Sunday, September 22, 2019

Momofuku’s secret sauce: A 30-year-old CEO

  • >> Elizabeth G Dunn, The New York Times
    Published: 2019-08-18 01:14:29 BdST

Bar Wayo, the latest restaurant from David Chang’s Momofuku Group, sits at the edge of Pier 17 at South Street Seaport in Manhattan, with windows looking out at the East River. The name derives from “wayo secchu” — the blending of Japanese and Western styles — and on a recent Friday afternoon, a few weeks before the space opened to the public, the staff was working to dial in the concept. A dozen bartenders jiggled cocktail shakers rigged with laser pointers, trying to nail the figure-eight motion characteristic of Japanese mixology.

In the open kitchen, Chang, the company’s founder and culinary mastermind, stood in front of a whiteboard, attempting to sketch out a menu from a slew of dishes that his chefs had just presented for approval: seven-spice chicken wings, curry-stuffed doughnuts, chicken katsu hot dogs. A problem emerged — none of this was exactly light fare.

“We could have a radicchio salad with a spicy hozon dressing,” offered one chef.

“No one loves radicchio,” Chang said. “No one eats it, man, I’m sorry.”

“We could call it bitter greens,” suggested another.

Chang didn’t buy it. “No one wants bitter greens,” he said. “Stop being a chef.”

The general manager lobbed one in: “What about — I know they can be inconsistent — but what about peas?” The ideas kept coming: Cobb salad, wedge salad, little gem salad, salad of fennel and button mushrooms.

In the background, pacing and frowning into her phone, was the company’s new chief executive, Marguerite Zabar Mariscal. Now she interjected to end the discussion with authority. “Can I remind everyone that this is a bar?” Mariscal said. “We need a salad. One or two. Keep going. Next thing.”

Momofuku was founded in 2004, with an East Village ramen bar that, after some initial stumbles, wowed diners by combining pristine ingredients and impeccable technique in humble dishes that melded influences from Japan to Korea to the American south. Since then, it has become a private-equity backed company with restaurants from Sydney to Los Angeles; a growing chain of fast-casual chicken sandwich shops; a media production unit churning out television shows and podcasts; and designs on creating a line of sauces and seasonings that could capture supermarket aisles across America. While Chang is the brand’s lodestar, Mariscal, 30, is the executive who makes it all work.

FILE -- David Chang at Ko Bar in New York, Aug. 17, 2018. Marguerite Zabar Mariscal, who started as an intern in 2011, is a guiding force with Chang as they expand a restaurant empire. (George Etheredge/The New York Times)

FILE -- David Chang at Ko Bar in New York, Aug. 17, 2018. Marguerite Zabar Mariscal, who started as an intern in 2011, is a guiding force with Chang as they expand a restaurant empire. (George Etheredge/The New York Times)

Born and raised on the Upper West Side, to the family that founded the specialty foods emporium Zabar’s, Mariscal began her career at Momofuku in 2011, as a public relations and events intern. Over the years, she quietly became Chang’s closest collaborator and confidante, a largely unknown force shaping matters as varied as menu design, branding and business development. “She’s the only person I’ve ever felt comfortable giving complete carte blanche to, in terms of what Momofuku looks like and what it should be,” Chang said. He recalled suggesting to the company’s board that Mariscal be named CEO almost four years ago, when she was 26. She finally assumed the role in April.

It’s not unusual for a chef like Chang to parlay cooking talent and charisma into restaurants, cookbooks and television shows — a formula pioneered by the likes of Emeril Lagasse, Bobby Flay and Rick Bayless in the 1990s. But chef-driven food brands of the scope and ambition that Chang and Mariscal envision for Momofuku, with dozens of locations and mainstream packaged food products, are harder to pull off.

Adding to the challenge is Momofuku’s particular identity, which revolves less around a distinct culinary tradition than an attitude of restless innovation, boundary pushing and spontaneity. A formulaic chain of steakhouses, Momofuku ain’t. Scaling that ethos requires a tightrope act: Create enough structure and continuity to stave off chaos, without destroying the brand’s animating spirit in the process.

This suits Mariscal, a self-proclaimed control freak who does crossword puzzles to unwind, just fine. Colleagues say that she and Chang are alike in their relentlessly high standards. He’ll dress down a chef if items in the walk-in refrigerator aren’t all film-wrapped in a uniform way; she’ll notice if a piece of artwork is hung millimetres off true.

Momofuku employees have long looked to Mariscal as a barometer for what is right for the brand, with an uncanny touch for channelling Chang’s values and predilections. “Her intuition is almost infallible,” said Su Wong Ruiz, the general manager of Momofuku Ko, a branch with two Michelin stars. Recently, the company found itself in an ugly news cycle, when Chang publicly pleaded with his largest investor, Stephen Ross, to cancel a fundraiser for President Donald Trump. With talk of a boycott circulating on Twitter, Momofuku decided to donate one day’s profits to charities including Planned Parenthood and Sierra Club. It was Mariscal’s idea.

Christina Tosi, whose bakery brand, Milk Bar, began in 2008 as part of the Momofuku empire, said that Mariscal’s title was just now catching up with her pervasive influence on the brand. “She’s honestly been acting in this role for quite a while,” Tosi said. “How Momofuku meets you, how it makes you feel, all the little details, they’re all her.”

New Momofuku chief executive Marguerite Zabar Mariscal tries some food in the kitchen at Bar Wayo, in New York, Aug. 1, 2019. Mariscal, who started as an intern in 2011, is a guiding force with David Chang as they expand a restaurant empire. (Benjamin Norman/The New York Times)

New Momofuku chief executive Marguerite Zabar Mariscal tries some food in the kitchen at Bar Wayo, in New York, Aug. 1, 2019. Mariscal, who started as an intern in 2011, is a guiding force with David Chang as they expand a restaurant empire. (Benjamin Norman/The New York Times)

Which is to say: the pitch and texture of the leather banquettes at the new Noodle Bar in Columbus Circle, the fancy Byredo hand soap in the bathrooms at Kawi and Nishi and Bar Wayo, the psychedelic mural at CCDC in Washington. The fact that, today, at Bar Wayo, there is a solitary salad.

A CEO without her own office — or desk

Momofuku’s corporate office is on the fifth floor of an ancient-looking mid-rise building near Union Square. On a hot summer morning, Mariscal sat in a conference room not much larger than a telephone booth with two other executives, hashing out the final agenda for Bar Wayo’s employee orientation.

She had arranged for each bartender, cook, server and dishwasher to receive a pocket-size booklet codifying snippets of internal wisdom known as “the pillars”: aphorisms distilled from a Neil Young album (“rust never sleeps”), the science fiction movie “Gattaca,” and a book on leadership written by Bill Walsh, the former head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. The idea was to channel Chang in lieu of his actual presence.

After reviewing the new guidebooks, Mariscal had a meeting with Chang — rapid-fire status updates on new business opportunities — and then led a town-hall-style forum, a chance for the company’s 50 corporate employees to raise questions and concerns. Momofuku has been on a growth tear, and Mariscal was concerned that the pace of expansion had begun to wear on everyone. Today, though, the mood seemed buoyant. Fuku, the company’s fast-casual fried chicken chain, had catered a spread of sandwiches, wraps, waffle fries and salads, and people sat cross-legged on the floor with plates on their laps. A television rolled video of a campfire.

“We can all agree that the number of restaurants we’ve opened this year has been very taxing, for everyone in this room,” Mariscal said. At one point, the company was opening a new restaurant every year or two; since taking capital in 2016 from RSE Ventures, the private investment fund, the size of the restaurant portfolio has more than doubled. Bar Wayo is Momofuku’s 15th location, not including outposts of Fuku, and it is the company’s sixth opening in just over a year. Momofuku said its restaurant revenue is approaching $100 million per year.

Mariscal ran through a list of coming projects — five in all, including new locations in Los Angeles and Las Vegas — as well as the latest on Chang’s Netflix show, “Ugly Delicious,” which had recently filmed its second season. Afterward, she received an update from the company’s culinary lab on timelines for a dozen new consumer retail products, including soy sauce and seasoning blends.

Although Mariscal presents as an unusually young CEO, in the food world it is surprisingly common to find a woman running the business of a big-name male chef. The CEO of José Andrés’ ThinkFoodGroup, which operates almost three dozen restaurants in eight cities, is Kimberly Grant. Katie Grieco ran day-to-day operations at Crafted Hospitality, Tom Colicchio’s restaurant empire, from its inception in 2001 until 2018. (For two of those years, I worked as Colicchio’s assistant.) Lois Freedman has been the president of Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s restaurant group for over three decades. And while Eric Ripert is the face of Le Bernardin, the celebrated seafood restaurant, the restaurant was opened, and is co-owned, by Maguy Le Coze, a Frenchwoman whom Ripert has described as “the soul, the spirit and the boss.”

At Momofuku, Chang’s management team is dominated by women. Elizabeth Chrystal, 28, is the chief financial officer. The heads of operations, human resources and communications are all women, as are both of Momofuku’s construction project managers, and over half of its restaurant general managers. When I asked Chang whether this was intentional, he said he didn’t go out of his way to put women in leadership roles. He went out of his way to hire the best person for every job.

Bar Wayo, the new bar and restaurant in the Momofuku empire, in New York, Aug. 16, 2019. Marguerite Zabar Mariscal, who started as an intern in 2011, is a guiding force with David Chang as they expand a restaurant empire. (Will Ellis/The New York Times)

Bar Wayo, the new bar and restaurant in the Momofuku empire, in New York, Aug. 16, 2019. Marguerite Zabar Mariscal, who started as an intern in 2011, is a guiding force with David Chang as they expand a restaurant empire. (Will Ellis/The New York Times)

CHANG’S EXECUTIVE OPPOSITE

If the brilliance of Momofuku springs from the collision of opposites — the familiar and the exotic, high-end ingredients in lowbrow dishes, East meets West — Mariscal and Chang might be seen as human extensions of that polarity. Chang has described himself as a D student; Mariscal had her own business cards made at age 12. Chang speaks in imperatives. Mariscal courts consensus. She is as calm and measured as he is brash and impulsive. Recently, Mariscal organized for herself a low-key 30th birthday celebration in the backroom of a neighbourhood restaurant, and brought along a large tin of white sturgeon caviar — a Zabar family tradition. When Chang showed up, he ladled it immoderately over potato chips and sour cream, insisting that Mariscal eat her fill.

Chang said he first recalled working with Mariscal in 2013, when Ko was preparing to move from its location on First Avenue to a larger space. Mariscal’s job then was digital media — running the brand’s social media accounts and websites — but she took it upon herself to coordinate the artwork for the new restaurant, source custom stationery, produce graphics and menus, and more.

She seemed prepared to do anything to make the restaurant a success — to Chang, a supremely important trait. “Very quickly she was the person I could talk to, and bounce ideas off of, about what the brand looked like and what Momofuku meant,” he said.

ITERATING AND ITERATING THE CHOPSTICK CADDY

At Bar Wayo, the tasting and salad digression had ended, and the cooks were cleaning up their stations. Chang left for the day to catch tummy time with his infant son. As openings go, Mariscal said, this one was smooth. Still, sitting outside on the bar’s patio, she acknowledged that Momofuku’s pace of new projects was unsustainable. Even a relatively straightforward concept like Bar Wayo — a cocktail bar with a limited food menu, in a busy tourism centre — required thousands of decisions along the way, from what to name the place to what shape and style of glassware to buy to how many fryers to build into the kitchen. And there is only so much that one team can handle without letting standards slip.

Ideally, Mariscal said, the company will open one novel concept each year, on top of replicating proven formulas. “We have to find the balance between opening crazy things like Bar Wayo, and things where there’s enough consistency that our director of operations doesn’t want to blow her brains out every time we open a restaurant,” she said. She sees Noodle Bar — Chang’s first restaurant, offering ramen and pork buns — as a cornerstone of a sustainable growth strategy. Mariscal has ensured that each new version of it combines the vernacular of its own neighbourhood with aspects of the original East Village location.

Food retailing is perhaps the most lucrative frontier. Soy sauce alone is a $135 million category in the United States, according to Nielsen. Asian sauces like teriyaki and sweet-and-sour sauce represent an additional $222 million. Mariscal and Chang believe that the overall quality of Asian ingredients in American grocery stores is appallingly low, and that many of the products Momofuku makes for use in its own restaurants could be marketed to home cooks. There is hozon, a miso-like fermented chickpea paste; bonji, a fermented rye sauce similar to soy sauce; furikake, a umami-packed Japanese seasoning blend; and a habanero hot sauce originally created for Bang Bar. Each of those products is now available at Peach Mart, while the company explores wider distribution.

Momofuku’s culinary lab — which for a decade has been churning out proprietary ingredients used in the restaurants and sold to a handful of others — is now developing new products for retail sales, including a fermented soy sauce, as well as a seasoning salt.

With Momofuku’s foray into food retailing, Mariscal is, in a sense, returning to her roots. Her maternal great-grandparents, Louis and Lillian Zabar, founded Zabar’s, the iconic store that takes credit for introducing New Yorkers to brie, sun-dried tomatoes and caviar. Mariscal grew up living, like Zabars across three generations, within a 10-minute walk of the flagship store on 80th and Broadway, and briefly worked there as a cashier while attending high school at Dalton.

Mariscal’s father, an architect, provided a childhood steeped in adventurous eating. In the early aughts, before Williamsburg was awash with luxury condos, he took the family there to eat at Diner, the pioneering locavore restaurant in a refurbished dining car. On the way to the family’s house in East Hampton, Mariscal would break up the drive with a pit stop for dim sum in Flushing. Mariscal spent her 14th and 15th birthdays at WD-50, the Lower East Side destination for cerebral, avant-garde cuisine. Today, Mariscal travels widely for food — recent excursions include Sicily, Hong Kong, London and San Sebastián — but when in New York she eats as often as possible at Momofuku’s restaurants.

When it comes to Mariscal’s vision for the company’s future, Chang’s faith in her seems absolute. “He trusts her intuitively, and believes in her almost more than she believes in herself,” said Chrystal, the finance chief. “He’s ready to take her word on almost anything.”

Lately, Chang’s efforts are focused on mentoring the company’s young chefs, and on getting Majordomo Media, a multimedia venture producing food and travel content, off the ground. He’s also spending more time at home with his wife and son. Chang said he sees himself as an adviser to Momofuku, and that Mariscal controls the company’s future. “The things about Momofuku that I have a hard time articulating, I don’t have to explain to Marguerite, because Marguerite gets it,” he said. “She gets it better than I do.”

c.2019 New York Times News Service