It’s internship season. Handshake-scrolling, interview-scheduling, rejection-coping internship season.
Around this time ten years ago, Marguerite Mariscal ’11 was also searching. After graduation. she landed a short-term position with Momofuku, a startup culinary brand led by famed restaurateur David Chang. Eight years later, in 2019 and at 29 years old, she was named CEO and hailed as the “secret sauce” of the company, according to the New York Times.
In a “Bowdoin Coffee Break” interview with Assistant Director of Employer Relations Cole Crawford ’20, Mariscal provided a glimpse into her mission to build a values-based culinary empire.
“What we’re doing is essentially applying four-star techniques to humble ingredients,” said Mariscal. “It changed the conversation in New York City around what a good restaurant was.”
This is an understatement. In 2007, Chang’s Ssäm Bar was awarded three stars by the Times, an honor shared by only around 30 other restaurants in New York.
“It was a no-reservation, super fast-paced restaurant in the East Village,” said Mariscal. “At the time, that’s not what a three-star restaurant looked like. A three-star restaurant had a maître d’hôtel, a host and a sommelier.”
As Mariscal began advancing up Momofuku’s ladder, the roles continued to grow ahead of her. The company expanded internationally in 2010, and added a fast-food chain in 2015. By the time Mariscal was named CEO—Momofuku’s first—she was responsible for managing over a dozen restaurants. Her leadership approach was characterized by a laser-like focus on the company’s image.
“What you pay people is part of your brand,” said Mariscal. “Where you’re sourcing is part of your brand. Momofuku has always been bigger than our footprint. We’ve always had restaurants, but our brand has outsized that. So the question became, ‘how do we make sure that we’re leveraging not just what we serve, but vocalizing that in the press and with social media?’”
Now, she faces the monumental task of adapting the company to new quarantine conditions, which involves expanding its packaged products division.
“What we’ve been trying to do moving forward, especially in the pandemic, is apply our method to packaged products that we can send people in their homes,” said Mariscal. “A lot of restaurants that do consumer packaged goods will sell a can of soup with a chef’s face on it that doesn’t taste anything like the soup that you’re going to get at that restaurant. What we’re trying to do is make ingredients that both our restaurants want to use and home cooks can use as well.”
The Momofuku brand is built around dual commitments to innovation and sustainable sourcing. From “future-proofing” food to supporting gardens in New York City public schools, this means Mariscal’s job description encompasses far more worrying about a bottom line. For her company to succeed, it must remain on the cutting edge of culinary excellence.
“It’s not just about making it through the pandemic,” she said. “It’s about what the next few years look like. We’re trying to adapt, and it will be interesting to see how it goes in the future.”
According to Crawford, a clear line can be drawn between Mariscal’s maverick leadership and Bowdoin’s interdisciplinary academic approach and commitment to the common good.
“Bowdoin provides such a holistic education that it’s perfectly suited for the kind of role where you need to be doing everything,” he said in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “And she has done everything for [Momofuku]. Every detail of this restaurant, she’s had a hand in. You’re best suited [by] an experience like Bowdoin to handle the challenges that come with that.”
Mariscal also credits the Bowdoin culinary community with inspiring her to pursue a career in the food industry.
“Having friends who are doing food while at school helps a lot when it comes to pulling other people into it,” Mariscal said. “I think there’s a great food alumni network at Bowdoin that’s still growing.”