Mexican-Chinese Chef Alex Chang Is Ready to Show L.A. How He Does Israeli Food
“When I say it’s Israeli-inspired food, but our chef is Mexican-Chinese, everybody responds, ‘That’s L.A. It’s perfect for L.A.’”
The phrase “one of a kind” is overused, misused and tossed around so much that it can seem meaningless. To avoid, we’ll just point out that when Freehand L.A. opens in early June, it’ll be doing things nobody else is.
Freehand L.A., a hybrid of a luxury hotel and modern hostel in downtown Los Angeles, will have a doorman and room service, but it will also have shared accommodations where you can book a bed for $39.
“The inspiration is really when I was in my twenties, and we had a summer house at the beach with a bunch of friends,” says Andrew Zobler, founder and CEO of Sydell Group. “Back then, when there were ten of us in a house, I couldn’t possibly have had more fun.”
That sense of playfulness and pure possibility will no doubt be felt at The Exchange, Freehand L.A.’s restaurant. That’s where 27-year-old Mexican-Chinese chef Alex Chang will be serving Israeli-inspired dishes. The Exchange will be operated by Elad Zvi and Gabe Orta of Bar Lab, the cocktail wizards known for the award-winning Broken Shaker bars in Miami and Chicago.
“When I say it’s Israeli-inspired food, but our chef is Mexican-Chinese, everybody responds, ‘That’s L.A. It’s perfect for L.A.,’” Orta says. “It kind of describes what downtown L.A. is. It’s a mix of different cultures and flavor profiles.”
Zvi grew up in Israel, so you should believe him when he tells you that Israeli cooking is more complicated than people think.
“I don’t think there is an ‘Israeli food,’” Zvi says.
Much like L.A., Israel is a place where many cultures and flavors coexist. Zvi remembers living in a building where his next-door neighbor was Turkish, and he’d smell Romanian kebabs on the first floor, Polish food on the second floor and Moroccan fish stews on the third floor while climbing the stairs.
“I think it’s a melting pot,” Zvi says. “It can be Turkish. It’s Palestinian; it’s Syrian; it’s Israeli. It's about taking all these things from everywhere and then doing it your own way."
So that’s what Chang—a self-taught chef who was born in Hong Kong, grew up in Santa Barbara, spent time in Japan, ran a supper club, studied kinesiology at USC and worked at Animal in L.A. before running the kitchen at Vagabond in Miami—is going to do at The Exchange.
“We have this blue-crab fried rice, but it’s kind of inspired by mujadarra,” Chang says. “It’s going be lentils and rice, but made in the style of fried rice.”
In keeping with the vibe of a hotel that’s designed for people to make new friends, The Exchange will be a place for family-style feasts.
“The menu is split into two sections, so it will be salatim and then plates,” Chang says.
The salatim will be an assortment of salads, pickles, dips and bread, all meant for sharing. Chang, Zvi and Orta all point out during our conversations that they’re inspired by Israeli salads and the banchan they’ve seen at L.A.’s Korean barbecue places.
While playing around with global flavors, The Exchange will showcase local produce.
“We have a grilled beet dish, an avocado dish and grilled sweet potatoes,” Chang says. “We have a really cool celery-root salad that’s kind of more inspired by papaya salad with some Israeli elements. We have a tabbouleh salad, but it’s made with chard and sorrel.”
For main courses, some meats and seafood at The Exchange will be cooked over wood and charcoal.
“Basically, we’re going to fire the entrées right off the bat,” says Chang, who will serve sustainable fish like Passmore Ranch trout. “We want the entrées to be eaten with a little bit of hummus, a little bit of salad, pickles and breads, so you can kind of throw it all together the way you want.”
Chang plans to serve a hamachi collar, a cut of fish he decided to use after Zvi convinced him that messy, tactile food should be the goal.
“He was like, ‘It needs to be dirty. It can’t just be a filet, or even a whole fish,’” Chang says. “When we had fish in Israel, we were, like, pulling the bones out of it. They literally just cut a fish through all the bones and dumped it there.”
Chang’s hamachi collar will be the centerpiece of a Moroccan-Asian stew with mussels, clams, aged kimchi paste and harissa spices in a tomato sauce.
Food in Israel, where many restaurants avoid pork and shellfish, isn’t always umami. So Chang is amping things up by making baba ghanoush with charred eggplant and bonito flakes.
“It’s just good; it makes sense,” Zvi says. “Every dish we ate in Israel that we really love was the OG shit, and we wanted to take it and fuck around with it.”
Chang is looking to challenge some misconceptions about Israeli food, too.
“People have a strong conception that Israeli food is za’atar and yogurt and olive oil and this and that,” he says. “My biggest take-away from Israeli food was more the style of it.”
Chang had a revelation when he ate at Dok in Tel Aviv and asked chef Asaf Doktor to describe Israel’s cuisine.
“He said, ‘It’s about power. It’s about the food being really aggressive and salty and sour and spicy,’” Chang says.
You can say similar things about Asian food and Mexican food, of course, which is why Chang is making his harissa with Korean and Mexican chiles. He’s using gochujang in Middle Eastern dishes, too. When he was putting together a tabbouleh dressing with preserved lemons and fermented chilies, it reminded him of Japanese food.
“I was like, ‘Oh wait, so I’m basically just making yuzu koshō,’” Chang says. “The preserved lemons seem like it’s so Middle Eastern. But once you add other stuff to it, you can make red yuzu koshō and green yuzu koshō. A lot of the base is really the same.”
Chang’s unexpected dishes will be paired with natural wines, as well as cocktails that showcase ingredients like dates, tamarind and cucumber and yogurt. (In Miami, Orta and Zvi make drinks with herbs they grow from their own garden. In L.A., they can just go to amazing farmers’ markets.)
Zvi and Orta are also opening Rudolph’s Bar & Tea, Freehand L.A.’s lobby bar, in June. It will feature more complex tea-infused cocktails, with special vessels for each drink.
In July, on the roof of Freehand L.A., an outpost of Broken Shaker will open with its party-starting mix of tropical drinks, original cocktails, punch bowls, beer and shots. Zvi and Orta are known for running some of the best hotel bars in the country without being stuffy about it. Everyone is welcome.
“It all goes back to what Broken Shaker is,” Zvi says. “I don’t care if you pay $25 for a bed and you’re sitting next to a billionaire, sitting next to a celebrity or whatever. I don’t give a shit. You’re all going to get fucking amazing cocktails, you’re going to listen to reggae, it’s going to be amazing weather and you’re going to love it.”
He probably shouldn’t worry too much about manufacturing this vibe in L.A., which has the chilling-out part down.
California, Zvi adds, reminds him of Israel in many ways, right down to the weather and topography.
“When I drive to Santa Barbara, it’s northern Israel,” Zvi says. “When I drive to the desert, it’s totally, like, ‘Fuck, I feel like I’m in Israel.’”
Zvi, Orta and Chang recently drove to the desert, where Chang cooked for an Outstanding in the Field dinner at Coachella. Chang made spring peas with charred cucumber vinaigrette and Straus Family Creamery yogurt. He puréed Early Girl tomatoes and served them with tahini, California olive oil and basil. The tomatoes were eaten as a dip for local Clark Street Bread. Chang’s celery-root salad had a hit of fish sauce along with peanut tahini, lime, herbs and dukkah.
Guests ate at a huge communal table and could hear music in the background as they dipped their bread and enjoyed a meal with new friends. It was clearly all a preview for what’s about to go down at Freehand L.A.