Alex Chang on Miami's Food Scene: "There's a Lack of Culture and People Who Really, Really Care"

No one knew what to make of Alex Chang when he arrived in Miami more than a year ago to lead the restaurant tucked inside the revamped Vagabond Hotel.

Some knew the 25-year-old from Paladar, a booze-soaked documentary detailing his unlikely start cooking dozens of dinners in his apartment near the University of Southern California. That led to a flurry of coveted internships at Belgium's Michelin-starred In de Wulf and Enrique Olvera's Pujol in Mexico City. By the time Chang touched down in Florida, diners were already ravenous for his food. Zagat bestowed upon him a 30-Under-30 award before he had sold a single plate in town.

In the months that followed, Miami fell in love with Chang while he embraced the city like a wide-eyed model teetering into LIV for the very first time. He relished the summer harvest, when the Redland yields little more than okra and tart, sugary tropical fruits. "We made mango salad, we made a lychee salad, and when lychee ran out, we made it with longans," he says. Green mangoes were fermented into umeboshi, the salty umami bombs common in Japan and traditionally made of plums.

Chang has proven adept at creating ingredients and deploying them across an ever-changing menu. The kitchen has turned walnuts into miso and guavas into vinegars, but that's not all he's thinking about.

"I want there to be a larger community of restaurant people."

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Unlike most carpetbagging chefs who jet into Miami on publicists' laurels, looking to pillage and plunder, Chang seems to have genuine interest in changing the city's dining tenor. "I want to be part of a group of people or a culture where we can push things forward," he says.

He's begun talking to a few farms and trying to organize something like Santa Monica's farmers' market or New York's Union Square Green Market. It's a lofty goal, but one that's desperately needed. Miami is drowning in farmers' markets yet the only one approaching those global standard-bearers happens in Pinecrest during the November-to-May harvest season. Even then, it's unlikely you'll see a chef shopping there.

Chang also argues Miami needs to do more to strengthen the base of young talent, whether it be bartenders, cooks, or servers. "There's a lack of culture and people who really, really care," he says.

Yet for each gripe, Chang backtracks and couches criticism with his general concerns and aspirations. It once seemed Miami and the Vagabond would be another stopover. But lately it's becoming more than a pin on the map.

"When I've been critical of Miami, it's about the things that are the elephant in the room, the things no one wants to talk about," he says. "I just want everything to get better here. I want there to be a larger community of restaurant people. I want to go to restaurants where I can get good service and good food."

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Zachary Fagenson became the New Times Broward-Palm Beach restaurant critic in 2012 before taking up the post for Miami in 2014. He also works as a correspondent for Reuters.
Contact: Zachary Fagenson