Restauranteur David Chang spent last week preparing for and celebrating the launch of his new Netflix TV food show Ugly Delicious, partly, if not primarily, at his latest hotspot Majordōmo in Los Angeles. On Tuesday night, he invited a small group of family and friends to dine, an intimate gathering that, among other famous attendees, included longtime pal Nick Kroll, who has his own Netflix series, the comedy Big Mouth.
Thus, the timing seemed only right to have the two friends reflect on what they learned on their way to stardom, and to express what it is to make cuisine funny and to take comedy seriously. The two sat on either side of this reporter, loudly finishing each other sentences and the last bit of wine, and showing off pictures of their dads.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You knew each other when you were younger, in New York. What was your first impression of each other?
NICK KROLL: We had friends in common — my high school friends went to college with Dave. I met him at a pub crawl, and I thought, “This guy who wants to go do his thing and doesn’t really care what other people think about him.”
What did your contemporaries think of your respective careers?
KROLL: [Pointing to himself, then pointing to Chang] “You’re never going to be a comedian… and you’re never going to be a chef.”
DAVID CHANG: “You’re not funny, and you’re not a good cook.”
KROLL: Like, “Oh, good luck on your fun little quest. We’ll see you in a trading floor.”
CHANG: This was about 15 years ago.
KROLL: No s–t, that long? Wow. He was just getting ready to open [Momofuku] Noodle Bar and getting reamed out by chefs. I was doing open mics at [now-defunct] Rififi at 11th Street and Noodle Bar was literally around the corner. So he would come by. We’d see each other dead-eyed, tired, and feeling like nobody’s going to want to do the thing we’re trying to do. And then people really wanted to do the thing he was doing. Took me a little bit longer.
Then I was living two blocks away from [Momofuku] Ssäm Bar, I just went early on and often. And I was like, “I’m going to bother Chang and go to this restaurant, because nobody wants to eat at his late night Korean f—in’ burrito place. I’ll show some loyalty.” And then he figured it out. Is that a fair thing to say?
CHANG: Very fair. It was the commiserating, after him and John Mulaney would go out and do their act. We were not busy, not doing well. But the only person I thought who was doing worse than me was Nick Kroll. He’d be performing for, like, 10 people. But he was probably thinking, “You’re cooking for 10 people too.”
When did you ever think, “David finally made it?”
KROLL: I remember being at Ssäm Bar and he brought us bread and butter and was like, “Would you pay for this?” And we ate it and I was like, “Yeah I would pay eight bucks for bread and butter.” And it was because it was like aged Vermont butter with sea salt on top…
CHANG: Weirdly enough, it was a landmark dish for us because everyone had thought about doing it. We’re probably the first restaurant to charge for bread and butter.
KROLL: I knew he made it when he could get me to pay for f—in’ bread and butter. And then one day he’ll start a restaurant that only serves Dr. Pepper and everyone would be like “Hokay…”
CHANG: I’m just pranking everyone all the damn time.
Did you ever think, “Oh, god, Nick is gonna be ok?”
CHANG: I don’t think we’re ever gonna say we’re gonna be ok, we’re way too neurotic. [Laughing]
KROLL: Yes, that is the truth. That is, like, a constant thing. At any point it can all come apart.
CHANG: I was at a conference and Kroll’s dad [Jules B. Kroll, the billionaire founder of Kroll, Inc.] is one of the keynote speakers. And he comes and he sits down with me, and I’m talking to his dad and he’s full of so much wisdom, and he’s awesome, and I think, “Oh, Kroll’s dad is like the dad I’ve always wanted.”
KROLL: Meanwhile, Chang’s dad has been my comedy coach for the last 10 years.
CHANG: He’s the Korean Rodney Dangerfield.
KROLL: He gets no respect — from his son. [Laughing] My dad loves meeting David because my dad is an entrepreneur and has seen what I do as entrepreneurial. But then he met Chang and was like, “Oh, this is what a very successful entrepreneur is.”
What is the bar for success for a comedian, compared to the bar of success in the food realm?
KROLL: I’ve been able to do a bunch of the things I’ve always wanted to do, but the difference with Chang is that you would have to reinvent what comedy is to accomplish with David has accomplished with food, which has completely changed the paradigm and in various ways.
So, have you changed the paradigm?
CHANG: No, he’s talking out his ass.
KROLL: And by the way, it’s the best bowel movement I’ve had in weeks. I have taken notes from how he works which is uncompromising and yet accessible, which is I think a very hard thing to thread, that needle. And I think he’s done it at every one of his restaurants and it’s always the restaurant that I want to bring my friends to.
CHANG: But here’s the thing. He’s, like, really talented, and it shows. This is like what you asked — am I an entertainer? Do I want to entertain? Nick is really funny.
KROLL: If I were as good at “cook” as you are at “funny,” I would have a restaurant at this point. But I don’t. But you have a TV show so there you go. And here’s what I mean. We saw each other in Korea during the Olympics. I was shooting this indie movie with three people, he’s out there, and we went out to dinner, and I swear to God, even though we ordered our own dishes at this restaurant, he couldn’t help it, he made his own thing, made a little skillet out of ribeye that he put into a boiling concoction of garlic and peppers and s–t. It was like high-end French Korean food that tasted like cheesesteak. It was incredible.
CHANG: I’m working like a dog, he’s working like a dog. We were both running around, we both were dead tired. We were just trying to find a place to get together.
KROLL: Every night in Korea, we tried, and finally it was Valentine’s Day and we were able to hang out.
CHANG: And he said, “I always knew I’d be your valentine.”
KROLL: I call him my Korean Valentine.
Ugly Delicious is available for streaming on Netflix now.