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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.

30 August 2016, 8:00am

Alle Fotos vom Autor

If you're a chef who started an illegal, underground supper club in college at the age of 22—and became the subject of a documentary shown at the Tribeca Film Festival all about your early success—the pressure is clearly on. What will your first restaurant be? Will you live up to your youthful promise? Can you maintain the excitement and love for your craft once you have to deal with the mundane pressures of real life in a profit-demanding restaurant?

Alex Chang, now 26 years old, has been answering these questions for the past two years, since he opened Vagabond, his first restaurant, in 2014. This California native of Mexican and Chinese descent was given an opportunity to helm a kitchen in a place where he had absolutely no history: Miami. The USC graduate moved across country and set out to provoke and please Floridians with his cuisine—which he had nurtured on Rachael Ray cookbooks, dorm-room get-togethers, and numerous hours spent working with great chefs. The transition hasn't been the easiest; Chang has spent the last few years finding out that Miami is a paradoxical beast unto itself—not really that similar to Los Angeles, where he grew up and cut his teeth. Despite growing pains and dislocation anxiety, Chang is forging ahead, intent on taking his precocious talents to the next level.

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Alex Chang. All photos by author.

Chang's restaurant, Vagabond, is in Miami proper—not South Beach or Wynwood. It's located on a stretch of Biscayne Boulevard that was once a bastion of inexpensive family motels, but that long ago fell into a state of neglect and then outright squalor. Now the neighborhood is gentrifying and is a place where young chefs, designers, and hoteliers can prove their worth, a bit removed from the bright lights of Miami Beach, the big city to the east.

READ MORE: Some of Miami's Best Tapas and Wine Are Inside This Gas Station

Although it's been up-and-coming for almost a decade now, the area, known as MiMo (for Midtown Miami), has a serious deficit of pedestrians, but a lot of cars whipping by. Mid-century motels in various states of renovation line the broad avenue, along with chain stores and gas stations; Chang's restaurant can be found inside a funky, mid-century modern hotel that also bears the name Vagabond. The hotel is situated across the street from where the original Coppertone girl sign was located and set ablaze. A 33-foot recreation stands there today.

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Chang explained to me that Miami was completely alien to him when he first arrived to run the kitchen at Vagabond. We met one morning in the dimly lit dining room as he and his staff prepped for service and contended with a surprise visit from a health inspector. I asked him, did he have any connections here when he first arrived?

"None," Chang told me. "I never thought I would end up in Miami. I thought there was no chance in hell." An investor who had seen Paladar, the documentary produced about Chang and his college roommate's supper-club, approached him about running a restaurant in Miami; Chang saw it for the great opportunity that it was, and took the leap. Now, almost two years after opening the restaurant, he has a better understanding of what he got himself into.

"I think Miami is an interesting place," he told me judiciously. "It's a place that's developing and still has kind of a ways to go in terms of getting where it needs to be on a food and community level, but I think that's the exciting part."

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Along with the opportunity to run a kitchen at the age of 25 came challenges. And working in a city that's not oversaturated and overpriced like New York or LA or San Francisco can be a boon, but it also presents difficulties—especially if you're not a native. Chang now admits he approached Miami with what 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."

But Chang soon learned better: Miami, like every city, has its rhythms, its preferences, and its peculiarities—all of which may be heightened in this case, given the city's proximity to the island metropolis of decadence and over-the-top everything that is Miami Beach, which lies a short causeway-drive away.

READ MORE: How a Pot-Dealing Suburban Boy Became Miami's Best Baker

The learning curve has been steep. "In a place that has big hotels and chefs, and new restaurants and money coming in, it's really hard," Chang explains of being in the shadow of the mega-restaurants of SoBe. Furthermore, Miami's status as a vacation paradise—for half the year, at least—also had to be factored it. "It's really hard because there's basically six months to be able to crush it. The market is so volatile." And, Chang has found, in contrast to his hometown of LA, people in Miami aren't hardcore business diners: "If you look at Miami, and, it's like, where's the industry? What industries are there here besides tourism? You have little surges, like Art Basel and Food and Wine week, boat shows, but there's not an industry of people that make enough money to eat at your restaurant every night."

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Sourcing product—especially for a Californian—hasn't always been easy either, Chang says. "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. The tropical climate in Miami supports very different produce than one finds in LA, Chang has learned, and now he is trying to go with that. "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," he said.

Chang's greatest successes at Vagabond may have come when he learned to take Miami on its own terms. His green mango umeboshi, for example, is the happy result of learning to work with local ingredients. "The salad we had last summer used green mango umeboshi as a dressing for really ripe mangoes. It was really sweet with the salty fermented dressing—it was the type of stuff I knew we should be doing. It's like, where else can you get awesome passionfruit and amazing papayas? You have to put the effort in. It's about looking at things in an unconventional way."

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Chapulines Vagabond Image via Yelp Vagabond Kitchen & Bar

Perhaps Vagabond's most well known dish is its "peanuts and chapulines," which are Szechuan peppercorn, cilantro, and lime-infused grasshopper bits. The crunchy and tart bugs have been a great success. "I wanted to give a nod to the street food of Mexico," Chang explained.

Chang's approach to food is non-traditional by design. With a Mexican mom and a Chinese dad, Chang grew up mostly in Santa Barbara and LA, but spent time in Japan too, where his father lived for a while. The cuisines of all of these places have influenced him, but he doesn't approach any of them head on: "I think it all comes out in my interpretation. I don't cook traditional food."

READ MORE: South Florida Is Trading Tackiness for Exotic Fruit

In fact, Chang said, he avoids the classics because he holds his food up to a high standard: "I don't want to make dumplings because I wouldn't want to fuck them up. If I could make them as good as they do in China, then I'd be comfortable making them. I don't want to touch anything super traditional." Instead, his menu is a mashup of cuisines and flavors, ranging from a Latin-flavored seared octopus with rancho gordo beans, epazote, and hoja santa to a Middle-eastern inspired salad of grilled cucumbers tossed in a spicy-but-refreshing yogurt dressing and garnished with hazelnuts, pink peppercorns, dill, and fried halloumi.

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Chang said he has been experimenting with fermentation lately. "We make a lot of vinegars and misos using nuts and grains. We make our own hot sauce from fermented carrots and habaneros, and we make a nasturtium vinegar with stems and stuff that goes bad." He told me that he is most interested in exploring the possibilities with local Miami ingredients: "That's what is really exciting—this profile of ingredients hasn't been taken to a more thoughtful level, and there's a lot of room for discovery. We've been here for less than two years and there's been a lot of interesting things."

In retrospect, Chang says, he may have come into Miami a tad bullheaded: "What I wanted to do here was really ambitious, and when I came here I was a little naive to the market." At first, "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."

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He's not afraid to critique the Miami food scene, though, and is still intent on bringing a great "casual and ethnic food scene" to Miami. Sometimes, he explained, it "seems like there's a disconnect— everyone wants the scene to move forward, but, if you're not willing to talk about the weaknesses, you're not gonna get anywhere."

"A lot is exciting about Miami—a lot of ingredients you can't get anywhere else, that you get here, that make it special," he explained. After all, he said, "Where else can you get awesome passionfruit and amazing papayas? Like I said, you have to put the effort in. It's about looking at things in an unconventional way."

In the end, Chang told me, he is committed to Miami for the future: "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."