Being a chef in Miami is hard. Being a chef in Miami amid a pandemic is even harder. But for Valerie Chang, chef/partner at Itamae in the Design District, things could get a tiny bit easier thanks to the James Beard Foundation.
This year, Chang is one of 25 women chosen to participate in the James Beard Foundation's 2020 Women's Entrepreneurial Leadership Program (WEL). She was previously a semifinalist for the James Beard Award for Rising Star Chef of the Year.
Chang, who's 28, grew up in Peru and spent her childhood watching her father cook at a sushi restaurant. Following a few stints as a chef — including one at Michael Solomonov’s Miami restaurant, Dizengoff — Chang now helms her own kitchen alongside her brother Nando and their father, Fernando, at Itamae, located inside the MIA Market (formerly St. Roch and Politan Row), where they prepare a Nikkei-inspired menu of Japanese-Peruvian dishes.
Although Itamae closed in March in response to emerging coronavirus concerns, Chang says plans are under way to reopen in mid-November in a new 4,000-square-foot space at 140 NE 39th Street in the Palm Court complex.
For Chang, the WEL experience couldn't have come at a more propitious time. Although the family began negotiations to secure their lease and transition to the new space before the onset of the pandemic, the young chef says she tips from WEL are helping in the reopening process.
"It has already been so helpful," Chang tells New Times. "The experience is extraordinary. They are so thoughtful on how to give the tools and support to empower entrepreneurial women, especially for someone like me who did not complete college. This is a very in-depth program on how to run your business day to day, year to year."
The inaugural class of WEL fellows took place at Babson College in September 2017. Initiated by James Beard Foundation (JBF) supporter Jodie W. McLean — CEO of Edens, one of the nation’s leading private retail real estate companies — WEL gives up to 20 women the opportunity to attend a five-day entrepreneurship and leadership training program.
Today, the annual fellowship is under the umbrella of the JBF Women's Leadership Programs, which aim to support women-identifying hospitality industry entrepreneurs, restaurant owners, and chefs.
According to Emily Rothkrug, Impact Programs Manager for the James Beard Foundation, more than one-third of all past WEL participants go on to expand their business or create brand extensions.
"Those results are especially encouraging for this year's participants, given the industry's current business climate," Rothkrug says. "This year's WEL program is unlike any other. For the first time, the program is fully digital and spans several weeks instead of just five days. We are also focusing on core business skills such as marketing, fundraising, and branding, as well as emphasizing personal and business resilience during COVID-19."
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