After nearly four minutes of agonizing over a $1 million question that had stumped him, the time had come for celebrity chef David Chang to take a stab at answering who was the first president to have electricity in the White House.

His guess Sunday on the revived “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” was Benjamin Harrison, who Chang admittedly didn’t know for sure was even a president. But he said going for the top prize was a chance he had to take to do his part to help out a hospitality industry that has been devastated throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

“It means more to me to get this right to put a spotlight on the industry,” said Chang, the founder of Momofuku and host of “Ugly Delicious.” “And at this point . . . things are pretty bad.”

Moments later, Chang found out Harrison was not only a president but that he had the right answer, becoming the first celebrity in the game show’s history to win the $1 million prize.

American restaurateur, author and television personality David Chang stands in one of his restaurants, Momofuku Ko in New York, in September 2019. Photo for The Washington Post by Jesse Dittmar

Chang’s win has a deeper meaning: The 43-year-old is donating the full amount to restaurant workers affected by the pandemic.

Like the other celebrity contestants on the show, Chang had been playing for the charity of his choosing, the Southern Smoke Foundation, a Houston-based crisis-relief organization for hospitality industry workers experiencing debt or other hardships. His decision to play for Southern Smoke came after the organization was forced to cancel its annual charity drive because of the pandemic.

His win Sunday is the latest instance in which a celebrity has used their fame and good fortune to contribute amid the pandemic. For example, Dolly Parton’s friendship with a Nashville doctor inspired the singer to make a $1 million donation to Vanderbilt University for coronavirus research. Last month, it was revealed her contribution partially funded the biotechnology firm Moderna’s experimental vaccine. The firm has requested emergency authorization of its coronavirus vaccine candidate, which could be available by year’s end.

The decision to go for the $1 million was a bold move, and one he couldn’t do alone. To help answer the show’s final question, Chang used his last lifeline to call his friend Mina Kimes, an ESPN journalist. Toward the end of the call, Kimes concluded it was “probably Harrison.”

Jimmy Kimmel, the new host of the show, did not make things easy for Chang, reminding the chef, who covered his face with both hands and held his head near the floor in despair, that he could walk away with only $32,000 for Southern Smoke if he got it wrong.

But walking away was not an option for Chang, who has seen firsthand how the spread of covid-19 has cost the hospitality industry hundreds of billions of dollars and put many out of jobs.

“I’m a gambling man and shame on me if this is wrong, but I’m doing this because having a million dollars right now, in this moment, is a game-changer for many, many families,” Chang told Kimmel.

When the host declared Chang the winner, the chef sprang from his seat in disbelief to elbow-bump Kimmel and hold up the giant $1 million check.

“You see that, folks?” Kimmel said. “Good things do happen sometimes.”

Kimes, whose guess helped sway Chang’s final answer, praised her friend for going for it, even if she wasn’t 100% confident.

“Dave is a genius and quite possibly a madman,” she tweeted.

In an interview for “The Dave Chang Show” podcast on Monday, Kimmel said Chang’s “groundbreaking” victory was even more rare because there was no audience in the studio to celebrate with him, except for a friend, director Alan Yang.

“I was so impressed that you went for it,” Kimmel said. “It’s one thing to lose that kind of money for yourself, it’s [a] much worse thing to lose it for charity.”

Chang said the money that will be donated to the hospitality workers will mean even more given the lack of government assistance to the restaurant industry. Bar owners and restaurateurs, including Chang, have expressed frustration after their aggressive efforts lobbying for billions of dollars in government relief have proved unsuccessful.

“Since the government won’t help out restaurant workers . . . we have to do what we can to help out,” he tweeted.

After the year the organization has had, Chang gave Southern Smoke something to celebrate.

“WE WON A MILLION DOLLARS!” the group tweeted.


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