The crazy pug lady and life-changing granola
New restaurant PAGU opening near Random Hall
Opening late fall
“I’m the crazy pug lady. My pug is my muse,” proclaims chef Tracy Chang, in response to my question about the name of her soon-to-be-opened restaurant. The name PAGU comes from the Japanese word for “pug.” The way Tracy sees it, it’s “a name that will last and that you can say in any language.” But before you get any ideas, “it’s not just a restaurant. PAGU is a philosophy.” If you’ve read cooking memoirs by the likes of Anthony Bourdain or Julia Child, you’ve probably already been struck by the fact that chefs are a pretty philosophical bunch.
Tracy has known since fifth grade that she would open her own restaurant. She was influenced by her grandmother’s Cambridge-based restaurant, Tokyo. Her culinary adventures sound like they’d make a pretty epic movie. She’s worked in a Michelin three-star restaurant in San Sebastian, Spain, where chef Martin took her under his wing. She’s studied patisserie (pastry) at the renowned Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. From there, Tracy brought her culinary chops back to Boston. She’s done everything from ramen pop-up dinners to teaching the Harvard course, Science + Cooking.
If one hears that PAGU’s menu is influenced by Japanese and Spanish culinary traditions, one might be tempted to call it “fusion,” but Tracy isn’t sure that’s the best word to describe it. It makes it seem that these are two polarizing forces being forced together. “I mean, what is fusion? Is Tex-Mex fusion? Is General Tso’s chicken? Maybe synthesis is a better way of looking at it,” she said.
PAGU (the restaurant and the philosophy) is about “connecting the dots.” The menu draws upon the “less is more” approach present in both Spanish and Japanese cuisine, as well as the focus on seafood and precision.
One thing you should know when walking into PAGU is that every single thing that your eye happens to fall upon has been deliberated on with intense scrutiny by Tracy and her collaborators. The layout of the restaurant is a work of art in itself. As Tracy and I poured over the mockup in the midst of the construction project, she pointed out the aspects that were especially important to her: the centrality of the kitchen, the flexibility of the table arrangements, the variety of experiences available. There are moveable tables, which can transform from one long Hogwarts-style dining table to many little ones, calling to mind molecular or robotic self-assembly. There are countertop seats as well as tables for standing. The kitchen is the first thing that meets your eye when you enter. It is encircled by counters that are so close to where the magic happens that patrons can (and are encouraged to) engage the chefs in conversation, as their meal is prepared.
Tracy envisions PAGU as a place radiating warmth, thus embodying the comfort of hearth and home, but also as an intersection of the arts and tech. Every detail is not simply a means to end, but a statement in itself. The doors, for example, are made using a traditional Japanese style that consists of braising the wood to strengthen it — “there’s a certain poetry in that.” Bronze beavers will be on the back of the door, facing MIT. If you’ve been there before, the wait staff will have memorized your name.
The design has been curated in such a way as to facilitate conversation between strangers — filling the niche that coffee shops occupied in the eighteenth century (today’s coffee shops are more of a place to take your laptop out for a walk). The way Tracy sees it, there are conversations that are just poised to happen, connections that are inches away from being made, and all that people need is a catalyst. Food can be that catalyst. Good food has a story. Good food starts conversations.
That’s actually how Tracy met MIT professor John Bush, who has been a prominent collaborator in PAGU. From across the room, she heard the words “San Sebastian,” “croissant,” and “pintxos” (tapas’ northern cousin), all in one sentence. It was like a homing call to a pigeon. She and “JB” became fast friends. Tracy’s description of the dinner party she hosted, as a sort of preview of PAGU for all those involved in the project (her “tribe), sounded absolutely surreal. I was shown a video of John Bush playing a Tibetan singing bowl that was full of a flaming beverage from Galicia, Spain. A man named Brother Cleve in a purple suit and a feather in his fedora mixed the drinks.
The restaurant will capture a wide variety of experiences: it will have a coffee bar with a delectable selection of pastries throughout the day; it will offer lunch; and in the evening, Tracy’s experience in fine-dining will provide the ultimate experience, whether you’re ordering drinks, pintxos, or dinner. The goal, Tracy says, is to “evoke nostalgia rather than make new memories.” One of the dishes on the menu that is closest to her heart is called “Childhood Fried Rice.” It’s the first thing she learned to cook and it reminds her of the time spent cooking and competing with her family.
After hearing the vibrant stories Tracy told me of the journey that’s brought her to this point and her quest to bring community and a truly different food experience to Cambridge, I had the impression of a jazz-like syncopation, not a fusion. PAGU will be a very welcome infusion into the gustatory landscape of MIT. If the food at PAGU is of the same caliber as the parting gift of granola that Tracy gave me (which was Batch #88 on the quest for recreating a “life-changing granola” she experienced in California), it will be very worth a visit when it opens in late fall.