Chef David Chang Opens Up About Bipolar I Disorder in New Memoir: 'It Has Shaped Me In So Many Ways
By Ana Calderone
August 26, 2020
In his upcoming memoir, Eat a Peach, excerpted in this week's PEOPLE, David Chang reveals that he has bipolar disorder—and explains how it has affected him in sometimes surprising ways
Recently, David Chang, founder of the Momofuku restaurant empire, was preparing a hot pot for his wife, Grace, and their son Hugo, 17 months, at their home in Los Angeles when the butane burner malfunctioned. Grace, 32, alerted him that she smelled something burning.
“It was a completely innocuous thing, and I immediately lost my temper, and I freaked out,” says Chang, 43.
This particular outburst may have been a result of the stress the Ugly Delicious star endured after being forced to lay off hundreds of workers and close two of his 16 restaurants because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But for decades the son of Korean immigrant parents has been battling periods of depression as well as manic episodes, anger issues and suicidal thoughts caused by his bipolar I disorder.
The disease, which he writes about for the first time in a raw new memoir, Eat a Peach, excerpted in this week's PEOPLE, “has shaped me in so many ways,” he says. "Bipolar has given me the very best of myself as a chef and the very worst of me as a chef."
High school was when he first noticed signs of bipolar disorder. "I remember feeling sad all the time, that I didn’t belong or fit in," he says. "I had debilitating anxiety."
He sought help a few different times in his teenage years but never stuck with it. "I was embarrassed. I didn’t feel justified in seeing a therapist or taking pills," he writes in Eat a Peach. "For one thing, I didn’t know any other Asian people who saw therapists."
Throughout the memoir, Chang details periods of both serious depressive and manic phases. (Bipolar I is characterized by manic episodes lasting at least seven days or with severe symptoms likely requiring immediate hospitalization, while bipolar II includes shorter depressive and hypomanic—a less severe form of mania—episodes, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.)
"Before long I was fixating on suicide," he writes. "I’d make it look like an accident or just put myself in enough cars with shitty drivers. The last thing I wanted was to burden my parents with the dishonor of having a son who killed himself."
"I would ride my bike all over Manhattan, weaving in and out of traffic and blowing through stoplights. There was a New Year’s Eve party that began with Valium, speed, pot, washed down with around twenty drinks, and ended with my falling through a giant glass table. The ER doctors said I narrowly missed an artery."
He found his current therapist, Dr. Eliot, online in 2004 while working at Café Boulud. During that time he had a breakthrough: "If nothing mattered, what did I have to lose? Thoreau said, 'I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor.' I took that to heart as I contemplated suicide. Work toward something. Open a restaurant. If it doesn’t pan out there’s always the other path."
He opened Momofuku Noodle Bar that same year. It would eventually make him one of the most celebrated chefs in the country—yet he was still at the mercy of his demons.
"[Dr. Eliot] would avoid giving me specific diagnoses because he knew I was a hypochondriac who would read everything about whatever he said I had. He only confirmed to me a couple of years ago that I am bipolar, with something he called 'affective dysregulation' of my emotions," Chang writes. "Here’s what that means: Say we’re preparing for a critic to come in. I’ll explain the importance of the situation to the staff and what I expect. Then someone will screw up anyway. They’re human. I’ll scream and yell and curse. I want to destroy them, but instead, I hurt myself. I’ll punch a wall, kick a cabinet, threaten suicide."
Through work with Dr. Eliot, a variety of behavioral therapies and different medications, Chang has learned to cope with his symptoms but still struggles.
“It hurts to know that even my wife, the person I love with all my life, can still be in the crosshairs of my illness,” he says of Grace, whom he met at a nightclub in 2014 during a manic episode.
"When times get tough, the one thing that always keeps me grounded is the fact that I know [Dave is] always trying to be better," Grace said on an episode of his podcast, The Dave Chang Show. "That gives me a lot of hope."
“I’m a work in progress,” says Chang. "I'm still at it. I'm still here."
If you or someone you know needs mental health resources or help, text “STRENGTH” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 to be connected to a certified crisis counselor.