2016 South Florida Rising Star Chef Alex Chang of Vagabond Restaurant & Bar

2016 South Florida Rising Star Chef Alex Chang of Vagabond Restaurant & Bar
April 2016

Raised in California, Alex Chang was born in Hong Kong to a Mexican mother and a Chinese father. Home alone in Santa Barbara with a father gone to Tokyo, a mother working full time, and a sister off to college, Chang sought to build the family together-ness he was missing through the most sacred of traditions: dinner. In high school at the time, Chang began carving his future career path through unfamiliar territory—the kitchen—guided by a Rachael Ray cookbook. 

Chang enrolled at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, where he ate his way through the city. He and a friend started hosting dinner parties and began charging a small fee for their three course efforts. Two years in, those efforts turned into 60 covers a night and two dining room turns. Paladar supper club was born. During Chang’s last semester, Paladar became the subject of a documentary of the same name which made it all the way to TriBeCa Film Festival. 

After graduation, Chang cooked at Lazy Ox Canteen for a year before moving to Tokyo and staging at Les Créations de Narisawa—the self-proclaimed hardest thing he’s ever done. Back in the States he spent an influential two years cooking Animal, followed by six months at renowned Pujol and Quintonil in Mexico City. In 2015, Chang opened Vagabond with Miami restaurateur Alvaro Miranda in the stylish neighborhood of MiMo, for which he won a StarChefs Rising Star Chef award in 2016.

Interview with South Florida Rising Star Chef Alex Chang of Vagabond

Lisa Elbert: How did you get your start?
Alex Chang:
When I was 18, I didn’t know how to cook an egg or boil water. My mom basically raised me by herself. My sister went away to college, and my mom was working full time, so she told me to figure out how to cook dinner on my own. So, I picked up the one cookbook we had lying around, Rachel Ray, and started cooking. I was intrigued. I moved to LA to go to college and started exploring the city by eating at different restaurants of all cuisines. My roommate and I both shared the same passion: we loved cooking. We would have friends over for dinner, and ultimately we decided to charge them. We were running a restaurant out of our apartment for our friends in college. Three courses for $12. The idea was that it would be something your mom would cook for you when you went home. I did that for two and half years in college, and by the end of it, we were doing like 60 covers every single Thursday. One of our friends that came regularly had a father in entertainment. His dad came to one of our dinners and decided to make a documentary about it. It’s called Paladar. It went to the Tribeca Film Festival, and that’s how I met Alvaro Perez [owner of Vagabond]. He saw the movie and invited me to do a charity dinner in Williamsburg. It was a 100-person dinner for the A-listers of New York.

LE: Who’s your mentor?
Jonathan Whitener of Animal. When Jonathan came to Animal, he was kind of bridging the gap between eras. They were kind of going in the direction of opening other restaurants, and they needed a firm hand in the kitchen, someone who had his eye on the ball and who was really with it. When Jon came, he kind of set out to break everyone’s balls. He’s really talented and really skilled; there’s not a lot he doesn’t know how to do. It took me a little while to warm up to him, and at one point, I thought I was going to leave, but I knew he knew what he was doing, and he was great at what he did. It took me a couple of months, but once I proved myself to him as dedicated, passionate, and hungry, he took me under his wing and started teaching me. Because of him, I probably stayed at Animal for a year longer than I would have otherwise.

LE: What’s the biggest challenge facing your restaurant?
I think my biggest challenge in Miami is finding good people for the restaurant. As a whole, the restaurant culture isn’t as developed as in a place like LA or New York, so there aren’t many restaurant professionals, high-level cooks, managers, somms, servers, etc.. The people that are really good are kind of tucked away in their job. There aren’t a lot of young, hungry people in the industry. So being able to fill my staff out is really tough. To have enough cooks who are motivated, who have the right aspirations and the right goals, is my biggest struggle.

LE: What’s your five-year plan?
I would like to do more down here, but I’m not quite sure what yet. Right now, I’m just looking to grow the Vagabond to be the best restaurant in Miami, or one of the best, and bring more of a spotlight to the city. People don’t talk about this as a food city the way they would about Charleston or Austin, places that are smaller with less going on.