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Wednesday, December 12 , 2018, 7:13 am | Fair 43º


Santa Barbara High Graduate Cooks Up Underground Supper Club Paladar

Cravings for tasty alternatives to college fare serves as the motivation behind the Los Angeles-based culinary venture

Many college students have tolerated mediocre campus cuisine, but not everyone has profited from it.

Alex Chang, a Santa Barbara High School graduate and founder of the Paladar underground supper club, says his travels as a child helped shape his culinary creativity.
Alex Chang, a Santa Barbara High School graduate and founder of the Paladar underground supper club, says his travels as a child helped shape his culinary creativity. (Jaimie Milner photo)

USC graduate Alex Chang and his roommate weren’t impressed with the food around campus, so they opened an underground supper club in their three-bedroom apartment in downtown Los Angeles.

“The food is unbelievably bad around USC; there’s no good place go to,” Chang said. “We would spend $16 on bad Italian takeout that we could’ve made with our eyes closed. We were pretty novice cooks, but we thought if we can cook something that tastes similar to what mom could cook at home it would be killer.”

But it was a long road for the self-taught chef from Hong Kong. After moving from Hong Kong to the East Coast, the 11-year-old Chang, his older sister and his mother moved to Santa Barbara. Chang said his travels helped shape his culinary creativity.

“Even though there were a lot of negative aspects, there were positive things I found,” the Santa Barbara High School graduate said. “Visiting my dad in Tokyo had been an eye-opening experience in terms of food.”

Before moving to USC, Chang said he had no idea how to get around a kitchen. Los Angeles eateries piqued his curiosity.

“When I moved to L.A., I was having a lot of good meals and all these different kinds of food were blowing my mind,” Chang said. “Cooking was something I went crazy about. I started reading a lot of cookbooks and cooked as much as possible.”

With six wooden tables, scavenged chairs, dinnerware and a “homey” living room, the underground supper club Paladar was born.

Chang and Paladar frontman Robert Kronfli started with a 12-person dinner with friends in December 2009. Whether it was a spin on the traditional burger, or more exotic hiramasa crudo and yellowtail over smoked gazpacho, it was a hit.

By May of this year, it blew up into two 30-person seatings every Thursday night, private parties and an email list of 1,000. Chang said the 60-plus reservation capacity at $15 a person filled up in 10 minutes.

“Sometimes Monday or Tuesday we would have a lot of school work and be worrying about the 65 people reserved for Paladar on Thursday,” Kronfli said. “It was a grind between school, Paladar and our social life. We were just all over the place. But looking back we couldn’t asked for more out of college.”

Paladar was never shut down, but the possibility was always in the back of Chang’s and Kronfli’s minds. While a representative from the Los Angeles County Department of Environmental Health said an operation such as Chang’s wasn’t exactly legal without proper licensing, it’s a gray area.

“It could absolutely be kept under wraps if the property is fairly large and no one complains or gets sick,” the representative told Noozhawk.

Chang said some supper parties can claim they are having friends over and that the donations aren’t mandatory to avoid punishment.

“If they come in and say you have to shut down, we would shut down right away,” Kronfli said. “We are technically charging for a service that provides cooking out of an apartment that’s not up to regulation, but officials have bigger fish to fry than college kids cooking out of an apartment.”

There are hundreds of underground supper parties in the United States, including Isaiah Frizzell’s traveling Pheast in Los Angeles. He said chefs can experiment with different recipes, and their underground mystique keeps people coming back.

“People are just looking for novelty. They are tired of seeing the same restaurant and the same staple foods,” Frizzell said. “People are open to new social situations and a friendly network of people.”

Chang and Kronfli say they will continue to run Paladar in various locations between their full-time jobs in the restaurant business. A documentary on Paladar is set to debut this month, and Chang and Kronfli recently held a benefit meal in Santa Barbara to help raise money for the project.

It doesn’t seem there’s much secrecy left in the underground business, but Chang wouldn’t change a thing.

“It defined my college career,” he said.

Noozhawk business writer Alex Kacik can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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