What Happens When You Leave Everything Behind to Open Your First Restaurant
Coming to grips with the disconnect between the reality of a restaurant and its Platonic ideal is something most chefs will spend their entire careers wrestling with.
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When I spoke to chef Alex Chang in the early days of summer, he seemed a man whose long-held dream had finally come to fruition—he was, after all, helming his very own kitchen, and doing so before the age of 30. But he also seemed to be coming to the slow realization that the post upon which he had hitched his future was turning out to be quite different from what he had hoped it would be.
Chang is the prodigy who first came to national attention when he started an illegal underground supper club as a student at USC. At the age of 22, the Mexican-Chinese chef became the subject of Paladar, a documentary about the business he started with his college roommate, which was screened at the Tribeca Film Festival. By the time he graduated from college, the California native was already facing these questions: Would he live up to his youthful promise? And could he make the transition from operating a supper club to running a profit-seeking kitchen, where the mundane repetition of cooking the same piece of fish over and over again might work in direct opposition to the creativity and improvisation for which he was known?
Soon after graduation, Chang was given the opportunity of a lifetime at the age of 25: He was brought on board to develop a brand new restaurant, Vagabond, in a historic mid-century hotel in midtown Miami. The investors wanted him to bring his youthful sensibility and casual-yet-sophisticated cuisine to redefine notions steadfastly entrenched in Miami's food scene. The recent college graduate set out to provoke and please Floridians with his cuisine, which he had nurtured on Rachael Ray cookbooks, dorm-room get-togethers, and working under and with a few great chefs. At Vagabond, he put chapulines on the menu and served a modern mash-up that was part Asian, part Latin, and distinctly his own.
Despite good reviews and plenty of media attention, by May of this year—two years after opening—Chang's rose-colored glasses were firmly off his face. We spoke in the dimly lit dining room of Vagabond—located in Miami proper, across the street from the famous Coppertone girl sign that was once set ablaze—as he and his small staff solemnly prepped for the day and contended with a surprise visit from a health inspector.
Chang said had no connection whatsoever to Miami when he first arrived. "None. I never thought I would end up in Miami. I thought there was no chance in hell." Born and bred in LA (with a few stops in Japan to visit his father along the way), he arrived in Miami with what in retrospect was an overly naïve mindset: "I thought, Miami is still developing, and there's not as many great restaurants as in big cities, so I saw it as a place where, if you make really good food, you'll crush it."
He soon learned better: "In a place that has big hotels and chefs, and new restaurants and money coming in, it's really hard." Miami's status as a vacation paradise—for half the year, at least—also had to be factored in: "Basically there's just six months to be able to crush it. The market is so volatile." And, Chang found, Miamians aren't hardcore business diners: "If you look at Miami... it's like, where's the industry? What industries are there here besides tourism? You have little surges, like Art Basel and Food & Wine week, boat shows—but there's not an industry of people that make enough money to eat at your restaurant every night."
I was starting to get the strong feeling that Chang hadn't fully understood what he was getting himself into when he agreed to move across the country and run a restaurant. His complaints continued: "My goal, when I moved here, was basically to source everything from around here. But that's really hard, from a cost side, because there's a disconnect between chefs and farmers here," he told me. Not only does Miami's bread basket have far fewer multi-generational small farms than Napa or the Hudson Valley, but the tropical climate in Miami supports very different produce than one finds in LA, Chang learned. He told me he was trying to go with the flow: "In the summer, we're trying to be inspired by mangos and lychees and eggplants and okra. We'll probably never get asparagus on our menu."
Chang admitted that when he first arrived in Miami, he put people off with his candor; he was a bit of the golden boy facing the first difficulties of his life, and he wasn't always gracious. "I think I was pretty outspoken about my feelings about Miami. A couple people fucking hated me at first, but I'm coming from a good place. I want the city to be better. I like to do my thing, and cook, and do the things I care about with integrity."
Still, he seemed intent on taking a lessons-learned approach and said he was committed to staying in Miami. "I'm happy here and I'm still trying to figure it out. I want to do more—my big focus right now is figuring out what I want to pursue going forward. Miami is a great place, and I'd love to build something here."
I left that day wondering whether Chang would ever be able to figure out Miami in the way that people like Michael Schwartz, Mark Militello, and Michelle Bernstein—people who are laser-focused on the culture of Miami, and who long ago pledged every ounce of their sweat and blood to the city—clearly have. These are chefs who are obviously deeply in love with the local tropical produce, the slow-but-fast pace, and the pan-Latino vibe of Miami, even with its many challenges.
As I was preparing this story for publication, though, I learned some not-very-surprising news: Chang and Vagabond had suddenly parted ways. So I called him up again—no shocker, he was in LA—to get the low-down on the breach.
Chang seemed content and almost relieved to be free of an oppressive burden. He spoke slowly, careful not to offend, but Chang is not the type to self-edit well. He told me that he had been open with the owners of Vagabond about exploring the possibility to move back to LA and they were working to see "if I would kind of oversee the restaurant from afar with me coming back once a month or something." But upon some reflection, he said, the owners felt that wouldn't work for them. Chang explained, "The owner's kind of had to look out for themselves and what was the best thing for their business. And once they did that, they kind of notified me."
Having faced this turn of events and been knocked down, really for the first substantial time in his career, Chang says he learned a lot from the experience. Even though Vagabond did not turn out as he had hoped, he said, "It was a really interesting experience because I was a newcomer to Miami, so it was definitely a learning curve. And just managing and understanding the business side of a restaurant is a really important thing. It really needs to play a huge role in like how you conceptualize in terms of the menu and the aesthetic and overall concept."
I was wondering whether Chang's tenure at Vagabond had rubbed his employers the wrong way, especially given his outspoken demeanor and his measured but cutting criticism of the Miami food scene. But when I reached out to Avra Jain, the real estate developer who restored and owns Vagabond, she said that Chang "was a nice person aside from being a fabulous chef—I would love to work with him again in some way.
Jain admitted, however, that she and her associates "are not restaurateurs but a group that was passionate about the historic restoration on the 1953 Robert Swartburg designed Vagabond Motel." It occurred to me that maybe the patience, resources, and experience it takes to nurture a precocious, young chef were largely lacking in this relationship. Jain speculated that maybe, now that he had more free time, Chang could begin staging again, or follow through with an interest "he had expressed that he would one day like a smaller venue, which is probably more conducive for some of his ideas."
From what I have learned about him, though, neither option is likely. Chang is far too ambitious and accomplished, and the prospect of staging again seems unrealistic.
During our last phone call, Chang seemed clearly ready to move on: "Ultimately it was my dream to have a restaurant of my own—because I wasn't an owner of Vagabond." To my surprise, Chang was quick to say he wasn't averse to exploring further opportunities in Miami. But then he again attributed many of the difficulties of his tenure at Vagabond to the peculiarities of the Miami market: "Miami is kind of a challenging restaurant market and it's really hard in that part of town to fill up a restaurant every day. The financials of it are really hard; the overhead, the costs of it are really high. So it affected how we ran the restaurant." He admitted that compromises had been made. "When the restaurant was first opened, the menu was a lot more progressive and adventurous, and we had to adjust that kind of to appeal to a larger range of people. So it's not really ideal."
In the end, Chang said without hesitation, "I'm definitely happy with the experience that went into it and the people that I worked with—my staff and stuff. But I think you're always looking to get better or to be perfect. You're always looking for your restaurants to keep evolving. That's part of the fun." His future plans are "nothing so solid that I could say 'this is happening.' I have some possibilities."
Coming to grips with the disconnect between the reality of a restaurant and its Platonic ideal is something most chefs will spend their entire careers wrestling with—how you deal with that disconnect is what sets true chefs and restaurateurs apart from the rest. The halcyon promise Vagabond once held for Chang may have long ago dissipated, but that only gives this young chef license to once again spread his wings and pursue the intangible.
"I'm basically taking this time to regroup a little bit and kind of get refreshed. But definitely something's gonna happen. I want to open my own place."
I have no doubt that will happen, and, knowing Chang, it will likely happen very soon.