When I started traveling for work, it meant flying to the occasional event in a smaller city, where I would stand for hours behind a six-foot-long table, smiling and handing out countless pork buns, the dish that—for better or worse—my Momofuku restaurants are known for.
Back then, I thought I had my air travel game down. I’d get to the airport as early as I could in an attempt to score an exit row or bulkhead seat—the first class of the common man. Then I would make a beeline for the departure gate so I could hunt down the best spot in which to wait.
The best seat in the terminal for coach-class flyers is the one closest to an open outlet, so you can charge whatever electronic distractions you’re bringing on board with you. It’s also facing the gate, so when your plane is interminably delayed, and you’re nearly unconscious from a combination of dehydration, frustration and exhaustion, if you manage to open your eyes a slit, you can see if the passengers who still have the ability to decipher the departure announcements are piling up around your gate.
I felt tough, like I’d hacked coach flying. But a few years ago—in part because I had to feed pork buns to a lot more people in a lot more places and in part because we decided to open Momofuku restaurants in other countries—I joined that group of people I used to stare down contemptuously as they breezed through check-in: first-class travelers.
I changed my disdainful tune pretty fast. In first class, there’s acres of legroom and endless Champagne, and they never, ever tell you to stop typing on your BlackBerry—even during takeoff! It’s full of surprises. The first time I flew first class on Emirates, headed to the other side of the globe, I saw that it’s Bye Bye Burkas! at 30,000 feet. Not only did the women on the flight shed their coverings—they were dripping in brand-name accessories. Unbelievable. I celebrated by watching every season of “The Wonder Years,” which was, rather miraculously, available on my private television set. I never wanted that flight to end.
Thousands more miles in the air have made me more discerning. Now that I travel enough—too much for someone who, if there were more justice in the universe, would be kept chained behind a stove—I know that the best part of first class isn’t on the plane. It’s in the airport, in the airline lounges.
When I travel, I don’t actually spend enough time in any place to relax and stretch out. I do meetings and events and maybe have a fancy dinner with people I don’t know, and then I go right back to the airport for hours or even days of travel. It’s at the airport that I have a chunk of free time.
I’ve spent enough time in airports to have learned that domestic lounges leave something to be desired—at least, now that I’ve left behind the days of getting blackout drunk for long flights. The liquor served in lounges in other countries is of far better provenance.
The Virgin Atlantic lounge in Heathrow Airport has its own hot tub, massage therapists and barbershop. I got my hair cut there once, and they made a big deal about some kind of bumblebee being behind it. Later, a friend told me they were talking about Bumble and Bumble, a fancy brand of salons and hair products. Sometimes I don’t even know how impressed I should be.
British Airways has a great lounge in Heathrow, too. I love how the amenities—all of which are incredibly posh—are limited only to passengers traveling at the appropriate level of first-class-ness. They card passengers like they’re 16-year-olds trying to buy beer. “I’m sorry, sir, you didn’t pay $25,000 for your ticket, so you can’t pass through this door.” It’s a pissing contest for the privileged. I bet you can get your monocle repaired there if you’ve got enough miles stocked up.
And the food! I was in a fancy Qantas lounge in Sydney that offered a menu by Neil Perry, who is possibly Australia’s most famous chef. I thought, Why not? And it wasn’t just good for airport food—I wanted to push my way into the kitchen and see if there was a full brigade back there, with chef Perry standing over them yelling at them.
But the best airport eating is to be had in Japan Airlines’ spot in Narita International Airport—also probably the best lounge I’ve ever disgraced the inside of. Hell, the food in Narita’s food courts is better than it is at 90% of Japanese restaurants in the States, but the lounge food is especially worth seeking out.
And the amenities: I showered there once when I was traveling through (not even to) Japan, and realized that I have stayed in hotels boasting constellations of stars that were less comfortable and luxurious than that airport lounge. I also learned never to underestimate the restorative power of a shower while traveling.
It was a practical revelation, but also a sad one: I’ve become a travel snob. All the things I thought I’d one day be a snob about—transcendental authors, sports history, obscure rock ‘n’ roll records—and here I am, a pampered jet-setter.
It’s even sadder that I still look like a bum—frayed black Converse sneakers, bloodshot eyes, a tattered gym bag of belongings strapped to me—and act like a cook.
Speaking of which, I’d like to close with a note to the tall, elegant woman who was dressed in expensive-looking head-to-toe white and who flew KLM first class from the Netherlands to New York during fashion week last year: I have no idea how I managed to board the plane in the Amsterdam-induced fog I was in, or how I was able to knock your cranberry juice all over you even though our seats were so far apart.
My offer to pay for your dry cleaning still stands.
This is silly but it’s about 5hrs past my usual grandma bedtime and only now am I realizing I’m jet lagged. In the past month or so, I’ve been on 11 plane rides, adjusted to 4 different time zones, and seen Country Strong a miserable 5 times. Damn you Gwen.
Anyways, David Chang, you may make one mean bun but I pump my fist at you! From behind the curtain! Because I really really wish I too were a travel snob. Sigh.
First step, BUY A FREAKING WHEELEY BAG! WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME??