Momofuku’s David Chang Criticized for Aggressive Trademark Policy

Cease and desist letters over a condiment name sparked a controversy

David Chang
David Chang attends the "Chrissy & Dave Dine Out" premiere at Sunrise Collective at Riverhorse On Main.
Suzi Pratt/Getty Images for Sunrise Collective

For plenty of people across the country, David Chang is an iconic figure when it comes to all things culinary. Some of that stems from his restaurants and books, or from the work he’s done to raise the profile and prestige of East Asian cuisines. That doesn’t mean that Chang is universally beloved — the implosion of Lucky Peach magazine in 2017 was one indication of troubles in his empire. But now there’s another — and it has to do with Chang’s company’s use of copyright.

Chang’s company Momofuku also has a business selling food — and the first product listed on its website is its chili crunch. That, in turn, has led to Momofuku receiving a trademark on the phrase “chile crunch” — with the intention of getting a similar trademark for “chili crunch.” As Nina Roberts reports for The Guardian, that’s led Momofuku to send cease and desist letters to a number of smaller companies also selling similar products. As Roberts writes, Momofuku has sent letters to companies using “chili crunch” or “chile crunch,” but not “chili crisp.”

Michelle Tew of the food company Homiah received one such letter from Momofuku, and spoke about being shocked regarding its source. “If Kraft Heinz hit me up [with a cease-and-desist] it would have been so distressing, but the fact that it was Momofuku makes me feel really, really sad,” Tew told The Guardian.

These lawsuits also lead to a larger question about the ethics of trademarking “chile crunch.” At Eater, Melissa McCart looked into the broader issue — namely, whether Momofuku is seeking control over a broader category of condiments. “Chili crunch has a history that long predates Momofuku’s product and is culturally common throughout a variety of cuisines from China to Korea to Malaysia, where I grew up,” Tew told Eater.

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McCart’s article points to a larger issue at hand here: having a trademark means regulating it — and notes that the trademark holder for “chile crisp” before Momofuku also sent plenty of cease and desist letters. All of this seems bound to create a situation where competition, rather than cooperation, is the norm — and where Chang’s reputation takes at hit even as his company profits.


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