A Review of David Chang’s Eat a Peach
September 25, 2020 § 4 Comments
By Allison Wallis
David Chang’s memoir Eat a Peach is a book about disability, but it is not a disability memoir. A disability memoir, in my opinion, requires that an author be aware that he is disabled. I found myself continually wishing that someone would step in to tell the author that a community of people with bipolar and mental health disabilities exists and an even larger community of disabled people.
This vital missing piece loomed large throughout the book.
Chang recounts growing up with perfectionist parents, and the pressure his father put on him to become a young golf phenom. Chang lost his edge at golf when he hit puberty and his body changed. The author’s lifelong attempts to please his father are an undercurrent that runs through the book
I graduated from the Culinary Institute of America a few years after Chang finished culinary school. Many of my friends at school would take the train into New York City on the weekend to eat at Chang’s restaurant Momofuku. I never joined them, because Chang’s reputation preceded him. As a mostly vegetarian, I was not going to spend the small amount of cash I had at a place with a motto of “Fuck Vegetarians.”
I worked in restaurants for the same reason Chang did. We both had a background in finance. I was looking for a community and needed an outlet for my creative side. That community, however, was only there for me when I was healthy. As my disability progressed but before my diagnosis, I started missing work. Once I became dizzy and grazed my cheek on a hot sheet pan. Another night towards the end of a double shift I fainted and knocked my head against the Hobart mixer bowl. I was not given compassion; instead, I was threatened with termination. The restaurant industry widely welcomes people with mental health disabilities. It shuns the physically disabled and chronically ill.
I know of two people who use wheelchairs and work in restaurants. I know of no one who uses a cane or braces, or who has a chronic illness. I’ve never seen data, but I’d imagine the numbers of people who claim physical disability or chronic illness and have restaurant careers are infinitesimally small.
I wasn’t dealing with substance abuse and bipolar like Chang. Restaurants provided temporary refuge and escape from my quickly disintegrating body and the after-effects of a rough childhood, but in the long term, that work made my problems worse.
I finally found the community I was looking for after I left restaurants for good.
Chang recounts confusion in describing his therapist, who withheld his official diagnosis for years, only recently confirming it. As someone who was misdiagnosed for years, I can empathize with the feelings he may have been experiencing: the nagging sensation that there was something that needed to be uncovered about yourself. How would Chang’s working life have been different with a diagnosis? Would his new self-awareness have tempered his legendary rage and the guilt that followed? Would he have had better relationships with his employees and customers?
Chang’s account of sexism in the restaurant industry raised some doubts for me, as I find it highly improbable that any man who has run a professional kitchen could have been unaware of the rampant, industry-wide sexism and abuse.
He recounts multiple instances of behaving in an abusive manner toward his employees, including describing how “the slightest error or show of carelessness from a cook could turn me into a convulsing, raging mass. The only thing that could snap me out of my fits was punching a wall or a steel countertop.”
The book is chock-full of Chang screaming at and berating his employees, of outbursts of physical anger. Yet, when describing his role as a male chef, he writes, “I pride myself on my empathetic abilities, especially when it comes to other cooks and chefs.” He writes, “The distress of being ostracized and derided as an Asian American had tortured and motivated me for much of my career, and yet I hadn’t connected my own struggles to the way women of all ethnicities were feeling in the workplace.” Chang’s memoir relays a similar disconnect about the larger context when it comes to disability.
As I finished Eat a Peach I hoped that Chang might get an introduction to the disability community. He comes close to realizing the need for systemic change, recognizing that, “The mental and physical toll of working in restaurants is corrosive. It will take generations to undo the harm and build an industry that is equitable for all people of all genders, races, ethnicities, sexualities and beliefs. We need to be responsible for one another.”
I last worked in a restaurant kitchen in 2006, and afterward I spent a very long time grieving the loss of that life. The hardest part of that grieving was coming to terms with how I allowed myself to be treated: the pats on the ass, the too-close encounter in the walk-in, the constant sexual jokes, the having to work twice as hard as any of the men in order to prove myself. I destroyed my body in the process. I wish I could visit seventeen-year-old Allison. I wish I could help her realize her worth.
Allison Wallis is a writer and disability rights advocate. She lives in Hawai’i with her family and writes about life with rare medical conditions and disability.
This Blog essay is part of our September 2020 special focus on Experiences of Disability. Read our guest-edited special issue of the magazine for more.