“One part of change is looking at what our guests want, and another is just getting bored of doing the same shit over and over again.”
― Jake Lewis, Beverage Director at Momofuku
We, at Mansa, believe in the power of good food and beverage and love to learn more about the people that make it possible. Whether it be the chefs who conjure exciting dishes to scintillate taste buds or whether it be the sommeliers who find the perfect wine every single time, a lot of players in the food industry go into creating the perfect experience for diners. We bring to you Tea Time: an interview series with food culture innovators, where we interview managers, chefs, sommeliers, and restaurateurs of Michelin-star restaurants in NYC and took a peek into their lives.
Interview with Jake Lewis at Momofuku
Momofuku Noodle Bar was founded by David Chang in 2004 and was credited by many as being responsible for the rise of contemporary Asian-American cuisine. David Chang has since opened over 12 more restaurants across the United States, Australia, and Canada. They range from Fuku, a fast-casual fried chicken shop to Ko, a Japanese-kaiseki-inspired 2 Michelin star restaurant furthering a tasting menu and an extensive wine list. The restaurants have received acclaim from across the culinary world for their non-traditional offerings and innovative sustainability practices.
We interviewed Jake Lewis, the Beverage Director of the Momofuku restaurant group. Here are some highlights from the interview!
A: What were you like growing up? Have you been a foodie your whole life?
J: I was actually a pretty picky eater growing up. I liked watching food TV, which was up and coming at the time. When I was 12, I started cooking for myself and realized I really liked it. When I was 16, I thought cooking is what I wanted to do. By high school, I was taking food classes on the side. I eventually went to the University of Houston for hotel restaurant management and cooked all through college. All my extracurriculars were related to cooking. Later, I took a wine appreciation class, and once I realized that the world of wine was so diverse, I thought “Nope! I’m doing this.”
A: How was the transition from cooking to appreciating wine and beverage?
J: It’s definitely about interacting with people. For the most part, the kitchen is behind the scenes, so you don’t have that first-hand relationship from serving guests. That difference was a big part of the transition for me. The reason I got pushed into the front of the house was because as a cook I was making $8 an hour, but I needed to pay for college. So I tried waiting tables and really liked it.
Photography by Zack DeZon
A: How would you define your role as the Beverage Manager at Momofuku?
J: I oversee all of the restaurants’ beverage programs. I work with the onsite Beverage Managers to keep their programs tight. I help them find products, educational resources, and sales techniques. I try to empower them as much as possible as I’m not the one at each restaurant on a day to day basis selling products. They are the ones that have to sell it, hit the numbers, and give the guests a great experience.
For the last year, I’ve been focusing on new restaurants. We are on track to open five restaurants in 18 months, so it’s madness. If things ever normalize I’ll probably be a little heavy on Ko because it has a large list. I try to get to every restaurant in NYC at least once every 2 weeks (which is incredibly difficult); ones not in NYC, at least quarterly. I was in Toronto and DC last month, and the next trip is already on the calendar.
A: What is the difference between a Beverage Manager and a Sommelier? It seems like different restaurants use different titles.
J: Sommeliers are generally people that work in service selling wine and beverages as opposed to managing the overarching program. We call ourselves Beverage Managers because we oversee liquor, cocktails, beer, wine, coffee, tea, and else anything you drink, though we usually are sommeliers as well. New York tends to call any beverage manager a Wine Director. The term Beverage Manager in different markets means different things. For example in Vegas, it means a spirits person. It’s definitely something that we are figuring out and adapting to. Even the roles in our company have changed over the past few years. For instance, when I started, we had Beverage Managers but they didn’t run the program. Rather, they just ordered the product. We’ve since then empowered them to write lists themselves. As much as I would love to write 12 beverage programs, I can’t.
Photography by Gabriele Stabile
A: Does wine education play a large part in your role as the Beverage Manager?
J: For sure. At Nishi, our Italian restaurant, we want to have producers that people don’t necessarily know. Italian wine lists are some of the easiest to write. There are a million producers that everybody knows. You index against the classic producers but look for people that are new and upcoming that are not necessarily brand names. We look for new blood Italian wines that are not necessarily known by average people—interesting producers from Sardinia or Sicily. There’s a lot of conversation that happens when guests are selecting the wine they want. Often, they are looking for something specific and we will recommend something similar despite that it isn’t a widely known name. Give them something to hold onto before they jump.
A: We run into the same thing. For us, when we talk about young raw pu’er, we often make comparisons to green tea because it’s more widely known.
A: Given that Momofuku has so many different restaurants, how do you create unique personalities for each while maintaining the overall brand?
J: That’s the hardest part: keeping them unique while tying them together. It’s the attitude with which we design the programs that help us overcome this challenge. We have continuously evolving programs reflective of the people behind them. Our attitude towards how we build lists is very much a combination of giving guests the classics as well as “cool new stuff”. We are always looking for the next cool new thing that may one day become a classic.
A: Can you think of any examples of this at Ssäm Bar and Ko? Something that you would definitely serve in one but perhaps not the other?
J: We actually started making the programs more unique a couple of years ago when I took over because in 2016 there were no James Beard wine winners or nominees in New York which was very strange to me. When we looked at both our programs and others in the city, they were all the same. Now we create a thesis around each program. Ko, for example, is a list of the best wine producers from around the word—both classics and ones we hope will become classics. At Ssäm Bar, we decided to make that list focused on Riesling and Gamay wines because those grapes really shine and support the food we’ve had there. Those grapes tend to be underappreciated and give a great value that is reflective of Ssäm Bar and its history. The affordability of those grapes works with the east village as well.
A: Can you expand on the history of Ssäm Bar?
J: Ssäm Bar was originally designed to be a Korean burrito place but it didn’t work. After it failed, we just stuck to the “okay, fuck it, let's cook what we want” idea. It became a late-night industry go-to where they were cooking offcuts and things that the chefs really wanted to eat. At the end of the day, we ended up succeeding because of that. We are continuously thinking, “How do we get more people in? How do we find something new and unique? How can we approach this differently?” That’s where the Bo Ssäm dish (a whole pork shoulder served as a large format meal to share) at Ssäm Bar came from. Originally those were only available at the beginning and end of the night because that’s when we needed guests to come in. We are always solving our problems in very unique ways.
Photography by William Hereford
A: I love the examples you gave of the Riesling and Gamay in relation to Ssäm Bar’s identity. Do you have other examples?
J: At our DC location, CCDC, we changed the program quite a bit. The market wanted American wines, and we didn’t have many when we started. We went back through that list and created a new one that focuses on American wines, specifically highlighting wines from Virginia and Maryland. It’s super local. So far it’s been successful because we are showing people what’s in their backyards. We tend to do things the hard way. There are other restaurant groups of our size or even smaller that use the same list across all their restaurants. That just doesn’t work for us, we tailor each restaurant to each market. There’s the Momofuku brand for sure, but people see each restaurant very differently.
A: It seems like experimentation is common in your restaurants: the CCDC wine list and the Ssäm Bar’s transformation. Are there other times when you started with one idea, then changed it to another?
J: Honestly, we change almost every restaurant we’ve ever opened pretty significantly [laughing]. We are always watching, observing, then pivoting based on that information. Our ideas are always the starting point but never permanent. I mean the cuisine at CCDC has changed three times. We have embraced local cuisine more and more to represent that mid-Atlantic cuisine. In the summer, we have crab and seafood boils. When we opened we had ramen, now we don’t serve ramen there at all. In Vegas, we noticed that our crowds were looking for more luxury items, so we started adding uni courses and dishes with foie gras. One part of change is looking at what our guests want, and another is just getting bored of doing the same shit over and over again [laughing].
Photography by Anthony Mair
A: Do you think Momofuku draws people who like to experiment? And if so, what is David Chang’s role in creating that culture?
J: Yeah, I think so. we are very much down for taking risks. The best way to make big strides is to make big mistakes. David is always saying to make mistakes, learn from them, and continue forward. He’s great. He’s very much about challenging how you think about things, breaking things down just to rebuild them better. All of us tend to think about how we are going to succeed, but he makes us think about how we are going to fail and eventually get through it. I always have a nice shitty beer out for him. A shitty beer and Burgundy.
A: What’s the shitty beer? I have one in mind...
J: For us, it’s usually -not that it’s a poorly made beer- just a cheap easy lager. Something like Tiger, Kirin, Coors Light, or Bud Light. It's not like I can make them at home. They’re not easy to make. It's just that they’re easy to drink. After I bike home today, I’m going to slam a beer and that’s what it’s going to be, not some big hoppy IPA or a stout or anything like that. And honestly, I didn’t want to believe him but it does pair well with most food. It’s easy and doesn't overtake anything.
A: Do you have any rules of thumb when it comes to pairing food and beverage?
J: You need to match intensity. If you have very intensely flavored food you need to have a very intensely flavored beverage. I tend to find wines that are more of an accent to the food. Wine is like the squeeze of lemon on top of your fish. That’s my approach. I also think white wine is easier to pair than red wine. The whole idea is to lift the food. When you do it perfectly, both the food and the wine are better, though it’s super difficult to hit both at the same time.
A: I remember when we had our tea tasting last time you liked the lighter teas in our collection, such as the [Bulang 2017] Raw Pu’er and the [Fuding 2015] White Peony. Do you tend to like lighter beverages?
J: Right now I do, though I think it’s a phase. When I first started learning about wine I had an instructor who told me that wine preferences are like a clock: they are cyclical and will change. That goes for other drinks too. Nine months ago, I was drinking pu’er every day, but now I’m on a white and green tea kick. I want something light. The same goes for coffee. As soon as it hits 80 degrees, I start drinking iced coffee. This phase of light, crisp, white wines could be 6 months, a year, or 10 years, but eventually, it’ll change.
A: Right, that’s why there are so many varieties out there!
J: That’s what drives me nuts though—I'll hear people say, “I only drink cabernets.” It’s like ugh...you’re missing out on so much in the world!
A: Favorite food?
J: Hamburgers. I will travel for a good hamburger. My wife and I went to Au Cheval in Chicago a couple of years ago. It was magical. You can always go to your neighborhood burger joint but we will go to Manhattan for a good burger. My favorite burger in NYC right now is the burger from Rose's. It’s an unassuming bar in Flatbush but it’s just amazing. Dry-aged beef burger with Dukes Mayo, pickles, a sesame seed bun, and gruyere. That’s all that’s on it. It’s so good.
A: What do you like to do in your free time?
J: I like to ride my bike. I ride every day, even on humid days like today. In the fall, I'll usually do a couple of long rides. I also like to play video games, read science fiction, read science—I read as much as I can. I like physics. The theoretical stuff like parallel universes and The Big Bang and fiction based on that stuff too. Really nerdy shit. I always joke with my wife that if things ever go bad in the restaurant business I'll quit and become an astrophysicist, which isn't going to happen but…
A: Which video games have you been playing?
J: I’m still playing Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. I’ve been playing it for like two years because when I started studying [for the sommelier test] I had to stop playing. I’d play for a few months, then need to stop so I could focus on studying.
A: How long have you been studying for the sommelier exam?
J: This is my third attempt at theory, so I’ve been studying for about 4 years for this specific exam. This is my last shot probably. I don’t need it—I have a job I already want. It’s my own personal thing.
A: Wow, best of luck! Do you have a favorite Momofuku restaurant?
J: That’s hard... Kāwi is maybe my favorite right now. It’s delicious. I just dream about the rice cakes they do at lunch. However, like my favorite wine, it changes. I haven't been to Majordōmo in a while, and I want to go back to have the short ribs. I always go to Ko when my friends are in town. We go to the bar and get...everything. The burger there is delicious too.
Photography by Andrew Bezek
A: Lastly, what’s so special about Momofuku to you?
J: For me, it’s the range. The fact that we have everything from fried chicken sandwich shops to a 2-star Michelin restaurant, and everything in between. That’s what attracted me to the company when I briefly lived in Toronto. You’re not just flexing one muscle like fine dining or casual dining. It’s everything. Our attitude of always trying to improve is reflected in our cuisine and our service. It’s what makes the experience that the guests have special.
A: I can say first hand that the innovations you and the rest of the Momofuku team have made make dining at any one of the restaurants incredibly unique. I never thought I would be served chilled fried chicken alongside a glass of Burgundy at a 2 Michelin-starred restaurant. I’ve learned so much about your background, the role of a Beverage Manager, and Momofuku as a whole. Thank you so much for your time today, and good luck on the sommelier exam!