A sense of audacity is coming to the city. Pagu, the newest addition to the ever-evolving culinary landscape of Cambridge, where innovation and defiance intersect, creates a blend of character and progress that permeates the neighborhood.
Tracy Chang, BC ’09 and founder of Pagu, sees this new opportunity as both a continuation of her family legacy, since her grandmother was also a restaurateur during the 1980s and 1990s, and as the culmination of her journey of self-discovery. Although there is not a set date, Pagu is set to open this fall.
The signature style of Pagu, Japanese-Spanish fusion, is one that is influenced by Chang’s experiences growing up, as well as her ever-present love for different cultures. Her philosophy was to introduce Boston to tapas-style food combined with the nuances of East Asian cuisine. Chang points to this different concept as one that is more connected than people may believe, as both countries had historical nautical trade routes, and, as a result of constant contact, both regions developed a cooking style with minimal use of ingredients—something she wishes to emulate.
Chang did not, however, follow the common path taken by most professionals in the culinary industry. Instead, she graduated from BC with a finance degree and had no real idea of what the future held for her, especially during the grueling economic climate of the Great Recession—she graduated two years after the financial crisis.
“I became a finance major because I felt that it would be practical to study,” Chang said. “But my passion was in languages and culture.”
Around this time she realized that, for her, foods from different cultures around the world were a unique form of language spoken through the firing of chemicals inside taste buds. This language contained both the essence of a people and its own individual concept of comfort, which showcased each civilization’s identity and values. By deciding to enter this new world head-on, and by extension having to convince her family that this was the path she chose, her long journey toward Pagu began.
Her culinary career started with a trial at a local restaurant—not the typical place for a recent graduate with a finance background. But, instead of focusing on the gap of experience between her and the other employees at the time, Chang embraced the opportunity and her underdog label.
“It was very challenging because I came in with … no tangible experience [working in a professional kitchen],” she said. “I did a lot of learning through doing … [it] reminded me a lot of a childhood spent playing sports, it felt like a tryout.”
That feeling of not belonging drove her to learn as much as she could in as little time as possible. A lot of her previous experiences watching her grandmother cook also came back as if a levee had been opened and all of the passion came rushing in. Her childhood dream of emulating her grandmother and having her own restaurant resurfaced, letting her go full-throttle toward her vision.
“I remember writing [for a school project] when I was 10 that my dream was to take over my grandmother’s restaurant,” she said. “It really came full-circle.”
Convincing her family, however, was not an easy step. The conversations Chang had about her situation and her grandmother’s focused on the difference in circumstance and about the reality of an immigrant coming into the country, as her grandmother had done decades prior. Her grandmother opened her restaurant as a way of supporting her family. Chang just chose to follow her gut, something her family respects and has supported.
“A lot of my peers looked like they were not super passionate about what they were doing,” she said. “I was just fortunate to find that calling from an early age.”
She does credit a lot of her experiences while in school as the catalyst for her future success, especially the determination, attention to detail, and intellectual curiosity. The freedom she had to pursue her interests in different cultures and weekends spent cooking with friends would prove invaluable in the years that followed.
After spending some time studying patisserie at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and working with chef Martin Berasategui at his three-star Michelin restaurant in San Sebastian, she returned with one vision that eventually became a reality: Pagu. She credits her current success to her passion for cuisine and encourages current students to pursue their own, whatever form they may take.
Featured Image by Pagu