Passion is an interesting and confusing thing. Today’s guest, a gifted chef with influences of several cultures, discusses challenges and victories from his various—and varied—ethnic restaurants. He now operates Houston’s first modern Korean-inspired kitchen. It’s been an interesting journey.
Russ: Welcome back to the Businessmakers Show brought to you by Comcast Business, Built for Business. Today, another one of those cool specialty Houston restaurants here on upper Kirby. Cause I'm with Donald Chang, the founder and executive chef Nara. Donald, welcome to the Businessmakers Show.
Donald: Russ, thank you so much for having me.
Russ: You bet. Tell us about Nara.
Donald: Well, it's a Houston's first modern Korean inspired kitchen. We're very ingredient focused over here. And basically I've just taken Korean food that I grew up on from home and brought it into a restaurant. Some of it I've made some tweaks to. Some of it I've just left as mom's own recipe.
Russ: All right. Describe Korean food for us.
Donald: You know Korean food, it's in one word, if I had to describe it it'd be savory. There's a lot of flavors in Korean food. There's nothing subtle or soft about it. I'd have to say that if I have to, you know parallel it with anything it parallels southern food a lot. And I grew up in the South. Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama. So there's a lot of comfort food factor into it. There's a lot of richness in it. Korean style bar-b-que. I mean who hasn't tried Korean style bar-b-que. And then from all the other sides and aspects of it. Whether it be the seafood, some of the food that parallels Japanese food in Korean style Kimpa, which is a Korean style sushi.
And then there's, of course there's all the spices and there's then all the fermented vegetables that parallels Mexican food or Tex-Mex food. So being here in Houston, Texas I think that this is the right spot for us to do this type of cuisine.
Russ: It sounded perfect to me but let me ask you this. So there is quite a Korean population here in Houston. It is the most diverse city in the United States these days. Do you find that your clientele includes Korean people? Is it mostly Korean people?
Donald: We've had quite a few Korean people here. And believe it or not, as far as Texas and as far as the rest of the United States goes, we have a very small, a relatively small Korean population of only 16,000. If you look at Koreatown it's between, you know it's on Longpoint between Blaylock and Gessner. So it's not that many blocks. Only a handful of Korean style restaurants. And you're seeing a couple more pop up in Chinatown in the Bellaire area. But overall the population's very small and it's a small community.
Russ: Okay. So the non Korean clientele that you have here, do they know what to expect when they come in?
Donald: You know I think some do because there's – I mean Houston, the way it's booming and the generation of consumers that we have out there is so adventurous with food. We didn't manage the expectations as much as I'd like for us to. Because some of the feedback, obviously we threw some people off. And so I don't think we've really done a good job of managing the expectation of those who are already familiar with Korean food. And we're trying to do a better job of that now. And I think we're slowly doing a better job of that. Getting more details and information on what it is to have a modern Korean type of restaurant in Houston.
Russ: Okay. Now how long have you been open?
Donald: We've been open six months now. November 13, 2013 was our first opening day of business.
Russ: Okay. So how do you feel the clientele is adjusting to your ___ food?
Donald: Wow. You know it's early on I think there was a lot of comparisons made to what people receive in our limited Korean community. There's only 16,000 Koreans I think presently. Recently with Korean airlines doing direct flights I think that there's gonna be a huge influx of Koreans coming into Houston. But for right now Koreatown is considered two blocks of Longpoint in between Blaylock and Gessner. So you're gonna find probably less than two handfuls of Korean restaurants and cafes on that street. And so I think a lot of people were used to the more rustic Korean or the home-style Korean that we have here.
But I did a lot of traveling. I spent an extensive amount of time in Korean before I opened this restaurant. Not only to see how food has evolved in Korea, but also in the United States. And so I went to the east and west coasts also to see how Korean food had evolved. And for the most part I've seen that I'm seeing a lot of young Korean chefs really become bolder in presentation, in playing with the original flavors. Because I think with Korean food it's a little limited as far as the type of flavor profiles that an ethnic food has. But over here, the customers have been – some have been pleasantly pleased by it. And some feel that I've kind of taken away some of the punch. And so the reviews are all over the place. And so you gotta take the good along with the bad.
Russ: Okay. Now I was gonna get into your history a little bit later in the interview, but I do know from being a customer that your history includes another restaurant named Nara. Which was essentially a basic great sushi restaurant. And so this is the only similarity here is the name, right?
Donald: Very much so. Nara means two things in two different cultures. It was the capital of Japan before Kyoto. And then Nara in Korean means country as in our country. And so my first restaurant I was 26. Didn't have much money. My parents really helped me with that endeavor there. And it was a restaurant of just passion. And so I wanted to do modern Japanese. And I named it Nara because as a city it was very culturally advanced in Japan. And so for the modern type of Japanese food that I was doing back in '96 it was probably a cutting edge type of, you know idea that I went with. And I think Chef Nobu, Chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisha out of LA was just rising at that time period. And so I thought it was really cool that I would, I had an opportunity to do that here in Houston.
Russ: Okay. So I ate at your first Nara restaurant quite a few times. Was kind of disappointed to see it go. I guess that was probably at the end of the lease or something.
Donald: Yeah, it was, in 2005. I mean at the end of the deal, you know my parents looked at me just absolutely miffed. And I told them – they couldn't understand it. I mean because we were like the best reviewed, just non money making Japanese restaurant in the city. It was remarkable.
Russ: Well, I knew about the best reviewed and it deserved best reviewed. I didn't know it was non money making. But were your parents miffed because you were closing it down now?
Donald: Well, you know they were trying to figure out, well, you spent ten years here. And it's like they look at my bank account. They see how I'm living and they're like, how did this happen? And mind you, we had such great supporters. I mean Benji, Benji Leavitt from Benji's. Michael ___ of Turasco's. I was blessed to have all these entrepreneurs who have already just established themselves as the kings of Houston at that time just really help us along. But it was remarkable. I really felt like we were the best reviewed, non money making Japanese restaurant in the city of Houston.
Russ: Great. Now your parents were reluctant to let you go in and – in the business. And then when you got out they were like, why are you getting out? What did they think about this Nara?
Donald: They're relieved. They're just relieved that I can pay my bills on time and just not have to deal with the 99 cent menu at McDonalds right now.
Russ: Great. Great. Would I see anything on the menu here that is Japanese?
Donald: No. The reason is – well, I take that back. From the sushi bar aspect. Because I am classically trained in Japanese. For 23 years that's what I've been doing. This Nara is the food that I get to do as far as the food I grew up on. So Japanese and Korean food, there are some similarities. But there are very huge distinct differences between the two ethnic cuisines.
Russ: Okay. So back to the first Nara. Twenty-six years old. Did you grow up aspiring to be a restaurateur? To be a chef.
Donald: No. I told my parents that I would study law and eventually become a judge one day and have my own court. And so after dropping out of Texas and coming back they were quite dismayed at the thought that I was gonna give up education and become a sushi chef. And they actually didn't talk to me for a very long time. They were not very keen on the idea. So it was a labor of love. Because the very first day (Japanese?) my mentor, he took me on under his wings. I spent days and nights just think about food. It was awesome. And so it's something that my parents weren't very keen on. But eventually five years later they did front the money for me to start that first restaurant.
Russ: Wow. All right. And so ultimately though that led to another sushi restaurant, right?
Donald: Yeah –
Russ: Uptown Park still in existence.
Donald: Still in existence ten years. And we're looking at to sign on for a little bit longer. There's a lot of reconstruction. I think Amrite posted that they're doing a billion dollar renovation over there in that area. And after speaking with them we're reassured that we have a long future over there with them. So my hopes is to continue to stay there.
Russ: But despite the fact that it's there and still going, this is where you spend your time today, right?
Donald: Yes, this is – I mean the chefs over there have been working with me since my very – some of them since my very first Nara. So some of those chefs have developed and, man, I dare say they've become better chefs than me. I mean those guys are just incredible. I spent the last six years taking some time off. So for a while I thought I might I have lost my edge coming into this project and I was really nervous and insecure about coming back into the industry after such a long time away. But I've had just encouraging support from the chefs that I've trained and worked with, family and friends and the Korean community as a whole has been really supportive about this project.
Russ: Really cool. Now as you know, this show is about business people and lots of entrepreneurs, start up people. They all know how difficult it is to start a business. But they also all know that it's even more difficult to start and operate and execute a successful restaurant. So you've done it multiple times now. I mean is it just a piece of cake for you? Or is there a trials and tribulations the whole way?
Donald: No, no, there are definitely trials and tribulations. If you have a napkin I can start crying now. But not only me but all the restaurateurs that are out there. And I think there is a certain amount of commissary that we have when we get together going over how difficult it can be. You know it's one of those things where more than the business side, my brother Daniel Chang, he's my partner over at Uptown. He and I have worked together for ten very long and successful years. We're blessed that between two brothers that we can do this. But we definitely have different skill sets. And he, believe it or not, is actually the businessperson. I am the operator. My passion is inside. Looking at numbers will drive me up the wall and I will break all stereotypes, as an Asian American I do not like math. I do not like science. I absolutely abhor technology. And so my brother takes up the slack there. And so he's been absolutely wonderful about fiscally maintaining Uptown and keeping, staying on top of it really well. So I've been really blessed and fortunate to be able to work with someone that I absolutely trust.
And then, of course, from the operations side, you know that's where I kind of take over and do what I do. And I enjoy meeting the customers. I live to serve. Otherwise I wouldn't be here.
Russ: Cool. Well, and this might be a question for your brother, but my goodness, this place looks fantastic. It's designed and decorated in a way that I'm certain cost a lot. And then you're in West End. This is not exactly inexpensive retail space.
Donald: No, it isn't.
Russ: So the challenge there I think is quite significant the number of customers you have to get in, what you have to pull off successfully.
Donald: Right. The perception is a lot worse than the reality I think. Only because when I came into the space my partner, Ali Ansari, and he is – this is my first time doing a project with him. And I could not have been paired up with any greater person. He is literally like working with my brother over at Uptown. So the two are just about the same age also. But he is absolutely phenomenal with numbers. And when he negotiated this deal, he actually got it at a – he did a tremendous job in negotiating the lease here. And so that rent really doesn't hurt as badly as the perception might be.
For us, I think the greatest problem that we've had is just getting the bodies in here. My thought was that, you know modern Korean, it's a big risk. And I knew it coming into it. And I had a long discussion with my wife. And by the, I'm married to a financial person. She got her MBA at the University of Chicago. She works in oil and gas. She does all the modeling and forecasting. And so she helped me greatly with this restaurant. And when we looked at the numbers, it was incredibly risky. And so you wonder after a six year comfort zone why am I back here? This restaurant is a restaurant a lot of it's gone by faith. It's not just about the numbers. We have faith that not only that Korean food would be accepted well and enjoyed by Houstonians, but modern Korean, the way that we are so ingredient driven and focused with our products, our proteins, our vegetables, that it's something that people would appreciate. And so so far after six months, you know we've done all right. It's not too bad.
Russ: Great. Okay. So before I let you go let's say that we have a young aspiring chef, restaurateur tuned in right now. You got any general advice for him or her?
Donald: Absolutely. You gotta decide why you're in it. Because sometimes, most of the times it's not like we make a lot of money and we become millionaires doing this. It's a work of passion for most chefs. And there are dues that you should have to pay because there's so much to learn and there's so many talented and gifted chefs, especially in this city. But as I've traveled around the world there's just too many great chefs. And so take the opportunity to really work in a discipleship type fashion with each mentor that you're given an opportunity with because there's just so much to learn out there.
Russ: Okay. Donald, I really appreciate you sharing your story with us.
Donald: Russ, thank you so much.
Russ: You bet. And that wraps up my discussion with Donald Chang, founder and executive chef of Nara. And this is the Businessmakers Show heard on the radio, seen online at thebusinessmakers.com brought to you by Comcast Business, Built for Business.