar. But again, just two sit-down spots remain. And both of them, incidentally, are Noodle Bars. The new mantra at Momofuku restaurants seems to be close, close close.
One has to wonder if copy, copy, copy is not too far off.
A half decade of closures and changes at Momofuku
Chang’s company seems optimistic about its restaurant future, just as any random corporate executive is always “excited” on an earnings call about the next fiscal quarter. “We can’t wait to show you the places we have in development. In many ways, we’re heading back to where it all began with Noodle Bar, doubling down on heart and energy and eye-opening flavors,” a spokesperson for the group told Eater this week.
I hope we can all be as excited. But we also have to react to that statement with more than a small dose of skepticism, given the direction of Momofuku over the past half decade.
Momofuku closed the generational small plates place that was Ssam Bar in 2020 due to building issues.
Momofuku closed the very good Bar Wayo in the Seaport in 2020 (the curry doughnut was incredible) to make way for Ssam 2.0.
Momofuku closed Ssam again in 2023 (the expensive sequel didn’t quite click in its new home, I found).
Momofuku closed Kawi in Hudson Yards in 2021. When it opened in 2019 it instantly become one of New York’s top Modern Korean fine dining spots; the raw chile blue crab was a true thing of beauty.
The restaurant business, with its razor thin margins, has always been a cruel business. Indeed, New York at times almost feels haunted by the ghosts of great venues that closed before they had a proper run.
Still. Still! How do we wrap our minds around when a company backed by billionaire investors can’t make things work with establishments that got the type of “free press” that others would pay millions for — establishments that once attracted world-class culinary talent through a first-rate farm system that would rival that of any Major League Baseball team.
In modern capitalism, closures can come quickly when less efficient parts of a company start sucking cash from more profitable (or growth positioned) business lines. That’s true even if the organization can technically afford to subsidize any laggards.
But at a certain point you have to ask yourself, as a chief executive officer or founder, to what extent will you sacrifice the values of your organization, the loyalty of your workforce, and the love of your community — by closing physical locations that people consider places of artistic inspiration, or homes away from home.
Or will you instead go chase market share and shelf space? That, alas, is not meeting customers where they are.
That brings us back to Momofuku’s claim to be “doubling down on heart and energy and eye-opening flavors” at Noodle Bar. Indeed, the Columbus Circle location felt genuinely unique when it opened, with banana daiquiris, French dip buns, giant beef katsu, bing bread, tingly Sichuan head-on shrimp, and fried chicken buns with trout roe. Sure, it was yet another Noodle Bar, but it felt like the type of meal you couldn’t get anywhere else.
None of those items remain. It now feels like….yet another solid noodle bar in a city with lots of solid noodle bars, a place to get another order of raw fluke and chicken wings. It serves good food (the rice cake with tomatillo special is spectacular), but at this moment in time, it feels like someone from McKinsey & Co combed through the original menu and said, let’s standardize this and cut, cut, cut.
For me, it’s tough to be optimistic about the future of Momofuku restaurants.
A loss of influence and relevance on the restaurant scene
Ko’s closing is personal for me.
It was the first starred review I gave as a young restaurant critic. “You take a sedan to Per Se. You ride the subway to Ko,” I wrote for Bloomberg News in 2008, a reference to the fact that Ko’s funky, spicy, $85 tasting made it accessible to a wider group of diners than an exorbitant Midtown palace. I remember cutting through deep fried short ribs and chatting with the chefs at a cramped counter as the Doves blasted through the sound system. To me, the noise and rampant emergy felt a lot more welcoming than an absolutely silent room at Per Se.
And I could actually afford it without a critic’s expense account.
I awarded four stars to the new, more luxe location of Ko in 2015. The tasting menu now commands a steep $280, though I’ve generally spent more time in the accessible a la carte bar room for cold fried chicken. The poultry is so impossibly golden and curvy that it almost appears hand drawn; it’s a “Yogi-Bear-picnic-basket fantasy of what a chicken wing should look like,” I wrote for Eater in 2018.
But I’ll also admit this: I hadn’t been to Ko lately because I haven’t been very excited about Momofuku restaurants in recent years. That reminds me of something the company told Grubstreet when the news about Ko’s closure broke, which is that “the culinary world is much different than it was 20 years ago.”
Kawi was a restaurant like no other and I’ll never get over its closure, but we also have what’s possibly the world’s most thriving Modern Korean scene in New York. Asian-Italian pasta was a thing before Nishi closed and it will continue to exist in the decades to come at Kimika and elsewhere. And as power Gallic spots and sushi joints push their prices further into the stratosphere, we have a deeper bench of sub $120 tasting menus than ever — a pricing tier that recalls the early days of Ko.
Sometimes Momofuku played a big role in larger culinary trends. Sometimes it played a small role. But whatever the case, power, art, and money abhor a vacuum, and where Momofuku seems to have given up, others have jumped in.
I’m so grateful that Chang took as many risks as he did because his restaurants were such important third places for me over the past two decades, both personally and professionally, for thinking about food and for pure enjoyment.
But my more cold blooded analysis is that Momofuku restaurants haven’t been terribly influential for a few years now. Their venues don’t occupy any real estate on popular lists like the Eater 38, Infatuation’s 25 Best Restaurants in NYC, the New York Times 100, the Time Out 50 Best Restaurants, or the Thrillist “Ultimate” list of best restaurants.
As a critic, my assessment is that I can’t recommend going out of your way to visit New York’s last two remaining Momofuku restaurants after Ko closes.
Will there be more Momofuku establishments? Of course there will. Nonetheless, I still can’t stop thinking about what Mariscal told Fast Company earlier this year. “The restaurants will always be the nexus. They will always be the most experiential and complete way to experience Momofuku.” I hope that’s true again one day.
Yet to believe that right now — and to believe Momofuku’s recent statement that restaurants remain the “beating heart” of a company that has slowly dismantled most of their restaurants over the past five years — that takes a…leap of faith that I am not even remotely capable of.
The emotional part of my brain still tells me to look forward to the next stage of Momofuku. The journalist part of my brain tells me I’ll of course cover any new spots. That’s my job. But the critic in me says there are a lot of other restaurants out there that aren’t taking a pause. And they need reviewing.
In the meantime, I’ll continue to be bombarded by another one of the company’s telltales of 2023: ubiquitous social media adverts for Chang’s packaged goods, often with the tagline “f*** ya, new Momofuku Noodles.” They appear on Facebook and Instagram every time I log on, every day of the week, at every hour. Nonstop. There’s your new restaurant empire.
A short roundup of coverage of Momofuku Ko’s closure
Grubstreet’s Chris Crowley appears to have been first to break the news of Ko’s impending closure. The journalist has an excellent track record of centering restaurant workers in his coverage, and true to form, he kicks things off from the perspective a staffer who was in the room when Chang announced the closure to Team Ko. “Let’s really say good-bye the way we want to,” James Parry, vice-president of restaurant operations for Momofuku, told the staffers, reports Crowley
Eater NY’s Melissa McCart (my former editor!) followed up on Grub’s coverage with a smartly contextualized news story. A key graph: “While Ko may be closing, Momofuku the brand, is a behemoth, with over 400 employees working in restaurants and other divisions, including Momofuku Goods, which includes noodles, chili crunch, sauces, and chocolates sold in over 3000 stores, including Whole Foods and Target.”
And here’s Bon Appétit’s Sam Stone on what it might all mean: “And Chang isn’t the scrappy, nothing-to-lose chef he was when deluxe pork buns and customer-is-usually-wrong service turned the restaurant world on its head. Now a father of two, he sells microwave containers, designs sneakers, posts a steady stream of recipe videos on YouTube, and has a whole lot of reasons to play it safe.”
*in case anyone wants to check my math on Momofuku’s recent closures:
Ko (next month)
Ssam Bar 1.0
Kawi (not counting Peach Mart, which was excellent tho)
Ssam Bar 2.0 (I am absolutely counting it twice)
And of course let’s not forget Ma Peche which closed in 2018.
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