The food industry has always been home to James Chang. Born in Taipei, Taiwan, and spending his childhood in many cities across the U.S., the forty-two-year-old general manager of Waldo Thai was more or less raised in his grandmother’s rice shop, the noodle factory where his dad was employed and multiple American-Chinese restaurants where his family worked. “I basically grew up in a commercial Chinese kitchen,” Chang says. Everything in his life revolved around food and the hospitality industry. When Chang was just eight or nine years old, he asked his dad for a bicycle for his birthday, but instead, his dad handed him a step stool. “He wished me a happy birthday and said, ‘Now you can reach the deep fryer baskets.’” Those experiences helped James find his calling to produce and sell his own chili oil, a venture which now sells out in just hours when a new batch is released.
You’ve managed to develop two cult followings—your loyal customers at Waldo Thai and now the fans of your chili oil business. How do you develop those relationships? I’ve been the GM and not-so-handyman at Waldo Thai since before we had the gas connected. I said yes to the job because Pam and Ted Liberda [of Buck Tui] offered me a chance to be part of a team that would change the face of Thai food in Kansas City. I’m horrible with customers’ names, but I will remember what you ordered the last time you were in. My whole service ethos is to try and make you feel like you’re visiting a friend or a family’s house—relaxed, full of chuckles and, most importantly, to send you home “fat kid wasted.”
How did you get into the chili oil business? It was kind of a fluke. I used to buy chili oil from the Asian store until one day I saw the ingredient labels and realized there were a lot of additives in them. I thought maybe I could do better than that. We never did chili oil at my dad’s restaurants—I actually learned the basics by watching an old Cantonese cook I used to work with many eons ago. I try to source ingredients that are minimally processed, and I personally make all batches by hand. I’ve been really lucky with word of mouth and publicity. Now here I am, hand-bottling, -labeling, and -shipping four hundred-plus-bottle batches.
You clearly have a passion for sharing food with people. Why is food such a powerful way for you to build connections with people? I still remember the stories my grandma told me about being hungry and trying to figure out how to feed six kids with nothing, so food for my family is more than just nutrition. It’s about wellbeing and happiness. Also, growing up Asian, the words “I love you” were never spoken. I can count on one hand how many times I’ve heard “I love you” from my family. Love, especially with my dad and grandma, was shown with food.
Quality Coffee: “I would start my day at Blip Roasters for the sole reason that I love how their coffee beans taste.”
Family Meal: “I love Family Cabin in Belton. It’s a very old-school diner that serves chicken fried steaks, meatloaf, mashed potatoes, fried okra, fried pickles and pancakes the size of manhole covers.”
Dinner: “I love how Antler Room incorporates Asian flavors. Some upscale restaurants have great food that lacks soul—so thought out that it lacks a certain warmth. Antler Room always manages to elevate the execution while keeping the essence of a dish.”