Since then, Ms. Mariscal has approached every restaurant with an eye to matching service and design with culinary direction. “Dave told me a couple years ago that if he could serve food on cinder blocks he would,” Ms. Mariscal said. But just as Mr. Chang gives his chefs leeway to make menus a reflection of their own backgrounds and interests, she believes the restaurant spaces should do the same. Mr. Chang doesn’t like greenery in restaurants, for instance, but Paula Navarrete, the chef at Kojin, in Toronto, loves it. And so her dining room is ornamented with trailing pothos, ZZ plants and a pink rubber tree.
Iterating and iterating the chopstick caddy
At Bar Wayo, the tasting and salad digression had ended, and the cooks were cleaning up their stations. Mr. Chang left for the day to catch tummy time with his infant son. As openings go, Ms. Mariscal said, this one was smooth. Still, sitting outside on the bar’s patio, she acknowledged that Momofuku’s pace of new projects was unsustainable. Even a relatively straightforward concept like Bar Wayo — a cocktail bar with a limited food menu, in a busy tourism center — required thousands of decisions along the way, from what to name the place to what shape and style of glassware to buy to how many fryers to build into the kitchen. And there is only so much that one team can handle without letting standards slip.
Ideally, Ms. Mariscal said, the company will open one novel concept each year, on top of replicating proven formulas. “We have to find the balance between opening crazy things like Bar Wayo, and things where there’s enough consistency that our director of operations doesn’t want to blow her brains out every time we open a restaurant,” she said. She sees Noodle Bar — Mr. Chang’s first restaurant, offering ramen and pork buns — as a cornerstone of a sustainable growth strategy. Ms. Mariscal has ensured that each new version of it combines the vernacular of its own neighborhood with aspects of the original East Village location.
For the Noodle Bar in Columbus Circle, for example, the look is “bento box meets American diner”: pale wood and clean lines, with leather booths and paper place mats, inspired by the uptown diners that were a part of Ms. Mariscal’s upbringing. When it came to seating, Ms. Mariscal scrutinized the angle of the banquette seat backs and the softness of their upholstery. A tabletop chopstick caddy, loosely modeled on a straw dispenser, went through at least half a dozen completely different iterations.
Borrowing from Warren Buffett, Ms. Mariscal often talks about the importance of building a “competitive moat”: features that separate Momofuku from the competition. “What makes us unique,” she said, “when anyone from Portland to Denver can build a plywood restaurant and sell a pork bun?” Sun Noodle, the company’s longtime supplier, has begun making a ramen noodle exclusive to Momofuku.