Food by VICE

Momofuku Taught Me How to Not Be a Total Hack

I’m a kid who learned how to cook in the Momofuku empire. The chefs taught me how to not be a complete piece of shit prep cook.

by James Mark
Nov 24 2015, 6:00pm

I'm a kid who learned how to cook in the Momofuku empire.

Initially, I was a cook at Ko when it opened, demoted within three days to AM dishwasher, then slowly began to learn my way under the strict tutelage of chefs Peter Serpico, Sam Gelman, Mitch Bates, and Sean Gray. They taught me how to not be a complete piece of shit prep cook.

MAKE IT: James Mark's Crispy Brussels Sprouts.

A little less than a year after I started, I moved down the street to help Christina Tosi, Momofuku's resident pastry chef, open the first Milk Bar. The space itself was shared with Momofuku Ssam bar, a place that was—and remains—a very special restaurant. At the time, Tien Ho was chef de cuisine, and along with his crew, he and Chang created many of the iconic dishes of the empire out of that kitchen.

The chefs at Momofuku Ko taught me how to not be a complete piece of shit prep cook.

These crispy Brussels sprouts were one of those dishes.

Everyone ordered that dish off the menu; it was something so seemingly simple, and yet for many, it changed how they felt about the vegetable (myself included). They werethe sprouts, that iscut from the stem, then halved. Raw and then deep-fried, they were then dressed in a fish sauce and lime vinaigrette, topped with puffed rice, and scallions.

It's an incredibly simple dish, but it's a lesson in the value of bitterness, acidity, the natural sweetness that is already present in so many vegetables, and the importance of balancing all of these attributes with fat. By frying the Brussels sprouts, Ssam Bar brought out the sweetness along with the bitterness found in the charred edges and outer leaves. It also trapped a small amount of oil within each sprout, which was then balanced by an acidic, funky, and slightly spicy dressing of lime juice, fish sauce, and chile. The addictive crispy texture of the fried leaves were reinforced with the puffed rice. It is, deservedly, a modern classic.

It also happens to be copied. A lot.

Many restaurants that make this dish now often have a subpar method, missing the nuances of balancing this dish. Making it at home is almost completely out of the question. What the above method does not mention is that frying Brussels sprouts is an extremely dangerous proposition. As soon as the raw sprouts hit the hot oil, they splatter all over the place, which has led to some serious burns for both professional and home cooks.

While trying to avoid third-degree-burns at home, what we can do is draw lessons from what Tien and Chang did.

Frying Brussels sprouts is an extremely dangerous proposition. When they hit the hot oil, they splatter all over the place, which has led to some serious burns for cooks.

The first thing to do is create the tension of sweet inner sprout with charred exterior leaves. Many cooks roast Brussels sprouts, but then pull them when they are golden brown.

This is a mistake.

The natural sweetness of the cabbage means that it takes super well to get to that charring point. Step one: roast the Brussels sprouts as hard as possible. You've got to start with a hot oven, a small amount of oil and NO salt. No one wants the sprouts to leech too much liquid out. At North, we coat the sprouts with a dressing of roasted garlic and citrus. And while the roasted Brussels sprouts will never get quite as crispy as the fried ones, topping them with fried and fresh shallots can give them that same mouthfeel.

When dishes that are really delicious exist in the restaurant universe, the easy route is to try to copy them. Ultimately, that is a near impossible task. There will always be some element—the fryer temperature, where the lime came from, how old the fish sauce is—that will be different, or it might just be that sitting at the bar at an awesome restaurant in the East Village just can't be copied at home or in another city. What we can take, however, is that there are lessons to be learned in great dishes that can be used to make great new dishes.

There is nothing sacred in what chefs do, but when we learn to look at a dish beyond its ingredients, I think that is where great cooking can happen.