outdoor dining, momofuku version.

207's nishi tribute is hitting all my soft spots.

note: i take photos on my iphone. i don’t have a DSLR, and i don’t have a lightbox, and i try to take my photos in, like, a minute. outdoor dining means that lighting varies wildly, so photos reflect the truths of dining outdoors on an iphone.

i’ve been having panic attacks pretty regularly over the last few months. panic attacks are nothing new; i’ve been dealing with them for years; and my general baseline, as it is, is a state of panic.

unsurprisingly, the last few months have seen an increase in panic attacks, but, instead of having identifiable triggers, they’ve come out of nowhere. i’ll be okay (which, again, to me, is still a baseline of panic), and, then, suddenly, i’ll feel ready to jump out of my skin because i’m terrified out of my goddamn mind, my heart racing as i find it difficult to breathe. that last bit has been new, too, thanks to the fear of covid, and this is one way it still manages to surprise me, what the body can do, how much your brain and body can work together to weaponize themselves against you.

my anxiety has typically hit my stomach the most, but, since lockdown began, it has been manifesting as a tightness in my chest, a need to take giant, gulping breaths to fill my lungs, a feeling that i am asphyxiating. in the initial weeks of quarantine, i wondered if i’d contracted covid. a friend assured me that, no, if i had no other symptoms, if the tightness in my chest wasn’t getting worse, i didn’t have covid. it was just my brain, working against me.

on september 21, i wrapped up my 14-day quarantine after flying back to new york city from los angeles. california was on new york’s mandatory quarantine list, though it was murky how new york would enforce it. nonetheless, i dutifully filled out the online questionnaire as instructed within the 24 hours before my flight, saved a screenshot to show whatever officials would need to see it before i could supposedly leave JFK, and wondered how new york would track me. would they check in on me? via text? via phone? were they legally allowed to track my whereabouts using my phone?

i flew back on jetblue (my airline of choice), and i expected an announcement as we neared JFK, waiting for flight attendants to hand out paper copies of the questionnaire to passengers who hadn’t filled it out online. nothing happened. as i deplaned, walked towards baggage claim, neared the exit, i held my phone in my hand, screenshot pulled up for easy access. there was no official anywhere. as i left the terminal and crossed into baggage claim, all i saw were a few signs instructing travelers from this list of states to quarantine for 14 days.

the next morning, i received a phone call, a pre-recorded message telling me to quarantine. i could leave my apartment only to get tested for covid and for medical reasons, and here was the website to find a testing location. if i started feeling symptoms, here were the steps i needed to take. the pre-recorded message cut off before it completed.

shortly after, i received a jumble of text messages, conveying the same information, but more concisely. the messages arrived out of order but were supposed to end with an instruction to reply with “C” if i “understood [my] obligations under state law.” i replied, “C.” an hour-and-a-half later, i received, “thank you for your response.” an hour-and-a-half after that, i received the same jumble of text messages, this time in a different incorrect order. two-and-a-half hours later, the same jumble, a new incorrect order.

that was the last i heard from new york. a few days later, california was removed from new york’s list of states for mandatory 14-day quarantine. to be safe, i fulfilled my 14 days alone in my studio apartment, leaving only to take my trash down and check my mail, almost always around midnight to ensure i wouldn’t come in contact with anyone. i think it’s absolutely bizarre, to leave so much of managing this health crisis up to individual discretion.

that said. i returned to brooklyn fully planning to dine (outdoors). when i was in los angeles, momofuku opened for outdoor dining at 207 and ko, and i think they’ve added a few tables outside noodle bar EV, so, when i flew back, i knew i was going to dine at my first restaurant in over six months.

initially, i’d planned on three meals — 207, ko, and atoboy — but, instead, i’ve been out of quarantine two-and-a-half weeks, and i’ve had seven meals — 207, ko, atoboy, fish cheeks, golden diner, 207 again, haenyeo. at one point, i’ll go to her name is han for gaejang.

it might seem that this feels normal, and i suppose, in some ways, there’s an ease to this, to slipping back into the familiar groove of making dinner plans, looking forward to meals, and dining. i’ve found, though, that dining now acutely reminds me of how things are not normal. it isn’t just the presence of masks and gloves, the temperature checks and requests for phone numbers for contact tracing. there are so many various tensions at play, between hospitality and safety, mass government failure and consumer attempts to keep businesses afloat, our human want for things to go back to “normal” and the pandemic still taking so many american lives. i hope we never take dinners out for granted again.

momofuku has been adapting in various ways to covid-19. i think momofuku was one of the first to shut down, closing its restaurants before new york even mandated lockdown, and i’ll be honest — momofuku closing down was what made me stop and start taking covid seriously back in march. what restaurant would voluntarily shut down its source of revenue if shit weren’t dangerous?

i feel like momofuku has been slower to roll things out, whether it’s takeaway, delivery, or outdoor dining. from what i’ve been told, they’re planning to open for indoor dining soon-ish, but i think they’re also taking their time to figure out the best precautions. this is pure speculation, and i’m not being critical, but i wonder how much of that speaks to whatever financial wiggle room and/or leverage re: rent momofuku has that they are able to take more measured steps for their restaurants.

(their content roll-out, on the other hand, has been interesting in how gradual it’s been. i’d imagine momofuku’s platform is primed to use content to generate revenue; as a content creator, i mentally drool dreaming up ways to utilize that kind of platform and access to talent, information, everything.)

ko has adapted its tasting menu to outdoor dining, paring the menu down to five courses. to reduce contact, they bring you a tray with all your utensils at the beginning, and you’re instructed to go from right to left. my friend and i miscalculated, apparently, and were still using little spoons and forks by the time the main course, a 10-ounce dry-aged steak, arrived. we had many utensils that went untouched.

none of the quality or attention to detail has been lost, and every course is thoughtful and delicious, just as you would expect from ko. my one criticism is that a 10-ounce steak is way too much steak for a tasting menu, and it’s way too much meat to eat on its own, with nothing to pair with it and offset the, well, meat. the steak was perfectly cooked and perfectly seasoned, but we were both pretty fatigued and overwhelmed by the end.

on top of the tasting menu, we also got the croquettes (because i can’t turn down croquettes) and a pizza. we took most of the pizza home. i wish we’d been able to try the fig ricotta pie. it started pouring rain as we were dining, but that didn’t hamper service or affect our dining experience. all in all, i was impressed with how ko has embraced outdoor dining.

for the last few weeks, 207 has been doing a tribute to nishi, and it’s been hitting me hard in my soft spots.

in july, i started taking this book proposal seriously. i tend to be fairly open about, well, most things, and apparently this includes writing projects that are currently works-in-progress. i wonder if i should not talk about this because who knows if this book will even sell, if this, if that, but i don’t really believe in the idea that something has to hit certain markers of success for it to be spoken of or spoken for.

the book starts in 2016 because the first momofuku meal that stuck with me was the one i had in october 2016 at nishi. election night was a few weeks away. i feel like we went into the 2016 election more hopeful that this country would do the right thing and elect hillary, though we also had the recent example of schwarzenegger in california, where his celebrity overrode qualifications. there was a chance that the cheeto would win, yes, but i think we still held out hope that hate and racism and misogyny wouldn’t be victorious. this was the united states, the so-called leader of the free world. we had to be better than this, didn’t we?

i outed myself on instagram on election night 2016 in a pique of rage and terror. i’ve scuttled back into not talking about my sexuality since, but i’m having to revisit all this as i’m currently working on the nishi essay for this book proposal, the essay about queerness and hiding in plain sight that will open the book and lead into the various tensions of my life, as explored through the lens of momofuku. that’s all fine and great, except we’re around the corner from our next presidential election, and it feels like revisiting trauma.

i don’t know that i’ve much hope that this stupid country will do the right thing this time around, though, to be honest, i don’t think it’s fear of what this country will do as much as it is fear of how the people closest to me will vote. in 2016, too many in the korean community i grew up with either voted for the cheeto or didn’t vote at all. they are ensconced away in their religion and protected, in ways, by their economic class that grants them certain privileges. it’s not that they’re safe from racism or prejudice, but that they don’t think in those terms because they align themselves with whiteness, with white christianity, even if they do so without being aware of it. to them, an interest in the political is entirely intellectual and theoretical; it’s not personal. i know i’m supposed to be trying to convince them otherwise, but i also know a fight i won’t win, and i don’t think sacrificing myself for a cause is the way to go. there is already too much i’m constantly on the brink of losing.

between the election and everything that is personal, the nishi tribute at 207 is getting me deep in my tender spots. eating this food now feels like coming full circle. my whole fascination with momofuku really got started with nishi, so it feels timely to be eating nishi food again, especially now as i am trying to generate 7,000 words about it. it feels even more so because i didn’t think i’d be able to eat from nishi again given that, in may, momofuku announced that nishi, along with CCDC, would be closing permanently due to covid. nishi had quietly been one of my favorite momofuku restaurants; they’d been turning out food that seemed italian on the surface but was doing a lot more interesting in subtle ways, challenging the racist prejudice that allowed pasta to be priced at $25 while asian noodles, even those that took so much more work and product, had to be $8. nishi didn’t do this in obvious ways, but their subversions were hiding in plain sight.

but, anyway, i guess i should save this commentary for the essay. moving on.

as much as i love nishi, i keep waiting for a menu shift at 207 because there’s really only one thing i want to eat before i fly back to LA on october 25. knowing the way my luck works, though, if/when the 207 menu shifts to incorporate more kawi, i’ll probably be back in los angeles, watching as i always do via social media, and a certain influencer will get access to the menu and share it on instagram, and i’ll scream from the other coast.

there is a specific food influencer i cannot stand.

typically, i’d just block them and move on, but this influencer has too much clout and keeps popping up around momofuku, making them impossible to ignore. i have an actual physical reaction whenever i see their posts; it’s like nails on a chalkboard in my head; and a mood settles over the rest of my day.

but first, a tangent — i’m not good at being seen. i don’t like being visible and noticed, and i’m terrible at navigating hospitality and ambiguous niceties. a big part of this is a direct result of the body shaming i went through for fifteen-ish years, years in which i was taught to hide my body as much as i could until i could whittle it down to acceptable thinness. i spent over fifteen years trying to disappear and not be noticed because to be noticed was to be reminded of how grotesque i was. that is something i’m still trying to unlearn.

dine enough at a restaurant, and maybe it’s inevitable. dine at a restaurant as frequently as i did, and maybe i was asking for it. between june 2019 and march 2020, i dined at kawi twenty times. we’ll talk about the money aspect of this later, but this was the first time i’d ever been a “regular” at a restaurant. they started to notice me, recognize me. i’d exchange friendly hellos and how’ve you beens with the staff. they were always kind, always friendly, and i remain grateful for the generosity of everyone there, from the chefs to the servers to the bartenders. i miss kawi tremendously, and it isn’t just the food i miss.

at the same time, i don’t know what to do with polite human kindness. i’m grateful for it, but it also makes me intensely uncomfortable when it’s not personal. that fear of being seen, that impulse to attach being noticed with being repulsive sets off all the panic triggers in my brain — why would you see me if it isn’t to hate me? why would you notice me if it weren’t because i’m irritating you? why are you being kind to me if it isn’t to mask distaste? am i annoying you, taking too much of your time when you’re at work and you’re busy? should i come around less often? are you being nice just to be nice? is my presence a burden?

i recognize that this is where my visceral, physical dislike of this influencer comes from. i mean, it’s true that they don’t post anything interesting; there’s nothing aesthetically pleasing about their photos; and they offer no opinions or original thought. their lazy mediocrity offends me. what they have, though, is access, and they have access because, yes, they have the numbers, but i’m sure they also ask for it. they walk into restaurants, into momofuku, self-assured of whatever benefits they can offer, and they’re able to build relationships off that. they are able to demand to be seen.

i can’t even walk into momofuku and say hi to a chef i’ve interacted with in the past, even though i know it’s weirder for me to be evasive, to try to slip in and out unnoticed. at the end of everything, my fear of being a nuisance, of being unwelcome, my uncertainty from being trapped in the ambiguous niceties of hospitality — all that self-loathing completely paralyzes me and overwhelms my desire to take a chance in the hope of making a genuine connection. 

and i absolutely despise myself for it. it’s easier, though, to project that onto someone else. i already grapple with so much self-hatred every day as it is, so, yes, i acknowledge that it isn’t fair for me to pin this on someone i don’t know, but i’m glad to be able to offload some of this burden to keep myself together.

i don’t dwell on what ifs, but i do often wonder how different my life might have been, how different i might have been, had the body shaming never happened. i encounter the consequences every single day, and i’ve gotten better at fending some of it off, but the poison is still something i carry in my body.

dave chang, during his press tour for eat a peach, has mentioned how he feels so much of who he is goes back to childhood, though he’s tried to resist this for many years. the beginning of his memoir, indeed, begins with his childhood, his tea leaves, as he says.

if we’re talking personal tea leaves, mine have to do with the body shaming that started when i was a freshman in high school. i don’t remember much of my childhood or my youth, and, even if i did, i don’t think they’d count because body shaming completely broke me down and reset me in a mangled way. shame takes root and blows you apart, and, when i try talking about it, i often feel as i do when trying to talk about living with a suicidal brain — how can someone know what’s it truly like, how it destroys you, without having been subject to similar trauma? because, on a surface level, it might seem like nothing; everyone faces some kind of pressure to look a certain way. it’s the extent of the shaming, though, the little ways you’re told every single day that you’re a monster, you’re a thing to be ashamed of, you’re something to laugh at and mock and disregard. you’ll never be loved. you’ll never amount to anything, not when you’re so lazy and undisciplined. no one will ever hire you. you shouldn’t want to travel or date or put yourself out there in any way because you’re disgusting, no one wants to see someone so grotesque, so hide away, don’t be loud or wear bright colors or draw attention to yourself. don’t make people look.

hear the message enough, and you start to believe it. believe the message, and it starts to seep into the very core of who you are.

and, then, it obliterates you.

generally, outdoor dining has felt okay — clearly, given that i continue to do it. i know i’m not doing everything perfectly, but i’m trying to be very conscious, following restaurants’ guidelines, wearing masks and keeping my distance, and, of course, tipping well.

the hardest thing for me, honestly, has been being mindful of time. i’ve become so used to long, leisurely meals, especially at momofuku — like, i once spent at least 2.5 hours at majordomo with one friend over dinner — that the challenge for me has been to keep in mind that restaurants only have so many tables, so i need to eat faster and get out of there. i’ve also been very reluctant to dine alone because i don’t want to take up a table by myself, even though i’m pretty sure i order enough food for two people.

i’ve stopped feeling guilty about dining out because there’s a privilege to guilt and i’m tired of entertaining it. at the end of the day, i’m furious at how our government has so failed us, and, if dining out helps keep restaurants and restaurant workers solvent, then i’ll do it. of course, there are the benefits i gain because food is pretty much my main source of joy and dining is a primary way i help stave off depression, but i try to be safe and courteous and as generous as i can, so i figure we’re mutually benefiting from this. i’m terrified at what will happen to restaurants as winter sets in.

this is a free substack, and it will remain so for the near future. these substacks do, however, take a tremendous amount of time to plan, write, and edit (and re-write), and i pay for my meals myself. if you like what you’ve read and would maybe like to contribute a cup of coffee or two, here are my ko-fi and venmo!