Medwin Pang | Lessons Learned, Jean-Louis Pallidan & Perseverance in Cooking
On an warm December night a few days before Christmas, I hopped on the B train from my office in Midtown Manhattan to Brooklyn to sit down with Medwin Pang, eat his food and check out his restaurant Hunger Pang. When I stepped into Hunger Pang, I was immediately impressed, the space serves purpose and is alive.
Medwin is equally impressive—completely down to earth and unpretentious with a definite New York edge. I know Medwin’s brother Jeff from skateboarding and was excited to meet him for the first time. His resume spans twenty years, during that time he has worked for some of the best Chefs in New York.
Let’s start with a little bit about your background, and how you got interested in food. I was raised in Brooklyn, but I was born in London. We came here when I was a month old. I’m a proud native New Yorker. My father owned restaurants when my family lived in Ireland before I was born. Our restaurant was bombed by the IRA, and we used the insurance money to come to the states. From there, my father started a purveying company that delivered dry goods to Chinese restaurants throughout the city. As a kid, on summer break, I would go on the road with him. Through that, I was always in different restaurants and kitchens growing up—and my father cooked throughout my entire childhood.
My mother worked in high-end hotels as an executive assistant at places like The Plaza, The Waldorf Astoria, and Saint Regis. This was when I was 12 years old, so that was my first exposure to fine dining—and it really interested me. I never really did well in school myself—I dropped out when I was 16. My mother told me, “you didn’t like school because they dictated the curriculum and it wasn’t something that you were interested in. If there’s something that interests you, I’ll give you another shot because education is something that you should pursue.” What came to me innately because I was exposed to it was food, hospitality, and cooking. So, I decided that I wanted to study cooking and become a chef when I was 15 or 16 years old.
So from those humble beginnings, what has been the progression from then until now? Well, after my externship, I was still a kid—I was like 18 at the time. I was still enjoying my youth and freedom and working when I wanted to. I went down and opened Steak Frites (Andrew Silverman) We were opening for our first brunch, and there was something that I was doing that he didn’t like. I was a kid, so I didn’t really know what I was doing at the time—but it really offended him to the point where he felt that he had to turn around and slap me in the back of the head with a spatula. I was like “fuck you, I’m out of here!”
After that, I was kind of jaded—I didn’t know where I was supposed to go next. I just hopped around freely—working in different kitchens, and working when I wanted to work. I wasn’t anywhere respectable or reputable. I was just doing it because that’s what you had to do—you needed some money in your pocket. I turned 19, and I decided that I was going to move to England for a year. That year only lasted about six months. I came back and worked on the movie Kids with a bunch of other people in our circle—I was just a kid myself but I was on set everyday watching everything go down.
Your brother Jeff was a pro skater—were you skating too and a part of that scene? Certainly. I was hanging out at Washington Square Park, The Cube, Supreme, all of that good stuff. Shortly after we shot that film is when I found high-end food myself. I was looking for work again, and I was staying in the Upper West Side at the time. I was just walking into places and dropping off resumes. I was going to meet my mother on the East Side at the Waldorf, and I happened to walk into Park Avenue Cafe—which is on 63rd and Park. It’s David Burke’s restaurant—it was his fist place after he left River Cafe. I stumbled upon that through dumb luck. I didn’t even know what I was walking into—I didn’t even know who he was. I went in looking nice thinking I was interviewing, and they were like nah—“you’re here to trail.” So, they threw me the whites—and I was like “all right, let’s do this!”
After a few years with David Burke at Park Avenue, he was expanding—we opened Maloney & Porcelli. I ended up having a falling out with Pat Vaccariello and I took a hiatus. It was the winter of ’96, —I packed up all my shit and ended up in Vermont. I spent the season just riding and teaching snowboarding to kids.
When I came back to the city, I had to figure out what to do—so I went back to what I knew. At this point, I was in tune with who was hot, what was happening, and the places where you want to work. I walked into Nobu. I swear —they were looking for somebody in a position that I could fill. I worked the grill and hot line and would get little side projects that kept me interested for a while. By the time I was 27 I was getting burned out. You’re there at nine in the morning, you get an hour-and-a-half break and you’re there until midnight or one. 16 hours. That’s not the life that I wanted to live. I bounced from the there, and I ended up knocking on Balthazar’s door. I worked that line for several years and ended up next at Palladin—working for Jean Louis Palladin when he came to New York to open up his namesake restaurant in the Time Hotel in Times Square. This was shortly before he was diagnosed with the lung cancer that eventually took him. When Palladin was sick, he would really mentor us—he told me, “you know Medwin, you’ve already dedicated a good portion of your life to what you do—and you’re really good at it, but don’t forget your friends and your family. You wan’t to make time for them.” I think he was reflecting on his life with what he was saying to me. But still, I took it to heart. In this industry, you’re always working holidays—you don’t have vacations. You’re working weekends when all of your friends and family with regular jobs are free and socializing. You become like this myth. Everybody knows that you’re around, but you don’t exist because nobody sees you.
“being a cook is only something that you can relate to if it’s something that you do.”
After Palladin passed and we closed the restaurant. I started serving on the floor, I figured I give it some time to figure out what I wanted to do. I was hanging closely with my brother and Peter Huynh at UXA. I was dabbling with graphics and design. My friend was looking for some people to form a creative department at this startup called Vitamin Water. So, we started the art department there. A few years later Coca Cola comes in and buys us—and wants to keep the people that launched the brand. Coca Cola pays really well, so you’re not going to walk away from a job like that—I stayed with Vitamin Water/Coca Cola for a while. That kept me out of the restaurant game. Finally, I got hit by a round of layoffs. My wife was like, “you hated being at a desk. You’re only happy when you’re cooking. We have a concept, we have some savings—if we put this plan together, we can make it work.” The stars aligned and this place becomes available, we were able to come to an agreement on the price and terms, the next thing you know Hunger Pang is open.
When did you open? We opened the 15th of October in 2014. We just passed the one year mark, and we’re excited for what’s to come.
As far as the menu, where do these concepts come from? It’s kind of a hodgepodge. My roots are New York, and I started off with Burke—that’s where I really got my teeth cut, my ass kicked, and learned how to cook. So, American is my core. Then, I moved onto Japanese at Nobu—and I love the simplicity of Japanese food. That’s always going to be a big influence on the food that I’m doing—if not in presentation, then by way of flavors. After that is a Bistro style of food. We have our steak frites—which I think is fantastic. The fish and chips is a nod to my mom—she’s British and I was born in the UK. I think we put out a really solid one there. I’m half Chinese and my wife, Karen, is Vietnamese—so we’re covering a lot of territory.
So, you and your wife started Hunger Pang— are you completely independent with no partners? Yeah, it’s mom and pop. We have our little condo in the area that we put up for a home equity line of credit, a little bit of savings, a little bit of help from family—but it’s all ours. There’s no other big heavy hitters or big names behind us. We are as grass roots as it goes.
“You cant run a successful operation if you’re trying to rescue every stray dog out there.”
How has the growth been over this first year? When you first open, you’re on Eater‘s Heat Map—we were on there for four months. Then spring and summer came, and people were leaving the city. We weren’t doing much marketing because I was trying to put a new team together. That was a beast in itself. I had to go through a cook one at a time. I was going through a cook once a month, if not every couple of weeks. It’s my own fault, because I was trying to help kids out—people that were in tight situations. I was thinking I could control these people, but they couldn’t control themselves. There was this kid in a halfway house that was coming in late, and saying “yes chef, I’m going to do this and I’m going to do this”—there was no follow through. It was a pain in the ass until finally one day I’m like “get the fuck out of my kitchen.” I had to kick him out the back door, and he comes knocking. I’m thinking maybe we can reconcile, but it’s a “where’s my money?” type of thing. I tell him I don’t have any money, and I go to push the door—and he bum rushes me through the door. We’re on the floor wrestling and he’s got one of those North Face jackets with Zippers all over the place that are cutting me up. Three cop cars converge on the outside —it was one of those things. Now I have a solid group. You cant run a successful operation if you’re trying to rescue every stray dog out there.
What’s the story with Five Deadly Venoms? Five Deadly Venoms is myself, Doron Wong, Edward and Lien Lin —who are from the Slanted Door in San Francisco. They’re on 5th Ave in Brooklyn. There’s Chef Bao and also Chris Chung, who owns East Wind Snack Shop —he does dumplings and baos. It’s really good. We’re just a group of Asian NYC cooks having fun, doing hashtags and stuff. We’ve all crossed paths in the past. I worked with Doron Wong at David Burke’s Park Avenue Cafe back in the ‘90s. Chris Chung and I practically crossed paths at Nobu. It’s basically a lot of things that a “regular” person doesn’t understand. We exchange ideas on how to work more efficiently, different suppliers, and how to promote each other by building the conversation about new Asian food in New York.
The final questions is how did you link up with True Cooks, and what does it represent to you? I had no idea what TrueCooks was. Greg Carroll put me on to them. We were showing each other Instagram love back and forth. I started placing orders with them, and was following them. It’s similar to the Five Deadly Venoms, but on a bigger level—being a cook in itself is only something that you can relate to if it’s something that you do. It’s just like any other art form, sport, or practice. If you’re Tai Chi, you can only talk Tai Chi with other people that do Tai Chi—they’re the only ones that are gonna understand it. If you’re a true artist and you believe in what you do, then ultimately you’re going to sacrifice yourself for it—but you’re not doing it to placate an ego—you’re doing it because there’s something inside of you that’s compelled to come out. It’s a wonderful brand, and it brings like-minded people together. It’s that same community and support system. Without really even knowing each other, they show me love—so, I’m going to show them love back.