David Chang of Momofuku becomes the first celebrity to win Who Wants to be a Millionaire

David Chang

He’s donating his winnings to restaurant workers in need

“No celebrity, in the 20 years that this show has been on has ever won the million dollars,” Jimmy Kimmel said from his Who Wants to Be a Millionaire hosting perch across from famed chef David Chang on Sunday night. “No one has ever gone for it – they’ve all walked away.”

The stakes were clear (especially for those of us who’ve seen Slumdog Millionaire). If the Momofuku founder knew the answer to the final question, he would win US$1 million (S$1.34 million) for charity; if he didn’t he could choose to not answer and walk away with a guaranteed US$500,000 (S$668,485). The risk of getting it wrong would be turning that half-million-dollar donation into US$32,000 (S$42,783). The question? “Although he and his wife never touched a light switch for fear of being shocked, who was the first president to have electricity in the White House?”

As he talked the question through to himself Chang he was a bit lost, even conceding of choice B, “I don’t even know if Benjamin Harrison was a president.” Perplexed, he “phoned a friend,” ESPN journalist Mina Kimes, who said she thought it was probably Harrison just as the timer buzzed and her line cut out. That was enough for a gambling man like Chang to bet it all. Fortunately, Kimes was right, and Chang became the 10th Millionaire winner in primetime and the first celebrity to ever secure the grand prize.

Chang dedicated his run on the show to restaurant workers in need and gave to an organisation devoted to that goal. In 2015, Houston chef Chris Shepherd created Southern Smoke first as a way to help his friend and former sommelier Antonio Gianolo, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Along with an annual barbecue festival, the foundation now fundraises year-round and has donated US$763,000 (S$1,020,108) to the MS Society. But a few years ago, Mother Nature’s wrath caused its charter to change a bit.

After Hurricane Harvey battered Houston in 2017, Shepherd shifted the foundation’s mission to aid hospitality industry workers in need by distributing grants to help with rent, medical bills and more. COVID-19’s impact on workers has been even more acute than the disaster that led to the foundation’s Emergency Relief Fund. “In one day alone, we have received more applications for emergency funding than we did in the months surrounding Hurricane Harvey,” Shepherd told Robb Report earlier this year.

Since the crisis began the foundation has distributed nearly US$3.7 million (S$4.95 million) to more than 2,000 people across the country, while also providing free mental health services to Texas-based food and beverage professionals and their kids. With the pandemic still ravaging the industry, the US$1 million (S$1.34 million) Chang just won is sorely needed.

This story was first published on Robb Report US. Featured photo by Joe Pugliese