Jim Yong Kim: You know, in a recent speech we made it clear that there is no path to the end of poverty without improving the productivity of agriculture, and finding a way that as climate change reduces the amount of arable land that we can feed everyone. Now, David has been one of my heroes. You know, when I was at Dartmouth, my board members said, “If there’s one person in the world that we could introduce you to, who would it be?.” And I said David Chang.
He’s a Korean-American like me. He was a champion golfer at the age of ten. And he is now one of the most famous, respected chefs in the entire world. And his dedication to perfection was something that I knew about. But what I learned after we got to know each other was that David and all of the other great chefs in the world don’t just think about making delicious food, but think about making delicious food that can feed the entire world. And he knew so much about growing methods, and he knew so much about so many aspects of feeding people that I suggested to him that we have this conversation.
I don’t think he knew what he was getting into, but we’re thrilled to have him here. and I think that enlisting the great chefs of the world in thinking about how to feed the world is something that we’re we’re going to commit to going forward, and we’re thrilled to know that there are many chefs who are committed to the same task.
So first of all, Dave, you have talked about redefining edibility. What the heck does that mean?
David Chang: I think we just need to take a look at what we find to taste good. And I think a lot of people throw away food. As Juergen [Voegele] mentioned, we throw away 1.3 billion tons of food a year. That’s a third of the food that is produced. Which is just probably the easiest way to reducing hunger in the world. Being more resourceful, much more frugal about it. And I just think that that’s the issue at hand.
And as a chef, we try to make delicious food out of things that are not normally delicious, using techniques like fermentation, which I’m very passionate about. Other people are looking at insects and finding ways to find protein in things you would never look at before, and making that accessible to everybody, and realizing that you know, food can be delicious in many ways that you might not normally think.
Kim: So, when you guys think about this number, eight hundred million people that go hungry every day, how would you start? I’ve mean, you’ve talked to me about growing methods, we’ve got to change growing methods. We’ve got to change the way we handle food. We have to change food subsidies, make it more expensive for people can pay. So what would be a plan that you guys could could help us launch?
Chang: I think that first and foremost that [I] as a chef can do is increase knowledge and awareness. And have some type of programs out there that make people know that food literally is planted, some lives are taken. And then there’s a very rich process that [gets] involved. And the more you’re able to respect that, I think the less waste you’re going to be able to create.
Kim: Is there a difference though between delicious food and having more sustainable systems that are adapted to local conditions?
Chang: As someone that has learned about cooking and worked with farmers you realize that sustainable growing things the right way is not mutually exclusive; it’s sort of the same thing. Growing things the right way and making delicious food is sort of one and the same to me.
Kim: And if you were to tell us… I know you have direct relationships with a lot of the farms, the growers, and the producers. What are they doing differently, especially the ones who are supplying food to you? What are the kinds of things that then potentially could be scaled in other parts of the world?
Chang: You know, when you first start cooking, you know that you need to work with the right farmers, you hear that they’re doing it the right way, whatever that may be. And then as you build a relationship you see that it’s like anything else that’s great. They care about it so much more. And at the end of the day, you have to care about food, and the more we care about it the more delicious it is. And when you see farmers, whether it’s someone that’s raising free-range pigs, they’re giving them the option—not the option, but they’re raising a healthier pig.
Kim: Do they taste better?
Chang: It tastes better. A happier animal tastes more delicious, too. And as a cook you want to bring that out to the guest that’s eating it as well.
Kim: You know, the Momofuku restaurants. I mean, one of the things that everyone on my team knows is that when we go to New York, and we go there a lot, we’ve got to make a stop at one of your restaurants, right. So, Momofuku means “lucky peach” in Japan, but it’s also the first name of Momofuku Ando, the Taiwanese/Japanese sort of revolutionary who invented instant ramen.
Kim: So, what were you thinking? I mean, you know, he did that because he wanted to feed the world. That was specifically his goal.
Chang: Right, and it was also a war-torn Japan, because he was an expatriate to Japan after World War II. And I think that… That was really interesting to. You know, I make food for very few people. Let’s be honest, here. Very very few people comparatively to the people that need to eat well. And the more I’m in this business, the more I want to feed everybody. And that’s really the goal. Our goal is to make great food. And you don’t want to just make it for a few select people, because the people that need to really eat well in this world are the… They have the worst access to it. And that just doesn’t sit right with me.
Kim: Well, so if you look at what Momofuku Ando did, tell me what was your path there. So, you you were a champion golfer. You went to a great school, Trinity College. You were thinking about doing a lot of things. You were a religion major. Now, I know your dad owned a lot of restaurants, and your mom’s a great cook. But how do you make that decision, because I tell you, when I heard that you had become a chef, I thought oh my goodness, Korean-American parents, son becomes a chef, they must’ve gone crazy. How did you make that choice? And tell me about your evolution.
Chang: Well, my dad was in the restaurant business. He basically worked his entire life to ensure that I would never work in the restaurant industry because it is such a hard, hard job to have. And that’s why I love everybody so dearly that works in this industry, whether it’s the farmers, the purveyors, or the people actually making your food, it really is a labor of love, and it’s something that I’m really dedicated to improving upon from every facet.
But in terms of how I got there, and opening up Momofuku, I worked in fancy restaurants trying to learn the best techniques. Because you want to learn how to make great food. And that necessarily wasn’t the way I grew up eating. Having a dad, we would eat a lot of noodles, we would eat a variety of things. Growing up in a Korean household, I didn’t know that good food, at least in America, seemed to only be in fine dining establishments.
And then having the luxury and opportunity of living abroad, traveling abroad, all over the world, you realize that great food is amazing at all price points. And some of the best eating in the world is on the lower end. And that’s when I was like, wait. Great food should be available for everybody. And that’s…you know, using Momofuku Ando as an example, that watching everyone eat well, that’s an experience that hopefully, I want everyone to have. That delicious moment in their mind where you’re not thinking about anything else. And the reality is many people haven’t had that experience. And that’s something that is really universal, in my opinion.
Kim: So Dave, we at one point talked about food subsidies. And you told me something that shocked me at the time. You said food should be more expensive. And then we looked into this and we found that food subsidies in the world are a huge expense. And that the likelihood is that it benefits the rich more than it benefits the poor. It’s the same thing that we found with fuel subsidies, that the rich get more of the benefit. So tell me about that. What can we do about food subsidies and their existence in the world?
Chang: I think we should subsidize the things that are actually good for you to eat. Again, I mentioned that some of the most nutritious, most needed things to eat in your diet are not available to people in food deserts, and that are on the poverty level. So if we can make that more available, I think that’s the first step to alleviating that problem.
Kim: And tell me about some of the other— The thing that’s been great for me to find out is that the great chefs of the world somehow come together. You’re very good friends. And so the the number one restaurant in the world, Noma, René Redzepi’s a good friend of yours. And I’ve seen photos of him literally walking around Copenhagen picking like, grasses and things off the fields. Tell me about some of these chefs and what, you know—they’re making great food, they’re making money, they’re becoming famous. But it seems like there’s now a growing movement, just like you, in wanting to help feed the entire world.
Chang: You know, all of the chefs, they’ve realized that we’re in this together. And that a lot of the shared problems that we’re going through are experiences that are really a global problem. And feeding other people is something that we do. We are in the hospitality business, and sometimes I have to remind myself that that’s why I’m in this business, is to make other people happy.
And it doesn’t have to be located just within our restaurants. You brought up René Redzepi, who’s really helped revolutionize the global food movement. And one of the things that he’s been instrumental in is showing that food doesn’t have to be that what you think it is. Again, he’s really been a proponent of redefining edibility. You could be stepping on food right now. And that’s just…challenging the status quo of what food can be and utilizing his years of knowledge and the teamwork involved to making that delicious. In fact it has been rated like the number one restaurant in the world. So it just goes to show you that if you’re determined to make it delicious it can happen.
Kim: What do you think is going to be the challenge for us? I mean, how can we do this? How can we work together with the great chefs of the world to begin a very different kind of conversation about how to feed the world? Because, you know, the systems in place now I think no one’s happy with, right.
We sometime subsidize farmers in wealthy countries and take those and drop them in other places, and it can can really hurt local markets, and the quality of the food’s not that great. What would it look like? And I’m ready to make a commitment to you guys right now and bring these groups together so that we can start this new conversation. What would it look like?
Chang: Well, as a chef I’m not the person that’s on the front lines. In fact I’m barely person that’s making the food these days anymore. And it’s using that principle in the sense that we are good at telling narratives, whether it’s a diner eating at our restaurants, or a narrative of somebody we’re working with and we can shed light upon. And the spotlight really should be upon the people that are in the trenches. We have a couple here today, Chido Govera, David Hertz, who you’ll hear their stories momentarily. And what they’re doing is really what should be emulated and copied about finding ways to feed people, feed people well.
Kim: Alright. We make the promise. We will bring that coalition together. We hope to host you here. We’ll come to your meetings, and this is the right conversation. So, you know, given that, the reason I think I love your food so much is because I think our fathers grew up about twenty miles apart in Korea. They have the same accent. So I think we share taste buds in some real way.
But what are your challenges in making delicious food? I mean, you’ve been credited with innovation after innovation. What’s the hardest thing now? What’s the next thing? Brussel sprouts, buns, all these great things that you’ve done. How are you thinking now, in terms of changing the idea of what is great food again?
Chang: For me right now, it’s about growth and scalability. And I feel like change can only happen through having a voice that can really change how people grow food, people are marketed food. And we want to be part of that conversation. So, I know how to feed people, whether it be a thousand people a day, whatever number we feed today. But again, that’s not challenging enough to me anymore.
Kim: What’s the vision? What’s it going to be?
Chang: You know, privately, for me it’s I want my cooks to get paid better. And I know that if we can do that and still be profitable, we’re going to be a good custodian to our environment. We’re going to be good neighbors. We’re going to be great supporters of our farmers. And just focus on local, being great at that. And then again, supporting the people on a much larger scale, that can do it much better than we ever can.
Kim: Will we see Momofuku golden arches everywhere in the world someday?
Chang: You know what? Probably ten years ago I would have laughed at that and probably said no. But if we can do it right and make it better than what’s available out there, I’m not going to say no. Because something has to improve. And whether we’re it or somebody else, that’s what we have to support.
Kim: That’s great. So, we’re going to make this happen. We’re going to take this forward. And what else do you want to tell us about? I mean, this business is so difficult. I mean the restaurant business is notoriously so, so difficult. And what can we do here at a place like the World Bank Group? If the restaurant business is difficult in New York City, if the restaurant business is difficult is Washington DC, you can imagine all the challenges of getting food to people in some of the really really poor places that we work. So, could you imagine some kind of effort that we took on together in a developing country somewhere to try to really rethink food from the ground up?
Chang: Absolutely. Two things that come to mind are, especially in developing countries, is we need to have some type of program, a mentorship program, teaching people how to cook and arming them with knowledge. It’s a low-tech solution that is very powerful. If they know how to store food properly and use ways to preserve it better, that’s extraordinarily…you know, that’s going to work, without a doubt. We just need to be focused on education. And the second thing, in my opinion, is improving logistics. I think a lot of developing countries don’t have the electricity, or the transportation needs, to procuring fresh fruit or using electricity for refrigeration, and these are things that obviously people need.
Overview page for the MAD at the World Bank: “The Future of Food” event.