The innovative chef behind the Momofuku empire opens up about his bipolar depression and anger in hopes of helping others get help
Pursuing a Sense of Purpose with Bipolar Depression
As David Chang tells it, he owes his culinary empire to a severe bout of bipolar depression.
When he opened his first restaurant in 2004, he didn’t consider himself much of a chef. Only four years out of culinary school, and with limited kitchen experience, he threw himself into the seemingly preposterous project of launching Momofuku Noodle Bar in New York City.
At the time, he was mired in a persistent low mood and plagued by a conviction that nothing mattered. With Momofuku, he identified a necessary purpose and passion: Challenging elitist culinary tradition and upending the idea of what “American” food is.
“It was something that gave me meaning, and it was something that gave me order,” Chang mused this past December on the Canadian radio program q’s Sound of Mind series. “I can’t speak on behalf of anyone else. But having meaning in a life where you never really found meaning before, that’s a very powerful carrot.”
From Shame to Advocacy about Talk Therapy
In interviews, on podcasts, and in his memoirEat a Peach, Chang says cooking saved his life. He speaks matter-of-factly … and wants honest discussion about depression and its darker aspects to become commonplace.
That’s his perspective at age 43. As a young man, he could barely speak to his psychiatrist because he was so ashamed to be there—much less let anyone know he was going to talk therapy and taking medication. In a conversation on actor Dax Shepard’s podcast Armchair Expert, Chang recalls his younger self thinking, “This is so embarrassing that I don’t know what to do with myself.”
Chang went public after his mentor, friend, and fellow celebrity chef, succumbed to mental health challenges in June 2018. His unexpected passing showed Chang how important it is to share when things get bad.
As Chang told Shepard, “If there’s anything that could be learned, it’s stupid to bottle it all up and not tell anybody.”
Chang’s bipolar diagnosis was officially confirmed a few years ago, so his personal narrative largely revolves around the depressive substrata in his life. Although he describes his usual persona as “hyper,” he refers only fleetingly to his manic swings over the years. He’s more forthcoming about his co-existing anxiety, accompanied by a tendency toward catastrophic thinking.
“I am terribly neurotic and filled with dread and anxiety over anything,” Chang told an Australian interviewer in September 2020. “I mean, anything—it could be watching sports and I’m like, ‘The sky is falling.’”
Still, the candid stories he tells about himself ripple with recognizable symptoms: cycling between extreme confidence and paralyzing self-doubt, boiling over with all-consuming anger, hopscotching from idea to idea, and taking entrepreneurial leaps that flout conventional wisdom.
Hard Work Met with Success & Recogition
Looking back from today’s culinary landscape, it’s hard to understand Chang’s impact in shaking up the haute cuisine establishment. While still in his 20s, Chang made a formidable stir not only within the insular circles of fine dining but also in national media. In 2008 alone, he made Esquire’s 75 Most Influential People of the 21st Century list and was profiled in the New Yorker.
His original, no-frills ramen restaurant in Manhattan’s East Village spawned a rotating roster of Momofuku-brand eateries in New York City, plus outposts in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Washington, DC, Toronto, and Sydney. Spinoffs include the Milk Bar bakery chain and Fuku, fast-food outlets on the East Coast featuring fusion fried-chicken sandwiches.
Chang himself has five Beard Awards—the Oscars of the culinary world—ranging from rising star to best chef to outstanding chef. Chang is also known for his globe-trotting food shows on Netflix, Ugly Delicious and Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner.
A number of factors have played into Chang’s worldly success. He has a questing intelligence and an analytical mind, honed by his interest in philosophy. He opened Momofuku with a sizable investment from his father, an immigrant who founded his own American success story on a golf store. He pours 110% of himself into his projects, while demanding the same of those around him.
Inherited Trauma—Feeling Excluded & Inferior
Chang also refers repeatedly to a deep-seated rage as the “creative fuel” that propels him. He attributes that wellspring to a lifetime of feeling like he didn’t fit in, even as a skeptic within his church-attending family.
His high-school years were a time of pervasive sadness, anxiety, and feelings of inferiority. He writes in Eat a Peach that he “wasn’t Asian enough to hang out with the other Asians” at the prestigious private high school he attended in Washington, DC. He didn’t have the grades or the book smarts to fit in with the serious students. He had already internalized a sense of not being good enough during a childhood shaped by what he describes as an angry, autocratic father.
Joe Chang grew up in war-torn North Korea, where his childhood was swallowed by the struggle to survive. He came to the US in 1963 with $20 in his pocket, speaking no English, sleeping in movie theaters, and taking entry-level restaurant jobs.
On NPR’s Fresh Air, the younger Chang told host Terry Gross that his dad hated visiting him in New York City “because of the trauma he had living there as a kid in his early 20s.”
After settling in northern Virginia in the early 1970s, Chang’s dad was determined to provide for his wife and four children. He opened a deli, then a restaurant, before establishing the golfing venture that would become young Dave’s home-away-from-home.
David Chang recalls being raised largely by his mother’s gentle, doting parents while his own parents worked long hours. Still, Chang’s father dominates accounts of his formative years. Every report card, every golf game, his dad would dissect his failings and point out how he could have done better.
“He only understood success through tangible things, objective things,” Chang reflected in a piece in Inc. magazine. “It was conditional love.”
In his memoir, Chang calls his dad “the archetype of a certain Korean man,” authoritarian and demanding. When seen in Asian families, that strict child-rearing style often gets tagged as “tiger parenting.” Chang derides the term as “a cute name [for] what is actually a painful and demoralizing existence.” While he points out not all Asian Americans experience this type of upbringing, he did, and it was painful.
Diving into Expertise to Stave Off Bipolar Depression
Chang has said in interviews that his father didn’t want him to become a chef because of how back-breaking and poorly paid the profession can be. He’d toyed with the idea of cooking for a living even while studying religion and philosophy at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.
After graduating in 1999 without a clear-cut direction, Chang ended up going to Japan to teach English. His sojourn there was life-changing. For one thing, he experienced his first full-blown manic episode, riding high on boundless energy and devouring “dense Russian classics” in a few days, he writes in his memoir. For another, he fell in love with the ramen bars and street food he found there.
After a short-lived, soul-stifling stint in finance and a year knocking around other jobs, Chang enrolled in New York City’s French Culinary Institute (now the International Culinary Center). He worked his way into positions at leading-edge restaurants. He went back to Asia for further immersion in the art of creative, carefully prepared, yet affordable meals.
Chang threw himself into the precise, repetitive chores of restaurant food prep to master the skills he needed. The routine also became a coping technique for his deepening depression.
“Nothing makes sense in the world, and your life is in complete disarray—but man, you suit up, you put on your apron, you clean your claws, you sharpen your knives, everything is anarchy, and you have control over it,” he explains in the Sound of Mind interview. “That’s addictive. It’s the only thing I could control.”
Chang embraced overwork as a way to smother what he calls the “constant thrum of depression in the back of my skull.” If he didn’t stay anchored in the busyness of business, he writes in Eat a Peach, the lurking foe “could flip me over and pin me to the ground.”
Yet he also notes that hitting rock bottom for a workaholic paradoxically can mean getting to the top of a profession.
Anger on Tap & Kitchen Culture Extremes
If Chang found salvation in the restaurant business, he also sank into an environment antithetical to managing bipolar. Think brutally long hours, plus a workday out of sync with mainstream society. A pressure-cooker environment that makes it hard to come down when the shift is over. A working culture that endorses recreational drug use and heavy drinking.
Chang was already prone to self-medicating and numbing his emotions with substance use. As he puts it, “I wanted not to be me.” Alcohol became a typical way to socialize with colleagues, a necessary means of stress relief, and a favored sleep aid.
Prevailing kitchen culture also involved verbal attacks by the head chef for minor failings. Those tirades were accepted as normal, even necessary, a way to hone excellence and weed out wannabes.
Once on his own path, Chang rejected the kitchen hierarchy but kept the belief in cooking as a sacred mission—and the free pass for temper tantrums. In fact, his bouts of rage and belittling behavior became notorious even in a generation of “bad boy” chefs.
“I hate that the anger has become my calling card,” he admits in his memoir. “With friends, family, my co-workers, and the media, my name has come to be synonymous with rage. I’ve never been proud of it, and I wish I could convey to you how hard I’ve tried to fight it.”
Kitchen culture, Chang’s workaholism, and his volatile emotions made a dangerous mix for Momofuku employees. In his mind, any mistake by an employee equaled “an attack on me and my values,” and he reacted as if to a personal threat.
“I was a horrible boss, and I ruled with fear and commands,” Chang confesses in the Fresh Air interview, adding: “I spent my entire life making sure I would never be like my dad, and I wound up being exactly like my dad to so many people, and I just couldn’t see it.”
Seeking Treatment & Seeds of Change
Chang has said he spent “hundreds and hundreds of hours” in therapy grappling with his anger and his relationship with his father. He started seeing a psychiatrist in 2003, during that bleak period when he devised the plan to open Momofuku.
“The way we grew up, what form of media told you that strength was asking for help?” he muses on Armchair Expert. On top of that, he continues, visiting a psychotherapist or psychiatrist didn’t exist in Asian American households: “The remedy is, stop crying. Suck it up. Toughen up.”
However, Chang did warm slowly to the idea of taking psychiatric medications. As far as bipolar meds, he reportedly has started on a formulation approved for bipolar depression.
Chang’s work with his psychiatrist revolved around ascertaining why he behaved as he did. After a particularly dark period at age 35, he started working with an executive coach who pushed him to behave differently. Getting feedback about his employees’ negative views of him and his behavior fed into his efforts to change.
Self-transformation doesn’t come easily or quickly, of course, and Chang points out all he can do is keep trying. As he told People magazine before Eat a Peach came out in September 2020, “I’m a work in progress. I’m still at it.”
Family Focus: Fatherhood & Food Reimagined
Chang credits part of any progress he’s made to the influence and calming support of his wife, Grace Seo, whom he married in 2017, and the birth of their son, Hugo.
When Chang learned he and Grace were expecting a child, he doubled down on his ongoing work to mend his ways and make amends. He is determined to be the loving, supportive dad his son deserves.
“I’m trying to be the best version of myself because I can’t have Hugo be raised the way I was raised. I just couldn’t do that,” he said in a Dave Chang Show podcast episode after his father’s June 2020 death.
He also noted he loved his dad despite their “complicated relationship” and respected the sacrifices he’d made for his family.
The turmoil of losing his father came amid the impact of the pandemic, which hit the restaurant industry hard. Momofuku restaurants had to shutter dining rooms, experiment with pick-up and delivery service, and, in some cases, close altogether.
On the flipside, he’s also had more time to spend with his family. Cooking for a child has him thinking in a new way about what it means to feed people and the kind of food he wants to make. Thus, he launched the podcast Recipe Club, in which chefs tackle home cooking.
The forced slow-down has been eye-opening for a man who has always equated professional success with self-worth.
“It’s made me reevaluate so many things—being a dad, being present, and realizing that no matter how hard I work or whatever, it doesn’t matter,” he mused to Terry Gross. “All you want for anybody … is just unconditional love.”
* * * * *
Page-Turner: Eat a Peach
Quotes throughout this feature are excerpted from David Chang’s memoir Eat a Peach. Co-author Gabe Ulla, a food writer and longtime friend, guided without stifling the chef’s blunt voice. The book mixes autobiography, culinary philosophy, restaurant-by-restaurant backstories, and reflections on Asian American identity. (Fun fact: “Eat a Peach” alludes to Momofuku’s logo and the name’s suggested translation as “lucky peach,” but it’s also the title of Chang’s favorite album by the Allman Brothers Band.)
Printed as “David Chang: Recipe for Change,” Spring 2021
Former performance poet Bassey Ikpi is tired of retelling her story about dark times and struggles with bipolar depression. She wants you to know that it’s worth putting in the work to get healthy and stay there. Performer & Activist In the world of Google searches, Bassey Ikpi has two major claims to fame. The...
When mania resulted in hospitalization and a bipolar diagnosis, I struggled with my career, faith, parenting, and more. I wanted answers. But I needed a new purpose. New Struggles & Hard Realizations After Hospitalization for Bipolar I wasn’t diagnosed with bipolar disorder until I was 35 years old, in May 2006. I had struggled with...
I started college early and pursued multiple degrees in different fields over many years. Navigating it all with bipolar meant overcoming tricky issues of disclosure, accommodation, and managing expectations and emotions. Seeking Dual Enrollment for Higher Education Once the summer of 1987 was over, I went to school on the first day of my senior...
A successful student newly diagnosed with bipolar, I was initially unprepared for the transition to college. Here’s what can help you prepare for this exciting next step. Tips for Transitioning to College Life As an incoming freshman, or first-year college student, I was entirely unprepared for the transition from high school to university life. I...