When Marguerite Mariscal started interning for Chef David Chang in 2011, Momofuku was about to open up in Australia. Toronto came next, and with all the momentum, the budding restaurant group then took on funding from outside investors for the first time.
Soon after, Chang recalls, “there was a lull.” An era of “complacency” ensued. His next big project—Nishi, a take on Italian food made solely with Asian ingredients—opened in 2016. What Chang calls “a real painful moment” followed. The New York Times wrote that Chang’s usual magic was showing “a little wear.”
“It was, honestly, all my fault. I wasn’t a good enough leader, and I didn’t prepare us to be successful. I wasn’t doing my job. I was, quite frankly, all over the place. It was fear of change, fear of growing up, fear of taking chances,” Chang recalls. “I had thought that what’s good for me is going to be good for the company. And I swore to myself that I was never going to do that again.”
But Chang says Mariscal worked tirelessly against it, proving herself during hard times. She hopped on the line to prep before service, worked the door at private events without being asked and helped out when the in-house reservation system wasn’t working. “She’s probably the most respected employee we have in the whole company, because there is nothing that she won’t do herself, if needed. You can’t say that for a lot of people. You just really can’t,” Chang says. “As she got promoted and had more and more say, I realized she understands Momofuku better than me sometimes, maybe more. She’s seen the highs, and she’s seen the very lows.”
Now Chang is stepping aside to focus on media and work with Momofuku’s next-generation chefs, along with spending more time with his newborn son. And Mariscal, a New York native and member of the iconic Zabar’s family, will become Momofuku’s first official CEO at just 29 years old.
“I’m not tasked as being a steward of the brand. Dave wants me to basically be a custodian of change. He wants to make sure that I’m the person who is making sure that we’re moving forward,” says Mariscal, who was named to Forbes’ 30 Under 30 food and drink list in 2018. “If I don’t, if things don’t change, if we progress on the kind of trajectory that we are now, that’s failure.”
Previously Momofuku’s creative director and chief of staff, Mariscal is now in charge of an empire that includes 14 locations, from critically acclaimed Majordomo in Los Angeles to the revamped Noodle Bar location recently opened on New York’s Upper West Side. There’s a new, potentially scalable, concept, too: a Momofuku-inspired Asian convenience store called Peach Mart, with a new flagship inside the shops at Hudson Yards. (And it’s Hudson Yards’ billionaire developer Stephen Ross who backs RSE Ventures, the owner of a minority stake in Momofuku. There are also some other small private investors.)
“For us to grow, the most Momofuku thing is to break with what we are already doing, not try to distill it and franchise it. It’s really figuring out how do you scale without losing what made Momofuku successful in the first place, but at the same time, knowing what made us successful is not going to work moving forward,” Mariscal adds.
She is also taking charge of Momofuku’s growing consumer packaged goods business, which started selling its own Korean chili Ssam Sauce in select Whole Foods locations in 2015. Last year, Momofuku’s partner Kraft Heinz initiated a relaunch, and it now can be found in 3,800 locations nationwide, as well as Amazon. Momofuku says sales increased 38 times from 2017 to 2018 but declined to provide specific figures.
Mariscal says the company is already planning to launch two more products: a fermented chickpea paste called Hozon, featured in Nishi’s signature ceci e pepe, and Bonji, the soy sauce alternative made from fermented grains, not soybeans. Momofuku has previously sold these to other restaurants and distributors but never to customers.
“It was proven really early on to me that Momofuku was a meritocracy. There really isn’t a lot of red tape,” Mariscal says. “We encourage people to come in, learn the systems and then make recommendations as to how to make it better. We have no sacred cows.”