Celeb Chef Chang Is Labeled a 'Trademark Bully'

Dispute erupts in Asian cuisine over the rights to 'chili crunch' name
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Apr 13, 2024 11:01 AM CDT
In Asian Cuisine, Dispute Erupts Over 'Chili Crunch'
This 2019 photo shows celebrity chef David Chang.   (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

A nasty fight has erupted among the purveyors of Asian cuisine over what they can call a popular condiment broadly known as chili crisp, reports Eater. Momofuku, a food company founded by celebrity chef David Chang, has sent cease-and-desist letters to several businesses using the name "chili crunch" or "chile crunch," reports the Guardian. Momofuku is currently trying to secure the US trademark to "chili crunch," and the company is being accused of throwing its weight around to intimidate mom-and-pop firms.

"The phrase that I would use to refer to Momofuku in this case, is a trademark bully," says Stephen Coates, a lawyer who represents Michelle Tew, a native of Malaysia who operates the small company Homiah out of New York. "This is a clear case of them picking on small businesses with a letter campaign hoping they'll cave because of the financial pressure." Tew tells the Washington Post that her "chili crunch" product is based on a family recipe. "I could have maybe chosen 'chili crisp,' but to me, 'crunch' was more descriptive of what the product is, because it didn't have a lot of oil in it."

Tew and others who have received the letters say Momofuku has no right to trademark what they see as a basic name of a condiment with centuries of tradition. It's typically made with dry chilies and crispy fried garlic before being drizzled over noodles and dumplings, explains the Guardian, which calls it a "umami bomb" that is quickly going mainstream in America. In a statement, Momofuku says Chang put his own spin on a standard chili crisp recipe and "intentionally picked 'Chili Crunch' to further differentiate it from the broader chili crisp category, reflecting the uniqueness of Chili Crunch." It likened the effort to creating a distinct brand such as Cap'n Crunch or Catalina Crunch.

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For now, however, it seems the brand is enduring a PR backlash, with some Asian food stores threatening to stop carrying Momofuku products. One complicating twist in the matter: BuzzFeed notes that Momofuku already owns the trademark rights to "chile crunch," which it licenses to a company that makes a Mexican version of chili crisp. That company had sued Momofuku first, and Momofuku acquired the name in a six-figure settlement. (More David Chang stories.)

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