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David Chang Discusses Mental Health And His New Memoir

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

David Chang is a world-famous chef and food celebrity, but something eats at him for much of his life and in his new memoir. It's his anger and often his depression. He recounts his rise from a failed high school golfer to a James Beard Award-winning chef, restaurateur and tastemaker in his new book, which has no recipes, "Eat A Peach."

Chef David Chang joins us now from Los Angeles. Thanks so much for being with us.

DAVID CHANG: Thank you so much for having me - real honor.

SIMON: You know, sir, in the first few pages, you've got a line that just stops a reader cold, when you say, I'm not supposed to be here. Why?

CHANG: So much of who I am has been my battle with depression. And my battle with my own self has resulted in a lot of good things and bad things. But oftentimes, I look back at how I started my restaurant career as an owner, and really the reason why I ventured in doing something so foolish was because I was looking at life in a very binary option.

SIMON: Binary option, meaning...

CHANG: I was in a very dark place. And, you know, the worst thing you could do was obviously not just harm yourself but harm other people. It's life or death, right? That's - it can be the great decider of things. And so much of my life up until that point had been not very fruitful. I was like, what's the point? It's like, OK. I've, reached the low point. What are my next options? Door 1, which is to end it all, or I can do things that I've never done before because at the end of the day, nothing really matters. And that sort of fatalistic outlook in some ways propelled me to be a person that I wasn't.

SIMON: I have to ask, because you touch on this, your father died in June. As you said in a Facebook post, you had a complicated relationship with him. Firstly, how are you dealing with the loss of your father? What was that complicated relationship like?

CHANG: I've had to sort of look at the totality of my father and realize that he was a war refugee. Korea in the '50s and '60s was decimated. He came to this country in 1963 with nothing, with $20 in his pocket, a story that seems to be trite and cliche but very true for many immigrants and worked his entire life to sort of rebuild and to provide a life that would eventually be four kids and a wife. And I know from his side of the family it was very rough. You know, he was born in North Korea, and he didn't have a childhood. It was about survival. And as children of immigrants, how are you supposed to ever empathize with the contrasting cultures? And I didn't have that capacity. He didn't have that capacity. And the only way he learned how to be a father was how he was taught.

And in the hindsight of 20/20 vision, it's seen as quite abusive, right? And I think that's a tale that many Asian immigrant kids can certainly attest to. And my father only knew how to express his love not by saying it or being emotive - was by work and by financially finding means to provide for his family. And in his later years of his life, he certainly tried to reconcile. And I'm learning to forgive. And now that I'm a father myself for the first time, I have an option. I can repeat the same mistakes, or I can, you know, be the version that I'm allowed to. I have the privilege and the freedom to do that because he came to this country. And for better or worse, that's what America can provide, you know?

And the hardest part, though, about that is I have been my father to actually some people in my life. Some of them have been my own employees when I was younger. And when you think about it, I grew up in a household where I was yelled at and basically cowered in fear. I went to Georgetown Prep, which is hard, man (laughter). There was a lot of - you know, I've been yelled at basically my entire life. And then I found a way to find a professional calling in kitchens. That was 20 years ago. Twenty years ago was sort of the last end of kitchens that were of the older era, where it was incredibly verbally abusive and such. And, you know, when I think about that, I was like, whoever taught me otherwise? And that hurts to see.

SIMON: I'm going to switch gears, if we can. I got to ask about the origins of your restaurant - boy, I hope I pronounced this correctly - Fuku.

CHANG: Yes, F-U-K-U.

SIMON: Yep. That's kind of your answer to Chick-fil-A, right?

CHANG: Well, the idea of it was born out of Chick-fil-A and the fact that I don't agree with the politics at all. And I was like, we can do it better. We can do it differently.

SIMON: I have to ask you about the slogan that you came up with for the wrappers. I can't bring myself to say it.

CHANG: I will say it, Scott.

SIMON: All right.

CHANG: In some ways, everything I've done in retrospect has been some expression of not just food, of trying to push the boundaries of what Asian American identity is. And Fuku was, weirdly enough, everything about it was to see a fast food restaurant through an Asian American perspective. And we don't have to go into all the aspects, but one of which was I thought it would be funny and also a subversive thing to put dericious on the wrappers instead of delicious. And it's how - I mean, it's true. It's how my mother says delicious. It's something that I wanted to put on to hopefully start a larger conversation about, wow, this is problematic. I can't believe that we have the word dericious on bags.

You know, Scott, at that state, now that I can look back on it, I was certainly in a manic phase of my bipolar disorder where everything seems like a juicy idea. This was one of those juicy ideas that I look back on and be like, wow, that's totally crazy. And we did it. And it didn't have the intended effect. It became something that people would laugh about instead of taking it seriously. And that's when I knew it had to change.

SIMON: Yeah. You were friends, of course, with the late Tony Bourdain. And I'm wondering, because you must have reflected on this knowing him and for that matter in your own life, why is it that you can have every reason to be happy, not just success and fame and comfort, but love and family, and still be depressed?

CHANG: Well, Scott, I think we should rethink that question. Can some individual have everything - love, family, success - and still have asthma, still have leukemia? It takes time to view mental illness as something that is not a taboo subject but something that is as commonplace as someone using an inhaler to help breathe better - right? - as something that is different and acceptable. And I think that needs to change.

SIMON: Well, you're very brave and good to talk about it so openly with us. By the way, we want to remind anybody listening that if you're ever tempted by thoughts of suicide, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is at 1-800-273-8255, or you can text home - H-O-M-E - to 741741. That's the Crisis Text Line.

CHANG: Scott, can I add something to that?

SIMON: Surely please.

CHANG: If you're listening and you're having suicidal tendencies or you're asking yourself, you know, am I depressed or whatever, a lot of times - and I've spoken to a lot of people - calling this number is an embarrassing thing, right? It's OK. And if you don't call it, there's other ways. The hardest thing you can do is ask for help. But I think one of the things that has to change, again, in this world of how we view it is strength isn't actual strength. I think strength is admitting your weakness. And asking for help is the most courageous thing you could possibly do. And it's not always a hotline. There's many avenues available to you, and you just have to hold out hope that things will be better.

SIMON: Yeah. Boy, I'm glad we spoke with you. Chef David Chang - his memoir is called "Eat A Peach." Thank you so much, chef, for being with us so much of yourself. Thank you.

CHANG: Thanks, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.