Vagabond’s Chef Alex Chang on the Prizes and Pitfalls of Youth

Plate Magazine is one of my favorite clients to write for. Being an industry rag, they focus purely on what chefs are doing, exploring with incredible depth and covering a wide gamut of food, culture and lifestyle topics. For them, I get to do what I love the most — have conversations with incredibly talented people in the food world. I don’t have to zone in on some trendy angle or make a singular recipe the focus. Instead, I get to explore who the person on the other side of the table (or, more often since this is an international magazine, the phone) is at heart: what their unique passions, frustrations, anxieties or triumphs are.

The September/October “30 Chefs to Watch” issue marks one year of my writing for the magazine. For it, I featured chef Ryan Roadhouse of Nodoguru in Portland, and chef Alex Chang of Vagabond in Miami. The questions for the interview portion of the features were set by the editors. Though the questions listed were the same for both, I marveled at how different the two chefs’ answers were. Additionally, having a healthy word count for their introductions meant that I could conduct interviews of my own, picking their brains for things I’d wanted to know about them and couldn’t find in my research.

That secondary interview with Alex is below. Check out last week’s on Ryan.

Executive Chef Alex Chang 2

 

Chef Alex Chang of Vagabond in Miami

“30 Chefs to Watch of 2015” by Plate magazine

You’ve mentioned how a certain level of naiveté has served you well. I’ve heard similar comments from other chefs, some who credit their decades-long success to “thank god I didn’t know then what I know now.” How has that naiveté, or age, or the inexperience, served you best?

It’s a driving force in terms of what I do and in terms of what I want the people to do that work with us. Reading about naivete in David Chang’s Momofuku cookbook changed the way I saw things. I read it weirdly around the same time we were starting our supper club in college which, to me, was the most prime example of being stupid and going for it. We had a fair amount of naiveté. I thought I could cook for fifteen people out of my apartment, and that lead to what I’m doing now. Without that naiveté, I never would have gotten to now. And I never want to lose that concept of being fearless, or having too much knowledge to the point that it’s detrimental.

Even now, with a fair amount of experience, I want that driving force of naiveté that pushes us. Maybe not the same amount I had in college, but enough to help us think creatively about the kind of fruits we’re getting down here, or how to make a restaurant opposite from everything else that’s down here in Miami. Miami’s not a progressive dining culture yet like New York or L.A. People think they’re a few years behind here, and that we’re crazy to try what we’re doing, that it’s not going to work for one reason or another. Maybe that’s naiveté as well, not knowing enough but still going for it. I always want to have a certain fearlessness drive this place.

What’s the age ratio of your staff?

We have a really young staff in general. Most of our managing team is younger than thirty years old. We have value and experience, but our restaurant manager is twenty-six, my chefs are twenty-six and twenty-eight, the bar manager is twenty-three, one of the co-owners is twenty-seven. We’re all a really young team, but we’ve attracted people with a fair amount of experience who want to work with us. So I think that’s a driving force; we’re all risk takers.

What’s your leadership style? I assume you’re still figuring that out.

More than anything I try to lead by example. I’m tapping what qualities I’ve found to be rewarding when I was a cook, and qualities I hated about certain chefs I worked for. The chef I worked for in Belgium was in a Michelin-starred, Worlds-100-Best restaurant. He was there every day. Some days he would help scrub down the kitchen. He was cooking with us, and then he’d buy us beers afterward. But he also expected the utmost quality of us, and his standards were the highest. I think that’s advantageous; cooks look up to you and appreciate that you’re willing to do the same menial and annoying tasks, being selfless in that way.

In the same sense, I’ve found it quite challenging, because at certain points I’ve felt insecure about my age in terms of when I have to go to a meeting or step out of the restaurant – things that don’t involve cooking – that people think I’m letting off the gas or that I don’t want to be in the kitchen, feeling in the heat in the weeds. But they’re things I have to do at this point. I still feel like I have to prove myself to everyone. Yes, I’m twenty-five, but I still want to work hard and longer than anyone else. But that may be in my head, too. I just don’t want people to think I’m this young guy, egotistical with a certain amount of success. I don’t want to be perceived that way. I want to feel equal with everyone.

I can see why you’d have that concern – your twenties is so much about figuring out who you are, anyway. And being in a leadership position, you’re up against kids who just want to be rock star chefs, coming out of school and directly running a restaurant. I can see how you’d be aware of that. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t hardworking, amazing chefs in their twenties, but I could see how that’s in your psyche.

It’s hard, because I really have no desire to be on TV or do cooking shows, but almost every week I have to do a photo shoot or a spot on TV. It’s part of the job and the promotion for the restaurant, and my duty to promote it that way. I just want people to know that’s not what I’m here to accomplish. I want to make the best food, and produce the best restaurant we can. And give people who work for us the opportunity to grow and do the best they can as well.

At the same time, you kind of have to have boundaries with people, and they need to respect you in a certain way. It’s a game of push and pull, and a constant learning process for me. I felt like maybe I was too friendly with my staff in the beginning, and I’ve had to pull back a bit. I’m pretty patient on the whole, and I don’t lose my cool too much; I may be upset about some things, but at the end of the day I’m quite reasonable. I think people respect that and give that back.

Have there been any rookie mistakes you experienced and then conquered?

There hasn’t been anything that huge, but I guess one thing is that I’m still trying to navigate how to be really friendly with my staff, but still have them respect me. Once they feel like they’re close with you and your friend it’s like, “Oh, I’m running ten minutes late.” But I need them here on time, every day, to work. Even with my managers – I want to be as personal with them as possible, but I had to take a step back. I want to be there for everyone on a personal level, but not be taken advantage of or have them abuse it. At the end of the day – and most importantly – it’s our job, and everyone’s primary purpose here more than anything.

You’re young now, but cooking is so physical. Do you take care of yourself physically to help support your desired longevity?

I used to do yoga. Now, with how limited my time is, it’s hard to do much of anything besides work. But I get more worried about burning out mentally than physically. Your body is better at telling you to stop, but it’s hard to have that barrier in your brain. A few months ago I was kind of going crazy mentally, and it was a big moment where I realized I needed to slow down a little bit. That was probably the biggest mistake I’ve made for myself; I thought I was invincible, and that I could work twenty-hour days seven days a week and not think it would affect me. After a few months of Vagabond I took a few days off and realized I need to do that regularly, for my mental and physical health.

What’s making you feel the most fulfilled right now overall?

In terms of the restaurant, I’m exploring south Florida in terms of what it has to offer. People down here don’t seem to look at the negatives and positives together. When I first came down, the farmers were like, “Good luck, it’s really hard to grow stuff, especially in the summer when it’s so hot.” So we took on that challenge and are trying to turn it into something positive. If vegetables are going out in the summer, then we’re not going to use them. So what can we do with lychees, and mangoes and jackfruit, and Thai herbs, and lemongrass… all the stuff that does grow down here during the summer? I think we’re on the verge of finding some fun new things down here. With the size of our restaurant and how busy we are, it’s hard to source everything in the region, but we’re doing what we can. We’re never sure what is going to happen, but it’s exciting, for sure.

And, on a personal level, it’s exciting to see people grow. I’d forgotten what it’s like to be next to people who are really inexperienced in the kitchen. I took it for granted, I guess, bringing guys in who can’t dice an onion. It’s been really rewarding, seeing how far guys have come in six months who came in with few skills.

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