Executive chef, Momofuku Ssäm Bar, New York
A decade ago, executive chef Max Ng resolved to work for Momofuku, chef David Chang’s restaurant brand known for unpretentious, Asian-influenced, innovative cuisine. Ng had gained enough kitchen experience by then—in establishments such as the catering arm of Au Jardin in Les Amis and even onboard a yacht—to know that “good food needs to be approachable on a daily basis.” Coming across the Momofuku cookbook, what he read of Momofuku Ssäm Bar and Momofuku Ko resonated well with his beliefs.
The former had morphed from serving only ssäm (Korean lettuce wraps)-burritos to a casual restaurant inspired by global ingredients; while two-Michelin-starred Momofuku Ko, a Japanese kaiseki-and-seasonal produce-inspired restaurant, specialised in flavour-packed tasting menus. Putting thought to action, Ng moved to New York in 2011, enrolling at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). From there, he started as a CIA extern at Ssäm Bar, then moved on to Ko as commis, working his way up through the ranks to chef de cuisine in 2016. Mid last year, he moved back to Ssäm Bar, this time as executive chef.
When you became chef de cuisine at two-Michelinstarred Ko in 2016, did you feel the pressure?
Whether it’s at Ko or Ssäm Bar, there is definite pressure to be better than you were the day before. We all aspire to be a better version of ourselves. There is not always a linear line of positive progression, but if the overall trend is upwards, that’s all that matters.
We get many patrons and diners from all facets of life and many of them are international travellers. Some caught my accent and tried to guess where I’m originally from. Guesses vary from Singaporean to Norwegian, and usually we end up talking about the wonders of travelling and new experiences.
How have you refreshed Momofuku Ssäm Bar since becoming its executive chef?
Ssäm Bar is an accumulation of the influences of David Chang and the chefs who have come before me here. Without their input and influences, I could not have done or be able to continue doing what I am doing now. From that base, I have started to include some Singaporean/Southeast Asian influences and components of dishes that remind me of home and childhood and how travelling influenced the way I look at other cultures.
How do you usually conceptualise new menus and dishes?
The menu at Ssäm Bar is always evolving so we are usually working on multiple food ideas, dishes, or concepts. Some make it to the menu, some don’t. Last year, we did a corn dish that was an amalgamation of corn snacks from various night markets. It reminded me of a roasted corn street snack in Taiwan, fried corn kernels in Singapore, and roasted Mexican corn with queso, lime and chile, along with other influences from my travels to Hong Kong and Japan. We might do a similar dish this year when corn season comes around.
We always try to find the overlap in dishes. For example, fried chicken is also a huge ‘food group’ on its own, whether it’s ayam penyet, fried chicken from the American south or Korean-style fried chicken. And tripe dishes have its roots in multiple cultures, such as the Roman-Italian trippa, the Mexican menudo/ pancita, or the Korean tripe stew. These thought processes help us in making dish decisions.
Does Ssäm Bar’s concept lend itself easily to incorporating Southeast Asian ingredients?
The key is still finding common ground amongst dishes and ingredients. If there is a dish or component that I feel will contribute to the menu—whether it’s something from my heritage or something new to me—it still goes through our standard vetting process before it makes it onto the menu. The banana leaf skate and belachan on the menu, for instance, is something that resonates with me as I used to frequent the East Coast Park hawker centre back in the day. And my first addition to Ssäm Bar’s dessert menu was pandan coconut pie to show my love for kaya, and how pandan is the one key ingredient that helps accentuate coconut.
Southeast Asian cuisine is gaining wider interest and acceptance internationally. How do you see it growing in in the New York food scene?
There are so many cuisines that make up Southeast Asian cuisine, and each of those cuisines has influenced the New York’s food scene over time and continues to do so. It’s crucial for one to be proud of one’s personal heritage and to embrace one’s cultural identity, as it has a huge effect on affecting change.
What’s your greatest inspiration for keeping on a chef’s path and what dreams do you have in the next five years?
I never expected to be where I am today. I was only supposed to stay at Momofuku for one year after I graduated from the CIA. But it was a series of short term goals that led me to my current stage in my career. I try to plan ahead, but my primary focus is to continue to improve Ssäm Bar. We are not trying to reinvent the wheel, we are just trying to be a little bit better every day and hit the goals we set for ourselves.