After community backlash, celeb chef David Chang will no longer enforce

Day 69:34A small business owner resists Momofuku’s bid to trademark Chili Crunch

Celebrity chef David Chang says he will no longer enforce the trademark for his chili crunch condiment. 

The reversal comes after days of criticism, as some said his company, Momofuku, had attempted to bully business owners from selling their own version of the peppery potion with Chinese roots.

The company had sent cease-and-desist letters to various businesses that also sold products branded “chili crunch,” saying they were violating its pending trademark on the term.

“The past week, we have heard the feedback from our community and now understand that the term ‘chili crunch’ carries broader meaning for many,” a Momofuku spokesperson told The Washington Post late Friday. “We have no interest in ‘owning’ a culture’s terminology and we will not be enforcing the trademark going forward.” 

Chang earned fame with his Momofuku restaurants, including several that used to operate in Toronto, and his appearances on food-related television programs. But his brand recently expanded into selling packaged goods — many of them slightly upscale takes on Asian pantry classics, like instant noodles and chili crunch. 

Business owners and cultural commentators accused Chang of engaging in trademark bullying, especially against smaller, fellow Asian mom-and-pop businesses, in laying claim to the well-known condiment.

An Asian woman holds two jars of chili sauce, in side what appears to be a grocery or general store.
Michelle Tew is owner of Homiah, which makes food products like its Sambal Chili Crunch. When she got a cease-and-desist letter from the Momofuku company claiming a trademark on its own chili crunch, Tew refused to take her product off the market. (Homiah)

Michelle Tew recently received a cease-and-desist letter for her company Homiah’s chili crunch condiment. 

“When I read through it, I think I felt a sense of betrayal, to be honest,” Tew, who is based in New York, told Day 6‘s Brent Bambury in an interview taped before Momofuku announced the backtrack.

Tew told CBC she was “pleased to hear” of the company’s decision to stop enforcing the trademark. 

But she disagrees with its choice to continue owning it, and instead urged it to retire it completely. (Momofuku also bought the rights to “chile crunch” — with an “e” — last year, from a Denver company that used it for a Mexican-style chili condiment. It then filed to trademark”chili crunch” — with an “i” — on March 29.)

“The terms … are generic descriptions of a foundational part of Asian [and] Asian American culinary tradition that have been passed down through generations. I am grateful that the community have spoken loudly in support of this fact,” she said.

Momofuku’s chili crunch is advertised as a mixture of oil, chili flakes and other ingredients like garlic and shallots. It’s Chang’s take on the long-standing Chinese chili oil that is arguably better known as chili crisp.

close up of a hand holding a jar of red chili oil while in the aisle of a grocery store.
A bottle of Lao Gan Ma chili paste in local grocery store Penang. Lao Gan Ma or Old Godmother is credited for popularizing the chili oil…

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