Just let us have all our crunchy chili/chile condiments, please.

David Chang was always Goliath

The king of the Momofuku empire is targeting small Asian-owned business over spicy chili trademarks

Just let us have all our crunchy chili/chile condiments, please.

Source image from Kat Lieu

David Chang’s original Netflix series Ugly Delicious is also an apt title for the spicy situation he currently finds himself in: A recent report by The Guardian reveals that Chang’s culinary juggernaut company Momofuku is embroiled in a trademark dispute with several small AA+PI-owned businesses. The dispute revolves around the use of terms like "chili crunch" and "chile crunch," on small businesses’ condiment product labels, sparking accusations of bullying by the celebrity chef. Momofuku, which does own the trademark for “chile crunch” is attempting to trademark the term “chili crunch” with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). Momofuku acquired the “chile crunch” trademark from a Denver company Chile Colonial LLC in 2023. 

Momofuku’s “chili crunch” trademark request was filed on March 29. The trademark hasn't even been approved yet, but Momofuku has sent cease and desist letters to popular small businesses such as Homiah, a Malaysian food brand, and Seattle-based Chinese soup dumpling company, MìLà. In the case of Homiah, owned by Michelle Tew, Momofuku takes umbrage with their Homiah Sambal Chili Crunch. As Tew explains to The Guardian, it is based on a family recipe, but Momofuku is worried consumers will mix up their two products on shelves. Here is a side by side comparison: 

Aside from the fact that the labels look vastly different, the crux of the trademark pickle is about how ubiquitous a spicy chili condiment is. “Chili Oil,” “Chili Crisp,” “Chili Crunch,” or any variation with the “E,” have been around for ages in many Asian eateries, particularly Chinese restaurants. Notably, Momofuku is not going after products with “crisp” in their name such as the beloved Lao Gan Ma Spicy Chili Crisp, invented in China in 1984 and favored by many as the gold standard. It is credited with helping introduce the fiery condiment to Western palates. John Cena even went viral when he discovered how good it was. They are seemingly focused on specific words like “crunch,” but in trademark law, semantics are tricky. For instance, when Momofuku acquired the “chile crunch” trademark, they did so with an application based on "acquired distinctiveness"/ "secondary meaning." Which means the “chile crunch” goes from a generic descriptor of what the actual condiment is to simply being the source owner Momofuku. This reasoning from Momofuku means when consumers think “chile crunch,” they should just picture Momofuku and not anything else. It should be mentioned, Momofuku has done something similar in the past. In 2020, they filed to trademark "ssam sauce," but it was denied in 2021 due to genericism.

How will other brands accurately describe what the product is when generic words are controlled? There is a crucial linguistic component, too. AA+PI-owned brands should have the mobility to choose words they want. And that often means generic descriptors like “crunch,” crisp,” or “oil.” What if English isn’t their first language?

With the cease and desist, Homiah and other food brands will have 90 days to stop using the “chili crunch” wording on their label. However, slapping on a new label isn’t easy. In an interview this week, Tew told JoySauce, “You can’t just do that in the bigger food consumer product world.” Homiah was recently selected for a Target accelerator program, where their products will be in regional stores. “The process of obtaining these contracts with a major retailer is quite extensive and time-consuming,” Tew explains. “Initially, it takes about a year to apply and fulfill all the necessary requirements. Obtaining certifications such as non-GMO and gluten-free was particularly challenging and expensive. It's relatively unusual for a small business to acquire such certifications, especially given that my production is based in my hometown in Malaysia.”

Additionally, newly introduced products go through a rigid system called IX-ONE, where a photo is taken to ensure likeness and quality control. The product has to match the one on store shelves. Moreover, Tew works with a distributor, which comes with their own set of rules too. To completely redo her label would take roughly a year on top of the expenses and paperwork. To put it in perspective, Tew shares that Homiah is truly a small business. It started with $40,000 in funds raised via Kickstarter, and she is the company’s only full-time employee.

On the receiving end, I felt deeply saddened,” Tew says. “One of the first nice meals I had in New York was during my freshman year in college. We ate at a Momofuku restaurant. I’ve also bought their birthday cakes from Milk Bar. Chang was someone I looked up to. I’m proud of what he has accomplished, but I thought that the point of them doing it was to pave the way for people like us, but the plan was to actually build a ladder and pull it up behind them.”

That’s the real duality of Chang. Thanks to many media appearances, Chang has created a public persona of being an unserious “bro” type of chef. From his proximity to food figures like Anthony Bourdain and his appearances on Ugly Delicious, Mind of a Chef, and the recent Chrissy and Dave Dine Out, the cumulative image of Chang is a fun, relatable guy who prefers simple, tasty adventures rather than the pretentious paths food can take. He has a history of espousing strong positive opinions for food chains like Cheesecake Factory and Dominos Pizza, while crapping on Costco rotisserie chicken on his podcast. His flagship Momofuku Noodle Bar catapulted to success because he alchemized the humble bowl of ramen into something more gourmet. He recognizes this explicitly. In his 2020 memoir, Eat a Peach he writes, “Roll your eyes all you want. God knows it sounds clichéd. But at that time most chefs in America were giving their customers different food than they were eating themselves. What we ate after service was uglier, spicier, louder. Stuff you want to devour as you pound beer and wine with your friends.”

The menu was a kind of counterculture because the restaurant was initially failing and they had nothing else to lose. The kitchen nearly went up in flames multiple times and plumbing had to fix issues like the sink “doo doo water,” as Chang describes. In that story, Chang is a guy who understands failure. He also mentions he didn’t seek out the critical acclaim of raving New York Times restaurant reviews. He didn’t consider himself an outstanding chef by any meanshe was fired from the one job he wanted, a soba noodle gig in Japan. He also recounts as a young chef working at New York landmark Craft, one preparation of mirepoix was supposed to take 45 minutes to complete, but he took all-night. The memoir endears us to Chang because narrates himself as the guy who struggled and stumbled his way into success.

However, the memoir also contains a bevy of stories about his temper. By his own admission, he was angry and abusive. He writes, “It didn’t matter to me what your personal needs were. Any needs were indicative of frailty and I was of the mind that there was no place for weakness in our company.” In another chapter, he shares how he got deported from Australia after threatening a hotel employee with a knife. “My staff tells me I screamed at the man. Threatened him. They said I had been slicing something on a cutting board and was now gesticulating wildly with the knife. They said it could be interpreted as a weapon.” One former Momofuku employee, Hannah Selinger, acknowledges how apologetic Chang tries to be in the book, recognizing his attempts to think about past harms, but she writes, “For all that Dave has edited in and out of this narrative, what he cannot change is the trauma left in his wake.”

And for all the trouble he caused, Chang still became a giant. He has multiple James Beard Awards. His shuttered Momofuku Ko maintained two Michelin stars for six years. A 2013 Time magazine cover put him alongside chef René Redzepi of Noma in Denmark and chef Alex Atala of D.O.M. in Brazil, both restaurants once on the World’s 50 Best list at no. 1 and no. 4 respectively. Time called the trio the Gods of Food. According to Tasting Table, Chang has a current estimated net worth of $60 million.

 

Allied with Chang is Momofuku’s powerful (and noticeably white) investors of Siddhi Capital, taking on an assortment of small Asian American- and Asian-owned brands. Sixty million dollars is the kind of money that makes smaller brands comply with these cease and desists. JoySauce can corroborate other reports that a couple of small AA+PI condiment brands will follow Momofuku’s request because they don’t have the resources to fight out a legal battle.

At the time of writing, JoySauce can confirm another brand, Redbloom, was also targeted by Momofuku. They did not receive a cease and desist, but are on Momofuku’s radar because of their gut healthy “chili crisp” for IBS. Redbloom makes food-as-medicine for IBS using microencapsulated capsaicin to reduce gut sensitivity. They make the chili crisp medicine instead of a pill. “We don't even compete against Momofuku. People with IBS can't eat Momofuku,” Redbloom said in an email to JoySauce. “Yet, David Chang still tried to find a way to come to our turf and eat away at our R&D budget required for clinical studies. There is no cure for IBS. This is no longer about our company or chili crunch.” They continue, “A hole is being torn in the AA+PI community right now. AA+PI founders are supposed to support each other, not fight each other over centuries of culture that spans beyond our generation. The articulation of our Asian heritage in the western world is at stake. And we will stay silent no longer.”

I don’t know Chang personally; I’ve never met him. I can’t say I was on the receiving end of a tyrant with a white-hot temper. Maybe he has changed from the bully chef in the memoir, but right now, his fiery rage is in the form of chili crunch. And maybe it never fizzled out to begin with. But just as he chose to at least attempt to atone for his behavior in his memoir, he can choose to not be a bully to the little guys now. 

 

Published on April 5, 2024

Words by Daniel Anderson

Daniel Anderson is a disabled Chinese American adoptee based in Seattle. His freelance writing specialties include K-pop, entertainment, and food. He believes that any restaurant can be a buffet, and the key to success is to take a nap each day. Follow his adventures on Instagram @danzstan.