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25-Year-Old Chef Alex Chang Wants Vagabond Restaurant to Define Miami

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Paladar's Alex Chang is ready to take on the Magic City with his latest project, Vagabond Restaurant.

Chef Alex Chang
Chef Alex Chang
Reinaldo Fernandez

When Vagabond Restaurant opens —most likely in November — expect to feast on grasshoppers, lightly seasoned and sprinkled with lime, as well as anything else 25 year old chef Alex Chang feels like testing your palate with. The chef, who gained popularity with his college supper club, Paladar (an event that eventually attracted a film crew and its own documentary), is about to bring Miami a young dose of "naiveté," a quality he hopes will accomplish an ambitious goal and allow for more creativity than the city's ever seen before. Here's what he has to say on his upcoming project:

Tell me a little about yourself and how  you started cooking.

maybe I'll just try cooking.

So, basically ... I grew up in Santa Barbara for the most part. My dad moved to Tokyo when I was like 12 and so it was just me and my mom and my sister. And when I was a senior in high school, my sister left for college and my mom was working full time, so I was like home alone by myself and my mom was like, "oh just figure out what to do for dinner." I would go get stuff out, but then I was like "maybe I'll just try cooking." And at this point in my life, I didn't even know how to boil water. But then I actually picked up the one cookbook we had in our house, it was a Rachael Ray cookbook - funny enough - and I picked it up, started cooking and thought it was pretty cool, so I got into it. When I moved to L.A. to go to college, I went to U.S.C., that was like a really eye-opening experience because I would go and explore the city by just trying out different places because I was super interested in food. I would go to all these little hole in the walls and it's how I figured out how to get around L.A. Eventually, me and my roommate we would always have our friends over dinner because it was just what we liked to do and eventually we realized this sucks because everyone loves the food, but we're spending a bunch of money.

when I graduated I knew I wanted to keep cooking

We didn't want to lose money on this, but we really loved doing it. So we were like let's charge people for it. So we started by inviting 12 of our friends and it was three courses for $12, but the idea was that the food would just be really simple with like food you would get when you go home and your mom cooks. Roasted chicken, roasted potatoes, a simple salad, some kind of simple dessert. Then it kept taking off and kept evolving and I grew more into the cooking side, kept reading cookbooks, kept eating, kept cooking ... we did it for like two and a half years and by the end we were doing 64 people a night. We would do two turns of 32 people and then we had a huge email list and sometimes the dinners would sell out in an hour and there would be like a 100 person waiting list. Then we got some local attention and these kids who are film students ended up making a documentary about it. They were well connected in the industry, so they were able to push it through and they got it into Tribeca Film Festival in New York. And when I graduated I knew I wanted to keep cooking. From there, I went and worked at Lazy Ox Canteen for about a year and then I went to go live with my dad in Tokyo. I came back and worked at Animal for two years and have been traveling the last six months.

How'd you come up with the name Paladar for the supper club?

When we started, we were sitting on the couch thinking we should probably give it a name and call it something. We were just looking stuff up online and found Paladar and it said Paladar is like a restaurant that a family runs out of their home in Cuba and it's like locally-sourced food and it's subsidized by the government and it's just 12 people and that's like exactly what we were doing, so it was perfect. I liked I because it was ambiguous enough that people would be like, "oh what does that mean?" And then it would totally make sense.

How did you end up getting involved with Vagabond Restaurant?

I have nothing to lose, if it goes horribly I'll just go back to L.A. and count my losses and life goes on

So the documentary was shot when I was 22, so it was a delayed process in terms of when it came out ... it only came out to the public this summer but there's been a trailer for like two years. A friend of a friend was working in New York for Alvaro Perez, who is the restaurateur who brought me on to this project. He opened like 30 plus restaurants in Tokyo then sold out of the business and moved to New York, so now he was looking to get back in the game. He was hosting this charity dinner in Williamsburg and he had seen the trailer through a friend of a friend and thought it was really cool, so he reached out. He was like, "I'm not going to pay you or anything, but I'll pay for your expenses, food, and you can come out here and cook a dinner. And I was like okay, I have nothing to lose, if it goes horribly I'll just go back to L.A. and count my losses and life goes on. It was a four course plated dinner in a construction site in New York so there was like no running water, no kitchen equipment, but it went really well. From there I just kind of stayed in touch with him and he got attached to this project. When he was approached to do this, he asked me — right when I got back from Mexico and supposed to leave for Europe — and it just worked out that I was able to go down and check it out.

What can guests expect in terms of food?

I think the food here is not quite as progressive and innovative.

I think my experience in Miami is quite limited so far. I came here once as a teen and don't really remember it, so the first time I came was back in March and then I came here in May and here in June and I just moved here like three weeks ago. So ... it's different compared to other big cities... I think the food here is not quite as progressive and innovative. I think there's some great chefs here and a lot of people doing some really great stuff, but I think what I found is that there's something missing in the middle to me. There's not that like casual fine dining that you get when you go to New York or L.A. or Chicago or San Fransisco, where you can have one of the best meals in the city but not have it with like the typical white tablecloth or expensive tasting menus. So I think that Miami's missing that and I'm hoping to bring that. I want it to be a place where you can come and have a burger, some vegetables and a little dish where you can spend $30 or a place where you can go have like 24 oz sirloin and spend $100 per person.

I'm just trying to really, really figure out what Miami is made of and what it can be...

But still be in like a very casual atmosphere. The other thing, in terms of approaching the food... it took me kind of a little bit to calibrate what I was going to do because I thought of a lot of ideas but they're based on seasons and stuff I can grow in Southern California and for here it's quite different. Basically, there's a growing season then there's a season where you don't grow anything but like tropical fruit. But it's cool because I feel like it can be used advantageously ... It forces creativity. So what can we do with all this tropical food, what can we do in the summer to like make stuff more interesting and create more out of nothing? I just don't want to be here an be like oh I'll put this on the menu because that's what I got in L.A. ... I want to be like ok, I have star fruit or these Florida avocados, what can I do with these?

I just don't think there are restaurants that are super unique here .. no restaurant bleeds Miami

Instead of relying on things I'm more comfortable with. It will definitely take some time to adjust to. I'm just trying to really, really figure out what Miami is made of and what it can be... I just don't think there are restaurants that are super unique here .. like, oh this restaurant bleeds Miami. So I think that's what we're going to try and do.

What are some of the menu items your most excited about?

insects are the future

One dish I'm excited about ... to see how it will be received is ... I found a purveyor for grasshoppers, in Mexico you call them chapulines, and so it's something that you eat on the street dried and roasted in like a little bit of chili ... you put some lime juice on them and it's like a perfect beer snack, for me.

it's just a perfect snack to sit outside in the Miami sun sipping on a mezcal or a beer.

There's that story in Time magazine about how insects are the future, and I think it's totally right. It's not super sustainable to eat beef and meat the way that we do. So, to make it a little bit more approachable I'm going to use some almonds and peanuts and roast them with the chapulines and some lime juice and cilantro ... it's just a perfect snack to sit outside in the Miami sun sipping on a mezcal or a beer. It was actually something I did at that dinner and people were receptive to it. They're actually really rich in protein and they're really well cultivated. They're caught wild and boiled in like a little bit of lemon juice and dried in the sun and roasted. I don't think everyone's going to order it but hopefully it will get people talking.

What will you bring over from your experience with the supper club?

a lot of times the best things are created out of some kind of like craziness

I think the biggest thing for me is that when I started the supper club I was just so clueless about food and everything related to it that I think that was a driving force behind why that was successful. There's a certain naiveté that's like, "oh, we'll just figure it out." And that's a very fine line to walk, but I think a lot of times the best things are created out of some kind of like craziness or just being stupid. When we started we were like, "whatever, we'll do this as we go."  I was cooking on shitty pans in a piece of shit kitchen and it didn't matter because I didn't know any better. I couldn't get past certain things knowing what I do now. So that's a philosophy I kind of want to instill in the restaurant to always push off the edge a little bit, push to make mistakes to learn from and see where we go.

Will the restaurant officially be called "Vagabond Restaurant?"

The food's going to be nomadic

Yeah. I mean, Alvaro always says to people that we're tyring to make food for the contemporary vagabond. My background is Mexican/Chinese, I've been traveling a little while and when I thought of the word Vagabond ... There was a time when I didn't know what to call this place, it was really hard ... the word makes sense to me because I think you can apply the literal sense of the word to the food. The food's going to be nomadic, it's going to be from areas of the world that don't necessarily make sense but hopefully when its on a plate and in your mouth it all comes together. So, we decided to hang on to this word because we felt it had a deeper meaning.

When can we expect the restaurant to open?

We're pushing for mid November. It's coming along actually, there's been a lot of progress.

· All Previous Coverage of Vagabond Restaurant [EMIA]