On David Chang’s memoir, Eat a Peach, and the end of the screaming chef.
David Chang’s ‘screaming asshole chef’ persona was always a little too on point for me. So when I read his recent memoir, Eat a Peach, I was expecting Chang to fit my image of a rage-fueled megalomaniac who slams cheap beer while carefully placing herbs on fried fish with tweezers. Instead, I found him reckoning with his own past behavior and working to find a way forward for himself and his restaurants. While he doesn’t quite achieve redemption, I’m not sure that’s what he’s going for. Perhaps redemption is one thing, but change is another.
I came of age in the era of The Screaming Chef. It was an era where all elements of the restaurant bent towards a single individual’s sometimes genius, sometimes sociopathic creative urges. We all considered it worth it to put up with near-daily meltdowns in order to produce excellence. Critics considered it the mark of a chef as a true artist. Customers considered it a delight to exchange rumors of the latest bad boy chef who’d changed the local culinary landscape by yet again stuffing a donut with foie gras.
Chang, as he reviews his career in Eat a Peach, lays out the mentality of the Screaming Chef with almost too much candor.
My method, if you can even call it that, was a dangerous, shortsighted combination of fear and fury. My staff was at the mercy of my emotional swings. One second, we were on top of the world. The next, I would be screaming and banging my fists on the counter. I sought out and thrived on conflict. My arrogance was in conflict with my insecurity. Our restaurant was in conflict with the world.
He then struggles to rationalize his own behavior. This is just how kitchens work; the traditional brigade system enables dictatorial chefs; the restaurant business is stressful; the time commitments come at the cost of any semblance of work/life balance; David Chang just cares about food way too much. But with each rationalization, he seems less like he’s trying to convince the reader and more like he’s trying to convince himself. Finally, he’s left with no other explanation other than what he’s spent most of the chapter avoiding putting to paper:
I think the job – the fear, the stress, the habits I’d learned, the culture – unlocked what was already roiling inside me.
The Screaming Chef Era was already waning before the pandemic hit. The #metoo movement exposed a lot of the more egregious behaviors in kitchens and dining rooms. But the industry suffered from more than a few, purportedly isolated, scandals. There was also an overall sense of fatigue throughout the industry. Working in a toxic maelstrom had pushed many talented folks out of restaurants, while rising commercial rents made it hard for young cooks to set out on their own (not to mention the rising residential rents making it hard to live anywhere near the restaurant you worked at.) Customers had started to suspect that salmon sous vide was just fish in a plastic bag drifting in a water bath without a HACCP plan.
It’s no secret that restaurant work is hard – maybe even too hard for what it pays. Razor-thin margins pushed owners and managers to control wages. Constant competition from new restaurants pushed their staff to work harder and longer to create greater guest experiences. High expectations from guests and critics made every plate a make or break moment for the entire business. Oftentimes owners lacked mature management skills, leading to inhospitable work environments and high staff turnover rates.
Yet we all still showed up every day to make it happen. Part of me wonders: Why?
The answer is simple: Because we all believed it could be better. Restaurants don’t need to grind people down to be excellent. We don’t need The Screaming Chef in order to have a perfect service. Owners can learn management skills. Chefs can learn to teach the techniques young cooks need to succeed. But before the pandemic, creating real change seemed impossible against the inertia of three services a day, seven days a week. There just wasn’t time to do anything but survive.
With the pandemic slowly peeling off (emphasis on “slowly”) there’s an opportunity to take stock of what we want to be when the world fully reopens. This means doing more hard work – looking back in order to move forward. Towards the end of Eat a Peach, Chang writes:
Recognizing my flaws doesn’t mean I’m “cured,” nor does wishing I’d done things differently. I still regress from time to time, but I’m trying to be the person I want to be. I’m trying to build a company that is better than I am and an environment where the next generation will have better answers to the questions we’re facing.
The mental and physical toll of working in restaurants is corrosive. I don’t know how long it will take to undo the harm and build an industry that is equitable for people of all genders, races, ethnicities, sexualities, and beliefs. I think it begins with being accountable to one another. Respecting one another and ourselves. I know that better education and communication will be key.
In short, if we all work together, towards the goal of a better industry, we have a chance – but just a chance. Let me put it this way: People can change, but they usually don’t. This isn’t existential. The industry doesn’t have to get better in order to survive. Case counts and restrictions can drop, doors reopen and everything can go back to the way it was. But it doesn’t have to.
It’s up to the people who make up the industry to move it forward. We all have to show up and we have to call out each other’s shit. And when someone calls out our own shit, we have to listen. We have to do this work every day, just like we’re prepping a station for the thousandth time. Real change doesn’t happen from one big action. Real change is a set of small actions repeated many times.
The cover of Eat a Peach shows a tiny person pushing a giant peach up a hill – this is not a Roald Dahl reference, it’s the Myth of Sisyphus. In Greek myth, Sisyphus was punished by the gods for believing himself more clever than Zeus. He was condemned to push a boulder up a mountain, only to see it roll back down after reaching the top – for all eternity. To Chang, this is an inspirational story:
In the eyes of the gods, Sisyphus’ endless task of pushing a boulder up a hill is a punishment. But by accepting his fate as unchangeable and continuing to do the task, Sisyphus can reject the gods’ view of him and thus be happy. Not happy in other people’s eyes – only his own. In other words, we may not be able to reject our fortune or fate, but we can reject how we approach it.
I can’t help but agree with Chang. If we put in the work to make the industry better, despite all its obvious and perhaps irreparable flaws, we can find something that feels like peace or even an odd form of happiness. As we all get back to work, I’m interested to see how Chang, and restaurateurs like him, push the hospitality industry back up that hill.