Family Tree

Belinda Chang Blazes a New Trail

How the mentor, manager, and marketer has set a new standard for wine events

Belinda Chang
Photo courtesy of Belinda Chang.

Belinda Chang, who lives in Chicago, was in Manhattan recently to throw a party. That makes sense. You’d expect a James Beard Award–winning sommelier who does marketing work with brands like the Fladgate Partnership to throw parties. But not like this one. Held at a salon, the party was called Port Toes, and attendees got mani-pedis in the colors of the ports Chang was serving.

“We all get invited to sit-down tastings in beautiful places, but I’m tired of that,” Chang told me when we met on the terrace at The Modern, the restaurant where, in 2011, she won the Beard award for Outstanding Wine Service. “I want people to be more creative. This is experiential retail. This is the game—so let’s go.”

Chang, 44, knows the game well. For two decades, she ran the wine programs and, often, the whole front of house at some of the nation’s most legendary dining rooms—Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago and San Francisco’s Fifth Floor, as well as The Modern—and some of the busiest, including most recently Maple & Ash, a 13,000-square-foot Chicago steakhouse with 182 employees. She’s developed umpteen hotel-based beverage programs. She’s opened restaurants 11 times. No wonder that now, with her consulting and marketing business, she’s looking for another way.

“I spent 24/7 in restaurants,” she says. “I just want to throw a party and invite people into spaces I’m selecting. It’s more organic, authentic interaction.” An annual pool bash at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, Colorado; a yearly hair-and-makeup Pre-Prom for the female James Beard Award nominees of the James Beard Awards; a Fall Color Study wine tasting for board members of the Pratt Institute art school in New York, with autumn-hued green, yellow, orange, and red wines; a luxury picnic for La Vieille Ferme on the lawn of Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art—partying is Chang’s current livelihood.

It’s fun, and it’s hard work. But according to the pros she’s worked with during her quarter century in the business, Chang has what it takes: business smarts, drive, and a joie de vivre that has had her sabering Champagne, passing out caviar bumps, and dressing up like the pope to perform a rap about Châteauneuf-du-Pape to the tune of Snoop Dogg’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot.”

“Belinda knows how to bring a party. Let’s just start there,” says Ryan Arnold, a sommelier and partner at Chicago’s behemoth restaurant company Lettuce Entertain You, where he started in 2004 working for Chang, who was running the all-Italian list at Osteria Via Stato. “But she backs it up with selling wine. Her understanding of hospitality is treating everybody like they’re the most important person on the planet, giving them the comfort and confidence that makes them want to spend money.”

All this and a classically trained palate. No wonder she’s been sought after, emulated, and admired; Chang is the yin and the yang of the somm world wrapped up in one.

Belinda Chang at the Chariot de Margeaux event. Photo courtesy of Belinda Chang.

Making It Happen

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Chang’s parents, Taiwanese immigrants, expected her to go to medical school. It’s not that they didn’t care for the good life. Growing up in New Jersey and Chicago, Chang remembers her mother, a culinary school graduate, whipping up “à la minute, nine-course, super-fantastico” dinners for the Taiwanese scholars that her father, a research chemist, would host.

But they rarely went out to eat and never drank. “There was a bottle of Lancers in the fridge for 10 years,” says Chang. “It just sat there, this weird terracotta-looking bottle.”

While at Rice University in Houston in the early ‘90s, Chang caught the fine-dining bug. She fell for the singer in a ska band who worked as a waiter at the faculty club. “[Employees] got free brisket and pecan pie, so I started there, too,” says Chang. “If you were good, you could work the white-glove parties with synchronized service and George Bush Sr. at the table. I was like, ‘This fine-dining thing, it’s so beautiful, and I’m a little less interested in my organic chem final than working these dinners with fancy wines.’”

Chang never did get her chemistry degree. Instead, she staged on the line at Houston’s luxe Cafe Annie. “At some point, they felt sorry for me and started paying me,” she says. “That put a wrench in graduating.” Chang was the only woman in Cafe Annie’s kitchen. It was a circumstance she’d get used to in her career. Tapped to work front of house, Chang rose from hostess to dining room captain—the first woman to hold the title at the restaurant. She took the position in stride. “I have almost always been the only woman at the management table and the only Taiwanese American,” she says, “and I have always felt unique. My dad is the most tenacious, hard-working, never-take-no person I have met. I did what he taught me. I always worked harder than everyone, fought for what I believed in, and didn’t take any shit, because I knew my worth.”

In 1997 this confidence got Chang a gig at Charlie Trotter’s. Fascinated by Trotter’s cookbooks, she visited the restaurant on a trip home to Chicago. “I had no idea you had to have a reservation. I just took a train from the suburbs and knocked on the door, and they let me in.” She watched sommelier Joe Spellman explain pairings to spellbound clientele. She ordered Duckhorn Merlot, the only wine on the list she knew. “They kept refilling it, and five hours later I was like, ‘This is what heaven is.’” Chang returned to Houston, faxed her résumé, and got a call back that caused her to move to Chicago. “I ran food for a couple days, and they said, ‘Okay, you can be a captain.’” A year later, she switched to sommelier.

Part art and part analysis, the position suited her. Mitchell Schmieding, now at Benny’s Chop House, was director of operations for Trotter’s at the time. “Belinda is fun spirited, intelligent, and seeks out information. That’s what it took for her to go from server to sommelier,” he says. “There’s a lot of studying and tasting and assessment, and she was extremely hardworking.”

The wine program at Trotter’s was heady business. “We had a ginormous cellar,” says Chang. “Penfolds Grange 1971 is a major, major wine. Charlie would be like, ‘Find all of it. Any time it comes up for auction, buy it.’ Bidding on auction while working there was freaking fun.”

But Trotter’s wine program, which Chang started overseeing  in 2000, also took discipline. “One thing distinctive about Belinda,” says Schmieding, “was that we had guidelines for pouring water, opening wine, directing guests to the bathroom, whatever. And she stuck with me. She held others accountable.”

Sommeliers mentored by Chang concur. “She doesn’t accept anything less than the best, so she’s not an easy person to work for,” says Maple & Ash wine director Amy Mundwiler, who started as a back waiter under Chang. “But I compare Belinda to the Tour de France. If you can train and you can do it, dude, you made it.”

Says Lettuce’s Arnold, “I still have her voice in my head: Cut under the lip, always use a serviette, hold the label correctly, check the temperature.”

But all her fastidiousness was in service to diners’ pleasure. “I would have done anything to make you smile,” says Chang. And despite the haute nature of the houses in which she cut her teeth, she’s no snob. Jeff Wielgopolan, a senior vice president at Forbes Travel Guide, worked as a sommelier for Lettuce Entertain You along with Chang in the early 2000s. “I learned from Belinda that wine can be fun,” he says. “You can approach the table, make people laugh, and not be intimidating.”

Alsace Wine Smyth Chicago Dinner
The Alsace Wine dinner at Smyth Chicago. Photo courtesy of Belinda Chang.

The Great Educator

Chang stayed at Trotter’s for five years before scoring the coveted sommelier position that Raj Parr was vacating at San Francisco’s Fifth Floor. There, Chang received her first Beard nomination—at a house even more intense than Trotter’s. “[Chef] Laurent Gras was there at 6 am and left at 2 am, so I was right there with him,” says Chang, who became general manager, as well, six months into the gig. Ruth Reichl, chef Michel Richard, Daniel Boulud, Jean Joho, Eric Ripert, Lettuce Entertain You CEO Rich Melman, Danny Meyer—“Everybody came to see what we were up to,” Chang says, “and that was exciting because anything service-driven was coming from me.”

Chang’s contribution to the wine list brought an all-are-welcome magnanimity to the rarefied Fifth Floor. “Raj Parr left me with a sick cellar. I’m sure it was the biggest Burgundy list in the country. I added a couple of bottles under $40 because I thought we needed those,” she says, laughing. It was a smart business move in 2002 during the dot-com crash. “We went from people ordering whatever $2,400 bottle they wanted to people not doing that anymore, so you have to change the paradigm.”

And although Chang is devoted to service, she’s always believed that a sommelier’s primary responsibility is to the bottom line. “You’re only going to keep a job if you’re making money for the people who hired you,” she says. “You can memorize all the villages, but that’s not going to do it,” she insists. “I want people to say that my service is the best, but I also want them to say, ‘She runs the most profitable programs.’”

Chang has instilled that ethos in her teams. Says Keri Levens, the general manager and wine director at Chefs Club in New York City, and formerly Chang’s assistant at The Modern, “I learned about finances and costing from Belinda. She’d take me into the cellar with the P&L that I was probably not supposed to see. That was a gift.”

It’s not surprising that Chang’s next move, in 2004, was to a restaurant that allowed her to pour her energy into maximizing profitability: Lettuce Entertain You’s Osteria Via Stato. Her first launch, the Chicago restaurant was designed for 600 covers a night at a $40 check average. Chang relished the high-volume challenge. “We made it non-intimidating,” she says. “We had a 500-selection, all-Italian list printed on brown paper and stapled. I invented this thing—Just Bring Me Wine. You could have three wines for $15, $28, or $50.”

As dining room manager at the fine dining Tru, a Lettuce Entertain You sister concept, Wielgopolan took note: “Belinda showed that lists can be written in an approachable way.”

Chang infected her young staff with a love of wine. “We had three wine classes a week, for busboys all the way up to managers,” she recalls. “We’d play Wine Jeopardy and make it fun. The kids were so geeked out.”

Ryan Arnold was one of those kids. “[Of] the restaurants I’ve been in, she’s for sure the best educator,” he says. “You learn without knowing that you’re learning.”

Sales at Osteria Via Stato provided proof of concept for investing in training. One $5 quartino at a time, Chang achieved the highest wine sales in the Lettuce Entertain You group. Says Arnold, “She was genius at translating wine education into dollars on the floor.”

In 2006, Chang took her training approach to a new Westin Hotel in the Chicago suburbs with Osteria Via Stato chef Rick Tramonto, who had started a restaurant management company. “We did six concepts in that hotel in eight months,” says Chang. “That’s where I learned training  on a large scale. It was interesting to see how many people you can mentor and push forward.”

Her focus on training fit the hospitality-minded philosophy of New York restaurateur Danny Meyer. Recruited to his restaurant The Modern in 2007, Chang did much of the educating at lineup. “Sometimes the preshift meeting is a throwaway,” she says, “but I feel like you have to create a powerful message. I had 100 kids in a big circle, blind-tasting every day. Training helps with sales and employee retention, and we got all the cool allocations because they knew we would be respectful. Kids who wanted to be actors and singers found their next dream in wine.”

As her protégés attest, Chang is adept at spotting the talent in her lineups. Says Levens, “Belinda saw potential in me and spent time teaching me things you don’t learn anywhere else.” That included an all-hands-on-deck ethic. “There are so many Belinda-isms I’ve taken with me,” Levens says, including “If you’re not comfortable clearing plates and being in a dish pit, then you shouldn’t be a somm. You do not work in a vacuum. Not every somm is willing, but on my teams it’s a must.”

Chang ended up overseeing not just wine but all service at The Modern. Still, she left because of a restless need to be challenged, she says. “I’m not the person that’s just going to take your manual and rule book and do it to standard. I want to build the standard.”

Belinda Chang winning a James Beard Award. Photo courtesy of Belinda Chang.

Embracing New Challenges

In 2010, Chang accepted an offer to overhaul the list at New York’s scene-y Monkey Bar. Working with Flatiron Lounge’s Julie Reiner, who was revamping the bar, she fell in love with cocktails, largely because they were profitable. “The recession had pushed down wine sales,” she explains. “Everyone wanted a cheaper buzz.”

In 2012, she took that newfound love to Starwood Hotels’ Culinary Concepts by Jean-Georges, which changed its name that year to Culinary Concepts Hospitality Group. As the company’s corporate beverage director, she oversaw the drinks programs at W and St. Regis Hotels worldwide. “I thought it would be fun to have that much reach,” she says. “What would it be like to inspire [staff] when you only get to see them every few months? It was an exercise in mentorship.”

It was also a grind. “It’s not like working the floor,” Chang says, “where your only responsibility was to do jazz hands at night and put wine away. Now they were calling me from Bora Bora with questions.”

That job, though, led her to Möet-Hennessey, which in 2013 was scrambling to keep up with competition from the booming Prosecco market. Chang was hired for a newly created position—Champagne educator. “I spent a year doing Champagne 101 for sales and marketing teams, making sure they all knew Prosecco was Prosecco, and Champagne was Champagne.” It was a tough gig. “Who doesn’t love stepping into a room in Baltimore with 300 angry wine salespeople who had to give up their Friday afternoon to listen to me do a song and dance?” Chang grabbed them by making it entertaining. “I put Jay-Z and Biggie on, dressed up as the Terminator—fun stuff. I think I trained 15,000 people, made a really good deck, and was happy to pass it on and let others continue the good fight.”

In 2015, Chang returned to Chicago as managing partner at Maple & Ash. “I did the marketing, PR, HR, training, accounting—everything,” she says. “I got to use all the muscles I’d built and some I never knew I had.” Given carte blanche with the wine program, Chang made a show of it, with a collection of showy wine tools—vintage corkscrews, port tongs, sabers—that she’d open bottles with. And she cultivated a group of regulars that she developed into a “killer wine club.”  

“She brought a sense of class,” says Schmieding, “and it was important to have her at the helm as a female wine director when there were few in Chicago. It was in the news, and that was very powerful.”

One journalist who took note of how Chang could “sell the experience of wine” was Joseph Hernandez, then an assistant editor at Wine Enthusiast and now the Chicago Tribune’s deputy food editor. “It was fascinating to see how she could pull people into the luxury world,” he says, “showing them that they might want Corton-Charlemagne or some Grand Cru white Burgundy even if they think they don’t like Chardonnay. She had people thinking it’s okay to spend this money, get a next-level wine, and live in the moment.”

Her own sense of taste helped her sell iconic bottles. “She has a razor-sharp palate,” says wine director Mundwiler, “but it’s very classic. So though she respects it, there’s no weird wine with her. And people that work for her start to develop a classic palate, as well. You develop an appreciation for Raveneau, Romanée.”

Chang had spent two years at Maple & Ash when “some folks from Champagne Taittinger reached out and said, ‘Do you want to throw a party, write content, fill in the blank?’” she says. “I thought, ‘People pay to do that stuff?’ So I decided to start my own company.”

Sara Floyd, a master sommelier and co-owner of Swirl Wine Brokers and Luli Wines, knows Chang from her Fifth Floor days. They’ve done several events together. “[Chang] makes it look seamless,” Floyd says. “It would give the average person a nervous breakdown because she’s so detail oriented and uncompromising. We did a dinner and made the menu together. First it was in English, then Italian, then we added drawings. We spent five hours perfecting it. She makes it intriguing to just push it.” Floyd adds, “I also commend her for being a champion in a male-dominated world, a person who demands respect because of who she is.”

In her new business, Chang is “targeting the upper echelon of luxury.” She can do that, she says, “because of my experience. In general, women would shy away from that. But I want to teach other women how to do that luxury, too. You have to be fearless—acknowledge your power and use it.”

So how are the current ambitions of this longtime powerhouse working out? “I’m paying my bills,” Chang says, “so I’m happy for that. Sometimes I’m getting paid in Champagne, and that’s just fine.”

Betsy Andrews is a journalist and poet. Her award-winning books include New Jersey and The Bottom. Her writing can be found at betsyandrews.contently.com.

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