Good morning, everybody. Welcome to the third annual MAD symposium. I’m humbled and thrilled that René and his team here at Noma invited Lucky Peach and the Momofuku crew to come curate this event with you guys. This is a very special two days, and hopefully we’re going to learn and push and prod, and take this whole thing to another level.
When we were talking about MAD maybe like fourteen months ago in terms of what we were going to talk about— You know, last year was about appetite, I felt very very confident that we had to talk about guts, or some type food form of guts, in the literal sense and metaphorically speaking. These next few days, people are going to stick their necks out, share stories, that I hope will inspire you to bring back home, share with your cooks, your friends, your family, And to just…you know, I hope just move things forward.
Why did we pick the theme? It seems that when I’m with René or other chefs, younger cooks come up to us and they always ask, “How did you do it?” Or, “Why did you become successful?” Besides it being a team effort, I think it all starts with the seed, a plant of an idea, you know, planting an idea. And for us, you have to be unwavering in that idea. And I think it’s really accurately reflected in the combination of courage, conviction, and sort of being fearless and stupid at the same time. And we’re going to talk about that in its various guises the next two days.
But going to the heart of the matter in terms of guts, guts to me is a measurement of some kind of moral currency. It makes you decide, makes you realize, how to make a decision. The really important decisions that you freak out about, that you talk your friends like, should I take this job? Should I open up this restaurant? Should we close this restaurant down? Should I start my own vineyard? Should I do whatever. Most of you guys are cooks, which is really exciting. And these are the questions that I hope that we can somewhat help out and pay it forward.
And it’s dawned on me that for me, guts has been pretty important, because I never thought myself as the most talented person. But I’ve been stupid enough to make really stupid decisions, in retrospect. And in 2004 I opened up Momofuku without really any cash and no real support system other than my stubborn idea that we’re going to open up this noodle bar. But really, the main reason I did it is, and sometimes I have to constantly remind myself of why I opened up a restaurant that should never have opened up, and it was because it was 2004… You know, September 11th had happened. And earlier that year three of my good friends had passed away—there was just a series of tragic events in my life that help you realize just how unimportant a decision that you think is very serious is. You know, when you’re talking about life and death, opening a restaurant is pretty insignificant. And I was willing to wallow in failure, but knowing that it’s failure on my terms. And I wanted to learn that. I wanted to taste that failure. And you know, there was success in that failure, if that makes any sense.
So you need to have some type of naiveté. It’s a crazy idea, opening a restaurant. It’s a crazy idea entering this culinary profession, or endeavoring to do anything. It’s frightening. I think I talked to more people— You know, somebody on my own staff is trying to figure out what they’re going to do next. And it’s the biggest decision he’s ever made in his life, and I can only tell him that he has to believe in his idea to the point where people are going to think he’s stupid, he’s crazy. They think that they’re going to laugh at him. I might even laugh at and criticize him. But those are the ideas that are really really great, the ideas that people consider trash.
And you know, guts is trash, too. So, we’re trying to push and learn and find that road that makes things make sense. It’s hard. We’re cooks. No one really tells us what to do except when we’re in the kitchen. And finding that road outside of it is very difficult. So that’s that’s one of the reasons we wanted to hold a symposium about guts.
And in a lot of ways it’s making the hard decision, because you’re going to be alone. More often than not, you make a decision that stems the tide, or is against the status quo, is criticized by your friends, your family like, “You should never do this. You should never open a restaurant.” If you ask me to open a restaurant, I’m going to be like, “That’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard.” Even myself, you know.
But when it boils down down to it, you have to believe in it to almost utter failure. And when you realize just how insignificant things are in your life, making a decision about opening a restaurant or taking a job somewhere or just generally anything, it’s not that important if it’s not your friends and your family and your love ones. Life and death really puts everything else in perspective. And along that way of loneliness, you need to keep that and in your mind, and I think that for myself it’s a good reminder of how to make decisions. Like right now, I’m going through a lot of stuff again right now and, and it puts things into perspective about why am I stressing out about something.
And there’s no real one road to success. There’s no magic bullet. You’ve just got to sort of grin and bear it and take a leap of faith in yourself. And more often than not, you land in a pile of shit. And you’ve got to find a way out and you’ve got to claw your way out. And I find that to be the case with just about anyone that has made it in their respective careers. And hopefully we can pay that forward to you again.
I’ll end it on this one little random note or analogy. There’s this terrible movie—not terrible but—the 90s movie called Gattaca. So there’s this character played by Ethan Hawke, He’s this runt in society. He’s told what he cannot do. He’s told by society that he can’t aspire to greatness because of his limitations. And you know, guts is also about being an underdog. And this movie, long story cut short, he defies the odds. He achieves his goal. Defies everything, even his own brother, who asks him how did he reach such a level of success. And I could sort of tell you all sorts of weird clichés about courage and conviction, but I thought this one was most fitting for this symposium. He said, “I never left anything for the swim back home.”
And that’s what I wish for you guys going forward. If you want to take it to the next level, myself included, I have to remind myself that you can’t look backwards. You’ve got to just hope that you can go forward, and you have to put your faith that. That somebody and something, that idea, is going to take you to that next level. So, let the festivities begin. Welcome, guys.
"Letter from Chang" on the meaning of guts.