Fairweather magazine publisher Eric Goodman sat down with William Chang to discuss the genesis of his foodie and restaurant interests—including his favorite dishes at his restaurants—and the dish on his latest venture, the hot southern- cuisine belle of the West Village, Birds & Bubbles.
WHEN NOT ALLOCATING INSTITUTIONAL capital, William Chang runs his two Manhattan-based restaurants, Spasso and the more recently launched Birds & Bubbles.
Did I mention that he also runs the high-end men’s shoe line Cobbler Union? Here, Chang shares some thoughts on his many varied endeavors.
What is your earliest memory of incredible food?
My first memory of incredible food was on a trip to Asia when I was seven years old. It wasn’t so much a single dish that really had an impact on me, but rather being exposed to a variety of dishes that I had previously eaten in New York that now I was eating in Asia. The preparation of these dishes was a lot punchier in terms of ingredients and flavors, and that experience really helped me to appreciate the difference between good and great food.
What was it like growing up? Did you cook at home?
My palate is very much like my mother’s—while she grew up in India, she immigrated to the U.S. and tried all sorts of different food andhighly encouraged my sister and me to do the same (though as a child, sometimes we weren’t very amenable to this). As a child attending elementary school, it was difficult. I didn’t want to be the outsider with a greasy lunch bag. I was sent to kindergarten with sushi and curry when all I wanted was a PB&J sandwich and chocolate milk. In retrospect, I’m very grateful for this period, and it’s now inconceivable to think I once preferred deli meat over tri tip. I actually did not cook much growing up. I wanted to, but I wasn’t allowed. Instead, I spent a lot of time helping with prep. As I got older, I spent less and less time at home, as well as the kitchen. Ironically, now whenever I’m home, my folks ask me to cook.
Have your traveling experiences influenced your views on food?
Whenever I travel, I try to make an effort to try local cuisine, and I’m always on the hunt for new ingredients and new restaurants, even if it’s in our own backyard. For example, on my most recent trip to LA, my friend’s mother, Won na, introduced me to Buddha’s hand, a lemony type of citrus with a beautiful smell, which I plan to play around with and see what I can do with it.
What is your favorite cuisine?
Probably my favorite is whatever my mother happens to be cooking that day! But in all seriousness, that’s a tough question. If I hadto pick one, I’d have to say American, only because the cuisine now incorporates so many of the methods and ingredients found in other cuisines and because it is such an inclusive cuisine, you have a lot more flavor profiles to work with.
What makes a great restaurant?
Devotion and team work. A restaurant is about more than serving a good meal. It’s about serving up a great experience, and that only comes through with a team that can work together and puts the diner first.
How and when did you know that you wanted to develop restaurants?
It wasn’t until 2008. At the time, I had saved up some cash and had hired a chef to teach me how to cook. Again, never having been taught,I wanted to really start from the basics and learn from the ground up. I really got into it and had considered leaving finance altogether to pursue a career in the culinary arts, but at the end of the day it was tough for me to really leave my first love (finance), so at the end of the day, this was literally my way of having my cake and eating it too.
Please tell us about your restaurants, including your latest new restaurant venture. What makes your restaurants so special?
Spasso is an Italian restaurant located in the heart of the West Village. It’s an intimate space that is home to some of the best Italian food that the city has to offer, and whose Chef, Ed Carew and co-managing partner, Kareem NeJame work extremely hard to give diners a memorable dining experience. It has gained somewhat of a reputation as a great place for a date, given the solid beverage program, menu, and friendly staff. The menu is always evolving and incorporates an excellent mix of traditional and modern Italian dishes.
Birds & Bubbles is much more than fried chicken and champagne, though obviously there will be both! It’s a great place to satisfy your cravings for southern food—with bold flavor and playful twists on traditional dishes. I find it great because the food is savory and flavorful without weighing you down. It’s a unique space, as it’s subterranean, but it gives us access to a beautiful space with an outdoor garden, which I absolutely love.
I think what really sets these two restaurants apart from their peers is the lengths at which they get to know their diners and their preferences. Service is a huge point of pride. I’ve always loved a sense of community and found establishments in the city to have a very short ‘institutional memory’. I’ve found high turnover in the staff to be a challenge which we have faced successfully. High turnover inevitably puts a cap on the quality of experience you can hope to give your diners.
How do you go about designing a menu?
It’s really less of a science and much more of an art. It’s a blend of anticipating what favors people might be amenable to and seeing if you can push the boundaries a little bit and figure out what will leave people pleasantly surprised and wanting to come back for more.
You are involved in other ventures in fashion as well as work in finance. Do you see a connection among all of your projects and ventures?
I definitely do. They’re all expressions of beauty. I love helping to create things that cause people to stop and reconsider their own sense of what they know to be good and what they think they enjoy, and forcing their tastes to evolve a little bit.
Do you enjoy cooking? Or prefer eating?
I secretly enjoy cooking a little bit more. It keeps me humble, curious, and creative.
Where is your favorite place to go in NYC?
Union Square. There’s a ton of great energy and it’s a great open space to get way and do some thinking.
What is your favorite dish at one of your restaurants? What is your favorite dessert?
Spasso: Butcher’s-cut steak for two; Birds and Bubbles: Fried chicken; Favorite dessert: a glass of Laphroaig 18 and creme brûlée.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Stay humble. And ask questions.