Chef Donald Chang is no stranger to restaurants - or the Houston restaurant scene. A 23-year-industry veteran, he's opened more than his share, and been a driving force behind such Bayou City standouts as Uptown Sushi and The Fish (opened with his brother and a friend). Last year, he gave us Nara Sushi and Korean Kitchen, the Korean/Japanese fusion affair in trendy West Ave. In an interview the day before Nara Sushi and Korean Kitchen's anniversary bash, he talked to us about his first year, how he learned not to mess with the oxtail cake - and how this is his most personal restaurant ever.
Eater: You're in the middle of renovations. [There's a construction team hanging lights above the sushi bar, paper signs on the restaurant redirect you to the new Kirby/Kipling entrance]
Donald Chang: Oh, I feel like chef, boss, general contractor - maybe general contractor more than anything else these days.
Eater: Maybe let's start there. This is all new. What's up with that?
Chang: This has been going on for two months now. We're about 80 percent done. We turned the space by the old entrance, where the bar used to be, into a private dining space - we've already got reservations for it, that's why these guys are here working so late tonight. Our new entrance is just inside Kirby and Kipling and we're working on getting complimentary valet, which will be great for diners. You'll walk 10 steps and be in our front door. And we added that "Kirby and Kipling" designation to our marketing materials so people get a better feel for how to find us here. That's been a huge help. And it only took us 10 months to figure that out. Plus, we have the new lounge right as you walk in, with the communal table and smaller two-tops. Those new lights are like, 10-pound balls. The effect is fantastic. We've added a happy hour and a reverse happy hour, and we're making it much more like a real lounge. The vibe is much better.
Eater: So, tell us about the first year. How's it been?
Chang: It's been fun. This was the first time working with an entirely new staff; we didn't pull from any other restaurants, so we started with a fresh group, fresh brains. I figured this is a new concept, and we need new brains. And we're really hitting our stride. Some restaurants don't even make it year, so there's that, right? I cannot complain.
Eater: When you say "new," what are you referring to?
Chang: Before we opened, and after I conceived the menu, I looked around at what was out there. I went to New York, L.A., traveled to Japan and Korean - the passport was nice and full. And there was nothing that I could find that was what I was trying to do.
Eater: But you went looking to find out if your menu was anywhere, not just to see if someone else had fused these two concepts?
Chang: You know, I always think up the menu first. I'm an inward person, really, and I like to sit and think about the food, and I want my mind to be unbiased by anything I've already looked at. So, I made up these ideas and I bounced them off my sister - this was the food we grew up with - and she was so instrumental in the early stages, helping me see what this could be. When I traveled, I saw a lot of pub kinds of foods being things people wanted in New York, there was a lot of buffet-style in L.A. and even in Korea, there were only one or two higher end places, and they'd only been developed over the last two or three years.
Eater: And the Korean aspect of the menu was really important to you.
Chang: Oh, absolutely! This is my food, family food. There's a small but passionate Korean community here in Houston, and they have been so supportive; Korean business people bring their clients here, we have a strong relationship with the Korean consulate. That's important to me, and I love that they have been caring about our success and really sharing the love. But when people think about Korean food, they might only think Korean barbeque, or that it's spicy, so this was a chance to open up and show them all the shades and colors the cuisine has.
Eater: And you also bring a Japanese element to this. How does that factor in? You're a classically trained Japanese chef.
Chang: Right. So, this is everything I am and everything I know I how to do.
Eater: So, this is an opportunity to show off those elements to your diners. And the name Nara plays into your feeling that this is who you are and what you do, too. Tell us about that.
Chang: The very first Nara I opened was the first modern-inspired, white-table-cloth Japanese restaurant. And I was 26 when I did that. But, Nara is a city in Japan, and it's known for being a very advanced, really culturally savvy city. At the same time, "Nara" in Korean means "community," so this concept, at this time, really spoke about those things.
Eater: In many ways, this is a coming of age for you, isn't it?
Chang: Yes! That's such a great way to look at it. In my 20s and 30s, I was so much about "This is my food and you're going to eat it the way I make it." And now, I feel I'm in a very different place. I've opened myself more to collaboration and ideas from people, I want to share this experience, it's so close to home for me. I can see my younger self and I had so much attitude! And now, I'm maturing more as an adult and you know, it's so much more fun to focus on the customer instead of always having to prove myself to myself.
Eater: And what are your diners' favorite things on the menu?
Chang: The oxtail rice cake, for sure. I took it off the menu once, because I wanted to change it up seasonally, and the push back was so fast and so hard, it was like, boom! I had to put it back on - and I've not taken it off since. People get into Bibimabap. We do it with radish and carrot kimchi, spinach, a quail egg and the cho jang sauce, which is a red pepper-based sauce. My mom still comes in and makes it - she still refuses to give me the recipe; it's good for her job security. The whole thing is served in a hot stone bowl, with rice. It's comfort food.
Eater: And these are a lot of things a casual diner might not have heard of. What do you think it says about Houston as a dining city that they've come out to try this?
Chang: It's pretty incredible! I think in Houston, especially, the borders have broken wide open on what you can do and how accepting people will be of it. And in this city, people are so accepting about giving the unknown a chance. This is a great place for any chef with a vision. And, I've personally been supported and encouraged by a lot of chefs and restaurant owners here - Kevin over at Eleven XI, David Cordua at Americas, Ginny Kim at Seoul Garden has been amazing - there's so much love in the community. We want to see each other succeed and do new things. And I think that kind of goodwill translates to diners; they can really see we're excited over doing what we do, and they come along for the ride.
Eater: And where do you go from here?
Chang: Home. To spend some time with my family; I've been away so much, while we were building this and now that we're remodeling. I really promised I'd try to slow down a little bit and get a better balance going. But honestly, I can't even begin to count the blessings this year. Our staff, the diners, the community. All their support and pulling for us. That's been so wonderful. It's a real source of pride.