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Vagabond's Chef Alex Chang Discusses the Restaurant's First Year and How He Really Feels About Miami's Food Scene

Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater talks with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one-year anniversary

Alex Chang
Alex Chang
Star Chefs

Today marks the one-year anniversary of Vagabond Restaurant, the popular MiMo eatery inside the newly renovated Vagabond Hotel that has helped breathe new life into the area's food scene and recently nabbed a spot on the Eater 38. Manning the kitchen is Alex Chang, the somewhat outspoken chef who first got the culinary world's attention at the ripe young age of 22. At that time him and his friends started a college supper club, Paladar, which eventually attracted a film crew and its own documentary. But prior to Vagabond opening, Chang raised some eyebrows when he voiced his lack luster feelings on Miami's food scene. So with a year under his belt in the Magic City, Eater sat back down with Chang to see how he views the town now, what challenges he faced in the first year and what's in store for 2016.

Eater: How has your first year at Vagabond been?

Chang: It's been good. We were really busy from the opening and I guess we had the normal challenges of any opening year. I guess it's been a little bit different for me because Miami is a new place so figuring out what the demographic's like here and the

We're in a firmer place. We have a little bit more of a game plan

seasonality thing is a little bit different to me, as well as the growing seasons. We're in a firmer place. We have a little bit more of a game plan whereas waking up and coming to work on a daily basis in the first year was like trying to figure out what to do that day. Now we can plan based off of some patterns, and records, and past experiences.

Now you mentioned some challenges you face. What would you say was your biggest challenge this past year?

Probably, by far, in a way, is staffing the restaurant. There's the talent pool, not quite as rich with, all the way down to cooks and prep cooks, really dedicated people like young cooks 18, 20 years old who are really passionate that want to become chefs and don't care about how much money they're making. They just want to work at the best place. Dealing with that has not held me back, but that's the thing. If we had enough people that we could trust and have really dedicated, passionate people, then, really running the restaurant on a daily basis would be ... It would run like a machine. It's part of the challenge, I guess, is training people, and motivating people, and teaching people, and trying to get the most out of them. It's definitely gotten better. There's been really bad times where we were firing a handful of people in the same week, not because I think I'm too crazy or anything like that. It's just you're going to have to fill a standard of what is acceptable and sometimes you're going to have to bite the bullet.

What would you say has been your biggest accomplishment this past year?

I don't know. Honestly, we are very proud of everything we achieve and I'm proud of everything that I've achieved individually, that I've gotten recognition for individually. What I try and tell everyone at the restaurant is, "We can't get too high or too low. We

Building a core of people that is actually really dedicated

should note where we are doing well, but we should also note the things where we need to improve." Like I mentioned that the staffing has been difficult, but I've also built a small core, a foundation of people, and built a team here, which is different from if I was in LA or a place where I'm from, you kind of already have a team established in some sense. Building a core of people that is actually really dedicated. We have a dozen people, or a small team here, that's a small core that's really taken the reins of the restaurant and pushing it forward and hopefully continue to evolve it as the next year comes.

Speaking on evolving the restaurant, how would you say, besides the staffing stuff, how else has the restaurant evolved in the past year?

I don't know. I think we've become a lot more efficient and it's allowed us to, maybe hopefully in the next year, to explore different possibilities.  We've been doing a handful of catering stuff and outside at the pool bar, trying to ramp that up. Since the restaurant's a part of a hotel, trying to make it like a more unified idea in terms of the whole food and beverage on the property. We get more efficient and we get better everyday. We learn from our mistakes about what we don't do. I don't know. Hopefully, we keep going down that track.

Now, you've been vocal about your thoughts of Miami and South Florida and its food scene. Being here about a year and change now, have your opinions changed at all or you still feeling the same way?

I think I was a little misunderstood, a lot. Maybe you could describe it as angst or me wanting to do too much, but I only was critical of Miami because I want it to do better. I wouldn't have come here if I didn't see that there was a tremendous amount of

I never thought of Miami as a horrible place. I just saw the weaknesses.

opportunity and people were actually doing really cool, interesting stuff. I never thought of Miami as a horrible place. I just saw the weaknesses. The only way to curb the weaknesses plus improve i, you have to really look at the weaknesses and see how can we get better instead of covering them up with Band-Aids. That was really my only objective because I can only go as far as this city can go. I'm not going to be here alone so there needs to be other great chefs, and other great restaurants, and other great vendors and farmers that make a full network of food and beverage. It started down here. I think definitely, just in the last year, it definitely seems like there's a lot of progress and a lot of people that want to see things get better and keep pushing things forward.

I think the thing that still is the underlying problem is you have all these things, all the hotels on the beach, and the big names, and it takes away from actually what everyone else is trying to do, I think, because it's about them paying $17 an hour for a line cook that we can't pay here. I feel like it's the big obstacle right now and how do we

The underlying problem is you have all these things, all the hotels on the beach, and the big names, and it takes away from actually what everyone else is trying to do

compound that and how do we let diners and consumers figure out and make educated decisions about supporting local businesses instead or supporting a billion dollar hotel that has funds, and funds, and funds, and funds. If locals supported everything local or, not even just local, that word's kind of played out. If they really supported the places like Alter, and Proof, and Vagabond, Cake Thai, then we're really pushing things forward here. I love Paul Qui, I love his food, I think he is one of the extremely talented chefs, but I don't know that it makes sense, for us. It's not like I would want to tell them to not do it, but I guess the more systemic thing of the hotels and urban planning and all of this stuff. It's become a deeply seeded problem. That's why I was critical because I think we need to uncover those things and really talk about them and get them out.

Anything big in store for Vagabond for this next, upcoming year?

I think we're just going to try keep making delicious food and see how we can make things better, do the things that we do well already, keep doing those, and improve the things we aren't doing so well, and maybe see some special dinners, and do some more exciting events. Basically, try to make it day-in and day-out a really awesome experience whether you're eating lunch, brunch, or dinner here.

Does it feel like it's been a year?

Absolutely not. It feels like it's been a few months.

Vagabond Hotel Miami

7301 Biscayne Blvd, Miami, FL 33138 (305) 400-8420 Visit Website