David Chang called a “trademark bully” for attempting to claim control of “chili crunch” market

Chang's Momofuku Goods is coming after companies using “chili crunch” and “chile crunch” on their condiment labels

By Joy Saha

Staff Writer

Published April 9, 2024 1:37PM (EDT)

Chef David Chang speaks at 'The Future Role Of Tech In Dining And Food' during the 2015 SXSW Music, Film + Interactive Festival at Austin Convention Center on March 14, 2015 in Austin, Texas. (Sandra Dahdah/Getty Images for SXSW/Getty Images)
Chef David Chang speaks at 'The Future Role Of Tech In Dining And Food' during the 2015 SXSW Music, Film + Interactive Festival at Austin Convention Center on March 14, 2015 in Austin, Texas. (Sandra Dahdah/Getty Images for SXSW/Getty Images)

Chili crisp, a fiery red condiment rooted in Chinese cuisine, is a pantry staple for households nationwide thanks to several businesses — big and small alike — that have released their own brands. Made with fried chili pepper and aromatics infused in oil, the condiment can be found at restaurants and local supermarkets (i.e. Trader Joe’s). There’s even a cookbook solely dedicated to chili crisp.

In recent weeks, the terms “chili crunch” and “chile crunch,” renditions of chili crisp, have found themselves at the center of controversy after David Chang's food empire Momofuku Goods sought to trademark the label, much to the dismay of independent companies. According to The Guardian, the brand sent cease-and-desist letters to companies using “chili crunch” and “chile crunch” on their condiment labels. Momofuku, which successfully trademarked the term “chile crunch” (spelled with an “e”) back in 2023, is also attempting to trademark “chili crunch” (spelled with an “i”) with the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).

In a cease-and-desist letter sent March 18, 2024, Momofuku accuses Homiah — a New York City-based Malaysian food brand that is one of several companies to receive the legal order — of trademark infringement. Momofuku specifically takes issue with Homiah’s signature product, Homiah Sambal Chili Crunch, which was called Crispy Sambal before 2023.   

“Momofuku trusts that Homiah did not adopt the CHILI CRUNCH mark in bad faith or with an intent to create confusion,” the cease-and-desist letter reads. “But because trademark law requires brand owners to police use of their trademarks — and because Momofuku is concerned that consumers may actually be confused here — we write to request Homiah’s cooperation.” Homiah has 90 days to cease the use of the “chili crunch trademark.” 

According to Homiah founder Michelle Tew, her chili crunch recipe was passed down in her family. A jar of Homiah Sambal Chili Crunch is packaged in a colorful floral paper label, while a jar of Momofuku Chili Crunch is more simple in appearance and typography. Regardless, Momofuku is concerned that consumers might confuse the former with its own brand of chili crunch.

Tew described the cease-and-desist letter as a “punch in the gut.” She told The Guardian that if she had received a similar legal action from Kraft Heinz, it would have been “so distressing,” but “the fact that it was Momofuku makes me feel really, really sad.”

“I've always been a Momofuku fan and supporter. Momofuku Ssam Bar was the first 'nice' restaurant I visited as a freshman after moving to the US over a decade ago. The next year, I requested a Momofuku Milk Bar Birthday Cake from my sister as my birthday present. And since then, I've stocked my pantry and freezer with countless Momofuku products,” Tew wrote on LinkedIn. “I was shocked and disappointed that a well-known and respected player in the Asian food industry would legally threaten me — a one-woman show operating on a much smaller scale — from selling a product that is part of my family's history and culture.”

Homiah’s lawyer Stephen Coates told The Guardian, “The phrase that I would use to refer to Momofuku in this case, is a trademark bully. This is a clear case of them picking on small businesses with a letter campaign hoping they’ll cave because of the financial pressure.”

Momofuku is also targeting MìLà, a Seattle-based company that specializes in Chinese street food and has its own chili crisp called MìLà Chili Crunch. “Our intent was to describe the product,” said Wang. “Chili crunch,” as opposed to “chili crisp,” provides consumers with a better understanding of MìLà’s new condiment, he explained.

Momofuku’s cease-and-desist letter states that the brand launched its own chili crunch in 2018 and began selling jars of it in 2020. Momofuku’s chili crunch has “developed valuable common law rights” to its “chili crunch” trademark, the letter further states. When it comes to trademark rights, “common law” indicates a term or name that is not registered with the USPTO, but has become "distinctive" over time. Momofuku cites its product’s popularity, media coverage and favorable online reviews as evidence of its chili crunch’s "distinctiveness."

The brand is only targeting companies that use the terms “chile crunch” and “chili crunch,” not “chili oil,” “chili crisp,” “chili sauce,” or other similar names for the condiment. That’s why major brands like Fly By Jing and Lao Gan Ma are not brands of concern for Momofuku. The former’s Sichuan Chili Crisp and the latter’s Spicy Chili Crisp both use the term “chili crisp.”

After receiving widespread criticism, Chang issued a public apology on the April 12 episode of his podcast, “The Dave Chang Show.” Chang said Momofuku is officially abandoning the trademark.

“First and foremost, I want to apologize to everyone in the AAPI community who’s been hurt or feels like I’ve marginalized them or put a ceiling on them by our actions,” Chang said. “There’s a lot of chefs that I’m friends with. There’s a lot of people that are upset, customers, and that’s the last thing — literally the last thing — that I wanted to happen.”

“I spent the greater part of my adult life trying to bring light to Asian food, Asian American food, Asian identity, [and] what it means to be Asian American,” he continued. “I understand why people are upset and I’m truly sorry.”

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Chang explained that Momofuku’s chili crunch was inspired by Lao Gan Ma’s spicy chili crisp sauce along with other sauces, including ssamjang and salsa macha: “When we were thinking about naming — and again, shame on me if I didn’t know this — but we named it chili crunch specifically because it was not chili crisp. And we named it chili crunch because it was out of deference to chili crisp, which we associated with as Chinese, specifically carved out by Lao Gan Ma.”

“Had I known, or Momofuku known, that chili crunch was a tautology, basically the same as chili crisp, we would have never named it chili crunch,” Chang said.

The trademark fiasco follows a string of recent controversies surrounding Chang. The celebrity chef has been accused of fueling a toxic work environment in his restaurants (“When I’m angry, I seethe with such intensity that it can’t simply be emotional. It’s like I’m an animal registering danger,” Chang wrote in his 2020 memoir “Eat a Peach”).

While Chang has indicated he wants to leave those experiences in his past, in a review of the memoir, food writer and Chang's former corporate beverage director, Hannah Selinger, said former employees don't have that luxury. 

"The recipients of Dave's anger — his employees — lack the same power to forget, or to leave the consideration of its impact to others," Selinger wrote in a longform essay for Eater. "I vividly remember the day that a line cook, who could not have been more than 22, was brought to tears by Dave's rage for cooking what was deemed a subpar family meal: 'I will scalp you,' Dave screamed. "I will murder your ... family!'"

By Joy Saha

Joy Saha is a staff writer at Salon. She writes about food news and trends and their intersection with culture. She holds a BA in journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park.