Chang is indeed a talented and earnest cook, who had the courage and originality to find a way of serving good restaurant food in a casual setting, at a price people can afford. And Ssäm Bar is really, really cool. But that’s it. He didn’t invent the wheel.
He’s also not as good a cook as giants like Jean-Georges, Gray Kunz, or Daniel Boulud, or for that matter his old bosses Andrew Carmellini or Marco Canora. (Much of the cooking at Ssäm is actually done by Tien Ho and Joaquin Baca.) And despite the fact that he’s opening a new restaurant, he still has a lot to prove as a restaurateur. Ssäm almost sank because (a) it had no sign and (b) his opening menu was centered around dull-as-paint “Asian burritos.” And this is the man who has revolutionized dining?
Still, Chang’s tireless work ethnic and torqued-up sincerity helped cast him as the hero of the anti-fine-dining movement. Who needs sommeliers when you have Benton ham? That’s the theme of all these articles, but it’s wishful thinking. Benton’s ham has its place, as does pluck and personality, and even creative riffing on Asian food. But high cuisine, coordinated armies of staff, and decades of experience in the business matter too. As much as we like Chang, we can’t figure out why everybody wants to pretend otherwise.