or: things i learned about myself from a food writing workshop last week.
on wednesday, momofuku announced that they would not be reopening nishi and CCDC, that ssam bar would be moving from their original location on 207 second ave to consolidate with wayo in their south street seaport location. closures and change were maybe inevitable, but, god damn, it hurt to read momo CEO marge mariscal’s letter on wednesday — and it still hurts now.
mourning losses here feels strange. the sorrow i feel seems self-indulgent because, yes, this restaurant group means a whole fucking lot to me personally, but what i feel is nothing compared to what dave chang, marge mariscal, and the teams at momofuku must be going through. these decisions can’t be easy. it must be brutal to have your livelihood on the line, unable to do anything to stop it because these are the times — there are no good decisions where no one loses and no one hurts.
at the same time, though, i’m profoundly saddened. i saw the instagram post while on line at costco, and my mother asked if something had happened. i couldn’t say it out loud, couldn’t articulate it in any way she could understand or sympathize, that this entity that i love, that means a tremendous amount to me is hurting and being forced to change because of this pandemic, because of the ways our fucking government, both federal and state, fumbled and has failed and is continuing to fail to provide the relief restaurants and people actually need.
you’d be hard pressed to convince me that things didn’t have to happen this way. they didn’t. the US healthcare system wasn’t set up to handle a pandemic (but to turn a profit), and there are many weaknesses elsewhere in this country, but it did not have to be this bad. restaurants didn’t have to be left to drown. tens of thousands of people didn’t have to die.
it didn’t have to be this way.
on friday, i took a food writing workshop with vanessa martir, and it was a generative workshop, as in, she offered many writing prompts because the idea was for workshoppers to leave with a lot of material. it was a fantastic two hours, full of people of color, and her prompts were useful in surprising ways.
martir focused a lot on childhood, on family, on memories, none of which is typically useful to me. i don’t remember much from childhood, and i have zero nostalgia for it. none of my food writing originates from that period of my life, and little of my food writing is linked to family, unless we’re talking about food and trauma, eating and shame.
like i said, though, her prompts were useful because, for one, they allowed me to say out loud that childhood means little to me (though i’m sure many a psychotherapist would love to argue against that). for another, they did illuminate the places i lean into heavily when i think about food or the things that interest me, that i keep coming back to over and over again — and a lot of that, for me, begins with momofuku.
it is sometimes strange to me, this thing i have for momofuku. i can’t explain it to a lot of people, and i sometimes wonder if i’m too personally, too emotionally attached to something that is not mine to be protective over, to love so deeply, because it isn’t mine — or is that not quite correct, either, because, when something exists in the public space, it’s up for public consumption?
i don’t even remember when i first heard of momofuku. in some ways, i feel like i’ve known about it forever, though that isn’t true. i didn’t know much about momofuku when it first opened as noodle bar on first ave, and i didn’t eat there until years in. i honestly don’t remember. maybe i didn’t start really following momofuku until i moved to nyc in august 2012 and i was finally able to start eating more at the restaurants, but even then — i don’t remember how this all started.
i do remember when momofuku became deeply personal to me, though. it was january 2017, and i was leaving brooklyn. i didn’t want to move away, had to leave against my will because i was dangerously depressed and suicidal, and my family was staging an intervention and moving be back to los angeles, so i could be with family. there was also the financial aspect — i’d been looking for a full-time job for six months by then to no avail, getting interviews and passing writing tests but never getting the actual job.
i drove across the country in nine days, in a minivan packed with my books. it snowed that weekend, and i left brooklyn on a sunny but cold sunday late afternoon, heading down to DC where i would crash with a friend overnight. it was freezing when i got to DC, late in the evening, parking my car and running across the street to CCDC because it was so cold, my face hurt.
as i left new york a failure, momofuku became that thing i pinned my nostalgia and sentiment on. maybe it’s because i’d already had an interest in momofuku restaurants or because i loved lucky peach or who knows what reason it was — momofuku became deeply personal to me then and has remained so over the years, especially as their food started to shift to embrace more of the korean. when i look back, the timing feels uncanny — i was in nyc when nishi opened, was living in los angeles when majordomo opened, had moved back to nyc when kawi opened. i’ve somehow managed to be in the right city at the right time. i wish other things in my life could be so fortuitous.
i ate my first impossible burger at nishi.
it was before the renovation, shortly after they opened, and my best friend and i went for lunch. we got the impossible burger and the pasta with black bean sauce, and maybe we got something else, too, but that’s what i remember. it was loud, yes, and maybe it wasn’t very comfortable, but, idk, to be honest, i don’t really remember — i remember loving the fries, and i remember being impressed enough by the impossible burger that i actually have yet to try any other brand of alternative meat.
i really wish i’d gone back to eat more of the menu, especially at dinner, but i was fucking broke then and barely employed, and eating out was not a thing i could do very often at all. when i went back to nishi, it was three years later, and the space had long undergone its renovation, the menu overhauled to be more subtle, more italian-presenting.
nishi was turning out really interesting, quietly subversive food, and, even though it was always packed when i went, i felt like the food was constantly underrated — or maybe it was that i wasn’t really reading much about it that was interesting. nishi started off as an openly italian-korean(-ish) restaurant where dave chang was trying to challenge the racist notions that a bowl of pasta could be $25 while a bowl of chinese noodles should be $8 because asian food is supposed to stay in its lane of grungy and cheap. it was apparently more aggressive in its weird italian-asian-ness in the beginning, but, after the space and menu were redone, the blend became more understated, less obvious, though it never disappeared altogether.
which is why, if i were to pursue writing that memoir-in-essays using momofuku as a lens through which to explore different personal themes, nishi would be the essay on queerness and passing — many of us on the margins live in code, and our truths are evident if you have the language and awareness to recognize them.
it’s strange to think of ssam bar relocating. ssam bar, noodle bar EV, and ko are the three momofuku stalwarts, and it’s strange to think that ssam bar will no longer be in the east village. ssam bar, despite being one of momofuku’s most influential restaurants, is actually the one i’ve eaten at the least — i’ve only been twice.
(ok that doesn’t count ko, but that’s because ko is hella expensive. i’d go back to ko in a heartbeat if i could.)
i’m glad that ssam is relocating and not closing altogether, but i am bummed that it’s taking over the wayo space, mostly because i really loved what sam kang and the team were doing at wayo. since it opened in august 2019, i’ve eaten there five times — which, lol, is nothing compared to how many times i’ve been to kawi, which is the specific thing i realized during this food writing workshop, how much i keep going back to kawi. when i think about comfort food, i think about jo’s food at kawi. when i think about grief, about community, about what i’d eat as a last meal, i come back to kawi. hell, even when i think about food from my childhood, i link to it via kawi.
like, let’s talk about pork ribs. i didn’t think much about pork ribs until last year, when i ate the ribs at kawi, which triggered memories of when my mother would make pork ribs (hers were marinated in a ketchup-gochujang sauce), and she would watch me to see how many i was eating. i was only permitted to eat two or three because i was forever needing to diet and lose weight, while my brother could eat as many as he wanted. i would always wait, taking the time to pick out the meatiest bones i could see.
and maybe that says something about the power of recognizing yourself in something, not only as it reminds you of your past or present but also (and maybe more importantly) as something you can project into the future. and maybe that’s the thing that gives me hope even in these uncertain, precarious times — that, yes, restaurants are facing what seems impossible, and so much is terrible, and people are having to make decisions that are all just bad, painful decisions, but this isn’t the end. just like writers will keep on writing (even when the writing is fraught and full of self-loathing), chefs will continue to cook, and korean american food will continue to evolve, and momofuku will change and adapt, and my selfish hope is that i’ll be around to be some part of it.
(psst, momofuku, if you’re selling foods, can you please sell your salsa seca?! and your habanero sauce in big bottles?! that’d be awesome. anyway, rooting for y’all.)