The newest article about FiveThirtyEight’s search for America’s Best Burrito featured Momofuku chef and owner David Chang, who served on our Burrito Selection Committee as a scout for the Northeast. After the BSC meeting, I spoke on the phone with Chang, who was traveling in Australia. He explained why burritos are one of the foods he’s still excited about and why Yelp reviewers are like armchair investors.
Anna Maria Barry-Jester: You own 12 restaurants. You won outstanding chef at the James Beard Restaurant and Chef awards in 2013. You trained at the French Culinary Institute. Your pedigree is solid. But you rose to fame not for haute cuisine, but rather fast food (ramen, to be precise). What do you like about fast food?
David Chang: Most people eat fast food, and I like the dichotomy of slow fast food, or fast food that takes a long time to make but is very fast to serve. I like the challenge of trying to serve something really delicious in a medium that most people don’t find to be traditionally delicious. If I could sum it up, it’s not that much fun cooking $400 meals for people who can afford an expensive meal, and it’s really exciting and challenging to cook for people who don’t care about eating well, but when they taste something, they love it. That’s the real challenge. That’s what makes me happy.
AMBJ: How do you take something like the burrito — a working-class food, big calorie bang for your buck — how do you take something that’s, in theory, simple in ingredients and technique and make it great?
DC: I don’t know. I think I’m learning, which is why I still like to go out to eat a burrito. I’m constantly learning what might be delicious. There are so many different techniques of burritoism. It seems like a pretty simple thing to do, but obviously there are 68,000 in America, and not that many people do it well. How to roll a burrito is really difficult. And to find the right ratio of ingredients to the size — skinny burrito vs. fat burrito, quality of the tortilla, and the type of rice you use. Another thing that we’ve learned is the liquid ratio in the burrito. You can’t have it too saucy, but you can’t have it too dry.
AMBJ: What was it like for you to take data and try to learn about something so close to your heart?
DC: At first, I didn’t understand it — not because I didn’t understand [the numbers], but I didn’t understand how it would work, how the data would actually show me something. But if 50,000 people gave five stars to a place you hated, you had to account for it, in that there might be a reason why people liked it. To be able to quantify that was something really interesting. Data with food is interesting, to look for empirical evidence of why people like something. Boiling down to 64 burrito shops from all these numbers, all this data, it still wound up that the data was a tool to discuss personal subjective opinion.
AMBJ: You reached out to your network of cook and chef friends to find out about restaurants. What was the difference between the experience of a chef going to a restaurant and a Yelp reviewer?
DC: That’s a very tough question. But I’m just going to come out and say: Most of the Yelp reviews are wrong. They just are. Yelp is great for finding information if you forgot the address of a place. You Google it, you say, “Yes, that’s where it is,” and then maybe you spend some time reading reviews when you’re already on your way to the restaurant. And that’s useful. But for the most part, no chef is going to take a Yelper’s review seriously, even though they might read them.
AMBJ: Do you read Yelp reviews of your restaurants?
DC: I don’t, because I know that there’s just too much hate out there. But that’s another interesting thing, when a restaurant becomes popular enough, the reviews become way more negative. It could be that the food made the place popular, but then this is what is interesting about Yelp — the reviews will say, “This is the best burrito I’ve ever had!” It’s in Detroit, Michigan, and then it becomes world famous and people go out of their way to go to this burrito shop that was never supposed to be a tourist destination. Then all these people leave a little unhappy because it’s not the best burrito they ever had.
[Yelpers] are just not professional critics. The best analogy I can give is fantasy sports or lawn-chair stockbrokers. For the most part, unless you’re really studying the stats and you’re a former football player or baseball player and know the industry inside and out, it’s most likely that your insights aren’t that great.
My big philosophy is that I still want everyone to leave the restaurant extraordinarily happy. And when they leave the restaurant, that’s really the only thing you can control: How they feel about the food.
AMBJ: Right, and on Yelp, you’re reviewing multiple things with just one rating — you’re reviewing your experience, the service, your mood that day, the decor and then also the food.
DC: When you get reviewed by one of the top critics, they are advocates for the consumer. Even though they have their own personal bias, they are working to put themselves in the shoes of what somebody might want in terms of value and food for the people who might go to that restaurant. The problem with Yelp is it’s so personal; reviewers only think about themselves: “I don’t think anyone should go to this restaurant. It’s the worst.” There’s just not enough empathy to think about how other people might experience it. It’s only from their lens. Also, Yelpers don’t have any professional protocol. They sit down and say, “If you don’t do this, we’re going to give you a bad Yelp score.” We’re like, what the fuck?
AMBJ: You wrote me in an email that it was really tough to make recommendations for the top 16 Burrito Selling Establishments in the Northeast. Other BSC members had no problem picking the top four seeds, but making recommendations about the next 12 was tough. You seemed to have the opposite problem. What did you find in the Northeast?
DC: While there are a lot of worthy spots, there weren’t many that I felt easy to distinguish as a top seed, no clear-cut candidate for No. 1. Sometimes the [Value Over Replacement Burrito scores] were inflated because they’re in a college town, which is always a phenomenon. I think that Chicago has better Mexican cuisine than anywhere else on the East Coast, because of the quality of the ingredients and the fact that the community there is already sort of integrated. You would think that New York would have better Mexican food, and while it’s pretty good and clean, it’s not as great as it should be. Maybe that’s my feeling on food in general — it should always be better, but that was my feeling about the Northeast.