Oh, Screw The Odds
March 22, 2017
Tracy Chang was supposed to be a heart surgeon.
Or rather, that’s what she imagined she’d be. What she is supposed to be is exactly what she is: a chef.
The first time we met was in a small bookstore café on Boston’s trendy Newbury Street. At the time, Chang and her cohorts—fellow o ya chefs Mark O’Leary and Yukihiro Kawaguchi—had launched Guchi’s Midnight Ramen, a pop-up already driving the city mad with noodle lust after only one appearance. Back then, pop-ups still maintained a bit of mystery; they were buzzy and short-lived, ephemeral by design and impossible to get into. The trio still seemed stunned by the reception, and a little tired (they all still had restaurant jobs; the ramen was a side gig). Despite all this, they still managed to have a roaring two-hour conversation about the broth and noodle trials they’d endured in semi-secret while preparing for their debut.
At the end of those two hours, Chang summed it up this way: “I think that it goes to show, if you're making broth every day for a year and you're not sick of it, and you're still excited for a bowl, then you're in the right place.”
It was clear then that she was in the right place, even if her role was never easy to pin down. In the projects she pursued, she always seemed to eclipse ‘chef’ or ‘manager’ or ‘co-founder’ — it was something closer to a maestro. After Guchi’s, there was The Spotted Tiger, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it fête centered around Chinese flavors and buzzy craft cocktails from (then an up-and-comer) bartender Ran Duan.
But, that was then: PAGU is now.
PAGU, a reflection of Chang’s travels around the globe and the people she’s met along the way, opened its doors in Cambridge, Massachusetts earlier this year. She’s adamant that the term ‘restaurant’ doesn’t quite express the entirety of her mission; even the menu is a happy collision of worldly flavors that defy strict categorization. “Of course, people want to know, ‘Okay, so what's Spanish and Japanese fusion?’” she says. “It's a lot of ‘what’ kind of questions versus ‘why?’ questions.”
To answer a ‘what’ question: on the surface, yes, PAGU is a place where you can find smallish plates with a Japanese and Spanish melody slinking through them. Where there is sashimi, there are pintxos; there is both a legit jamon selection, and a very slick squid ink bao—neat black dough punctuated with a shock of hot pink cabbage. PAGU serves deeply craveable things (for lunch and dinner and soon, breakfast) regardless of where you think they belong.
The ‘why’ answer is less tangible, as creative pursuits tend to be.
Chang wanted to create a gathering place; one centered around food, but also around connection. PAGU is a dynamic and transformative soul, the mission statement reads, that pushes our friends and guests to live life fully, literally and physically. In certain ways, PAGU seems a product of its time: restaurant-goers of today seek more than a meal. We want a bit of escapism, a bit of community, and to feel seen (or not seen, depending on how shit your day was).
“I chose the places that I traveled to and the things that I studied for a reason,” she says. “Studying Chinese and Spanish and French was less about studying, and more about cooking with friends and learning about what we were eating, how they were cooking it, what they were drinking with it, and talking to the people around the dinner table.
“That was the heart and soul of what I wanted to do more permanently. That was what I wanted to do with my days.”
Photo via Ken Richardson for The Improper Bostonian
Chang is foremost a connector, who brings people together under the umbrella of dining. (“I aspire to be glue,” she says.) Like most restaurant people, she is direct and generous, capable of both exacting focus and goofy sparring. Everything she loves in life seems to fuse together at their edges; Phoebe, a beloved pug, even has a starring role as PAGU’s mascot.
In the beginning, it was a neat Hail Mary that landed her at Tim Cushman’s o ya. A friend working in advertising helped her build a portfolio; together, they took photos of her amateur creations and assembled a narrative in the hopes that it would land her some kind of job. An internship, even. She recalls being willing to do anything to learn how to cook like they did. She went in with a sample of a dessert that she had made, and a resume full of academia, with eyes on an open host position — “and if they let me clean the whole restaurant and do some chopping as my off-time, that'd be great”— but instead, they asked her to join the kitchen.
“That was when I got my foot in the door,” she says. “I never really looked back after that.”
Many young cooks have this moment, when a love of cuisine sheds the hesitations of a hobby and reveals itself as a life they could choose. The many clues had already surfaced in Chang’s life, just not all at once, not cohesively. A desire to do something that involved people drove her to consider medicine; a distaste for rigid bureaucracy came from her time as a receptionist. Plus, thanks to her grandmother, who also ran a restaurant in Cambridge, the industry was in her blood. She studied pâtisserie at Le Cordon Bleu Paris, (and as this author can attest, makes a mean passion fruit caramel à la Jacques Genin); she cooked at Michelin-starred Restaurante Martin Berasategui in San Sebastián, whose influence is noted in everything from management style, to culinary technique, to the type of stone she chose for the bar counter.
One might argue that she has been preparing for this moment her whole life. But when your moment arrives in a time defined by restaurants opening and closing at an unprecedented pace all over the country, what then?
If you're Chang, you say screw it, and take the risk, because people need thoughtful spaces where they can eat and drink and talk. Spaces free of any discernible ego, built at the urging of their communities. Restaurants can be many things to those who are brave enough to open them; PAGU is an example of a restaurant as a manifestation of individual destiny. A more philosophical kind of heart surgery, if you will.
“I think that it's more important now than ever to create, but to create in a very mindful way,” she says. “Are you just creating more waste in the world? Are you just creating more problems and chaos? You have to question every step of it. As someone who is creating something that produces waves, you have to find innovative ways to induce that wave. Being responsible in how we source, or how we treat everyone, is important.”
Every restaurant, every chef, has a different approach. Everyone always wants to explain [this process] in a linear way, but I've had the menu going in my head all my life,” she adds. “Why is it always a line? Why can't it be more of a circle? Or a figure eight, or a slinky?”