Nando Chang was 9 when his father sat him down in the room they shared at his grandmother’s house and told him he was going away.
“You’re going to have to be the man of the house now,” Fernando Chang said, eyes reddening at the memory 20 years later.
That meant Nando had to look out for his 6-year-old sister, Val, and help his abuelitos take care of them and two other cousins in their home in Chiclayo, Peru. Most homes in this rural, South Pacific coastal town about 500 miles north of Lima still didn’t have indoor plumbing.
Fernando Chang didn’t tell his son Peru’s devastated economy forced him to close the family shoe store, the sole source of income for a single dad raising two children. He didn’t tell him he had no idea what he was going to do in Miami, where a cousin said there would be work.
He didn’t tell the boy he’d be gone for three years.
Nando tried not to cry.
“I have such a clear memory of that day,” he says now.
Val Chang watches the memories flit across her brother’s face as they stop slicing, washing and serving at the Peruvian-Japanese family restaurant they run today with their father. It’s just after a lunch rush.
They work in tight quarters here at Itamae, yet there is enough room for the love that bonds them. The three of them dance around one another behind a counter, where Nando, 30, and Val Chang, 27, make some of the city’s most exciting cuisine. Their take on Nikkei, the Japanese-Peruvian fusion cuisine endemic to Peru, is the reason they are the first brother-sister duo named semifinalists for a James Beard Foundation award, the highest honor for a chef.
None of it would have happened if Fernando Chang had stayed in Peru. They understand that now.
Raised by a village
When Fernando left in 1998, Val became her grandmother Martha’s kitchen helper.
She was a finicky eater, her father remembers, and preferred to help Martha make traditional chifa dishes — a Chinese-Peruvian fusion that their Chinese-born ancestors had been making for generations. She learned to make chaufa (Chinese, literally, for fried rice), estofado de pollo (a kind of chicken stew) and cabrita, a rustic, stewed goat dish particular to northern Peruvian cuisine.
Nando just loved to eat.
Chubby and serious, he never forgot his promise to his father. At 10, he worked Fridays and Saturdays at a pollería, a rotisserie chicken restaurant that a friend of Fernando’s owned. He paid Nando 5 soles and a whole roasted chicken, French fries and salad that he brought home.
His grandmother took him to the mercado with his money, where he bought music cassettes, mostly of bands his father loved — Collective Soul, Soda Stereo.
“That’s where I started to understand that music was a thing people used to express themselves,” Nando Chang said.
Their cousins became like brothers and sisters. Their grandparents, uncles and aunts were surrogate parents.
“We were raised by a village,” Val Chang said.
“It couldn’t have been any other way,” Nando said. “Val and I got super close, super tight.... Val and I have one of those relationships where if she’s hurting, I’m hurting.... She’s the most important woman in my life.”
Meanwhile in Miami, Fernando Chang learned a new trade. His cousin was working at a sushi restaurant downtown and talked the owner into hiring him as a dishwasher.
“Right off the plane, I went to work for him,” Fernando Chang said.
Fernando found he had the steady hand to slice fish and the frugal discipline to extract every bit of meat from the bone. He became so skilled, he was hired by several North Beach restaurants to add sushi to their menus — even if the menu didn’t match.
He opened a sushi bar in an Italian restaurant. In a steakhouse. In a Thai take-out kitchen. Whatever restaurant he moved to, a crowd quietly followed. In the last 20 years, he has become one of the most respected sushi chefs in the city.
“They knew I brought people to the restaurant, so they brought me in,” Fernando Chang said.
In 2001, he sent for his children — and quickly learned the kitchen was the perfect place to keep them close.
Finding their own paths
Val and Nando Chang spent their days after school and weekends at their father’s sushi counter, wherever it was. His work captivated them.
Nando was drawn to the quiet precision and dedication of the delicate knife skills needed to slice sushi. It seemed like a kind of meditation.
Val fell for the speed and fury of a kitchen, never more than when she moved to Las Vegas and was hired at one of Thomas Keller’s restaurants, Bouchon. There, she found her place.
“It’s like when you find your religion: ‘These are my people,’ ” Val said.
A connection to Peru landed her in another Michelin-starred kitchen — her godfather was friends with the head chef at Albert Adrià’s Pakta, a Nikkei restaurant in Barcelona. Her love of cooking was cemented.
“This is my calling. This is what I was born to do,” she said.
She returned to help her father and brother open a fully kosher sushi restaurant in Surfside, much loved by locals but short-lived after a legal disagreement with the owners. There, Nando Chang learned his little sister didn’t need any supervision in the kitchen.
“My sister’s a boss lady, man,” Nando said. Whenever there’s a difference of opinion between them, “it’s simple: Whatever Val thinks should go, should go. In terms of being a chef, she’s always been head and shoulders ahead of anyone else in the family.”
Nando developed a passion outside the kitchen, too. Feeling displaced in a new country, he found solace in rap music. “I was an angry little kid,” he said. Tupac, Eminem, OutKast, they spoke to him. Control Machete, the Mexican rap group, and Tego Calderón taught him he could fuse his culture with a modern hip hop sound.
He cut one album with Universal records and recently signed with Sony music to release another, the appropriately titled “Ceviche.” The Spanglish album is an only-in-Miami blend of Nando Chang’s love of food and rap. In the song, “Sushi Chef,” he rhymes Versace and hamachi.
Catch of the day, that’s what you get
My cevichito be lit
On a recent Tuesday, he shot part of an upcoming music video for “Sushi Chef” at Brad Kilgore’s nearby Japanese lounge, Kaido, where Kilgore, a James Beard award finalist and a hero to Chang, made a cameo alongside several other local chefs.
Cameras examined every slice of Nando Chang’s sushi knife as his rhymes played over the sound system, and he lip synced the words.
“Most chefs care that the person eating their food enjoy it right away. When I make music, it’s not about whoever is listening. If you like it, great. If you don’t, hey, I didn’t do it for you. It’s very selfish when it comes to music,” he said. “I could never do one without the other. And I’ve never wanted to, either.”
Even his sister agreed to trade in her apron for a dress and act as an extra to support her brother’s music dreams.
“I get to do what I love every single day, my first passion. My only hope is that he will get to do music for the rest of his life as an ode to himself, to follow his love and his passion,” she said.
For now, their dream is a shared one, at the quiet little restaurant that brought the Chang Gang back together.
“We know this is special,” Nando Chang said. “It feels really good in the soul to know that your family is succeeding.”
140 NE 39th St., in the St. Roch Market, Design District