Sandia Chang, Founder, Bubble Dogs

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 9th August 2018

Sandia Chang is the founder of Bubbledogs - London's first hotdog-champagne-bar.

She is also married to Michelin-starred chef James Knappett from Kitchen Table. Having worked at the likes of Per Se, Noma and Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley, it is fair to say that Sandia Chang has a wealth of experience in Front of House and also as a sommelier. 

The Staff Canteen caught up with Sandia to talk about the Bubbledogs concept, what she has learnt from Thomas Keller and the importance of listening to your gut.

Sandia in chef whites low res
Sandia Chang, Bubbledogs 

You initially wanted to be a chef – how did you make the move to front-of-house and to eventually become a sommelier?

I went to university and I have a degree in hotel and restaurant management so my initial career goal was to manage restaurants. After graduating from university, like most young kids I didn’t know what to do with myself. I wanted a creative outlet so I looked at marketing, PR, restaurant design and eventually I thought maybe being a chef would be my creative outlet. I went to culinary school which I loved, after that, I moved to New York to cook.

I think to this day, I must have ended up in the wrong restaurant! It was just really, really hard and it was one of those moments in my life where I had sold everything in my life to move to New York City and I was working in a two Michelin star restaurant – the hours were bad, the environment was really horrible, the pay was really bad and all of a sudden, I was alone in New York city thinking ‘Oh my God, what have I got myself into?!’ It was really disheartening - being a chef sucks! I realised that although I love cooking that I loved all aspects of the restaurant and not just the cooking part – I loved the wine and I loved the people. This was the same time that Thomas Keller opened the restaurant Per Se in New York City and they were looking for front of house staff – this was that perfect moment in my life and I went for a front of house job there.

What is it about wine and champagne that interests you?

I think it is the endless amount of knowledge. With wine, you can learn all the basics but every year is different – everything changes, every producer can create different wines. There is just a never-ending knowledge and you keep trying these things and I just love learning and I like that wine was a way to always keep learning.

Sandia with bottles low res

'With wine, you can learn all the

basics but every year is different'

What is your process for selecting new wines and champagnes and how often do you update your selection?

For Bubbledogs, it is whenever I find a new producer or a producer comes up with something new. The idea of Bubbledogs is always to carry the entry line of every producer as my idea is to make it completely affordable. Usually, the entry levels are the most affordable so I can price it quite cheaply. 

I have one guy and I call him my champagne dealer – he basically helps people find wines for their wine list and he helps me connect with a lot of people. I also follow a lot of people from within the industry on social media so I can see what they are drinking. If I see anything new and cool I will try and find it.

How is a career as FOH/sommelier over here in the UK different to the US?

In the US, guests will complain about something and you will have a chance to fix it whereas in the UK it’s hard to get the guests to say what they think and then you will get a complaint letter the next day and then you feel helpless. That’s a bit of a challenge there for me here!

You moved to the UK in 2010, to work at the prestigious five-star Berkeley Hotel in Mayfair for Marcus Wareing, what attracted you to this role?

My husband used to work for Marcus Wareing and I met him when Marcus sent him to Per Se to train and the plan was that eventually he would come back and be his head chef. After Noma, it was that time when we had to return to England and Marcus offered me an assistant managers position which I happily took. It was a hard transition – it was everything that I thought a European restaurant would be. Everything was traditional – there was too much hierarchy, it was too stuffy, and it was a very big culture shock for me.

August Guest hotdog by %40breddostacos   Achiote ketchup%2C avocado%2C spicy pineapple relish & tomatillo salsa fresca ARRIBA!!

Credit Bubbledogs instagram: August Guest

hotdog by @breddostacos -

Achiote ketchup, avocado,

spicy pineapple relish & tomatillo

salsa fresca ARRIBA!!

You have worked for some big names, what was each experience like and what did you learn from it?

Per Se is the place that made me who I am now and everything that I know how to do well I learnt from there. I was quite young when I started there and was like a sponge and I just absorbed everything that they taught me.

I used to volunteer to do stocktakes every Monday and it was the best experience as I got to hold bottles, look at them and ask questions as you were always paired with a sommelier – it was there that I really started to learn about wine by volunteering my time. I was taught about everything from learning about perfection to finesse to handling guests - making people feel welcome and carrying plates – I still remember that I had to be taught how to carry plates properly.

Sometimes now, I choose to use certain cutlery for certain dishes as that is the way I was taught. That’s how I was taught at Per Se and this is what has stuck with me.

With Noma, that was a totally different style of service. Scandinavians are such warm people and they know how to do hospitality but they do it so differently from Per Se.

Info Bar

Kitchen Nightmares - Working with my husband!

Worst behaved customer they have ever served

I think working in the industry for as long as I have nothing seems to surprise me anymore!

Top 5 service experiences – where are they and why?

Guy Savoy – This was my first 3-star restaurant experience. I was dining with a friend that was allergic to shellfish - but not oysters. They prepared on the side for my friend everything that was on my langoustine plate that was shellfish free so that he could taste as well.

The French Laundry – I drove to dinner that night in a really crappy soccer mom van. They asked us what we were drinking and I said that I couldn’t drink because I had to drive.

The captain drove us back to the hotel in the BMW stocked with cold Fiji water and our back server followed with my van.

Per Se – My first time back to dine with them was during an Arsenal match that was happening in London. The maitre’d knew James was an Arsenal fan, brought over an iPad with the match playing live onto our table so that James could watch the match whilst we ate.

Although it did not favour me as I had lost all attention from my lunch date, it was a very special touch!

Faviken – Checking into Faviken was like nothing else. You are immediately treated as part of the family. One of the waiters told us to stay a bit longer because that night, since it was their last shift of the week, they will have staff pizza and we should stick around for that.

And so, we did and not only was the pizza great, Magnus himself pulled out some amazing rare wines from his cellar for us, his dog came out to join us and we partied with them till 4 am!

What inspired you to start BubbleDogs in 2012?

I always wanted to open a champagne bar, but I always hated all of the champagne bars out there with the crystal chandeliers and nobody can afford to drink there all of the time. I thought I would open a champagne bar and it would be super casual.

I wanted people to drink champagne like they would do normally (like wine) and I thought about the food pairing – my favourite food pairing with champagne is French fries or a charcuterie (sausages and salami) so being an American I thought – why not hot dogs? Hot dogs are one of those foods that people are never intimidated by and it's greasy and salty (a bit like caviar) and it goes really well with champagne because it is high in acidity and fresh.

In New York, we used to take our fine wine and go to a cheap restaurant in Chinatown (because we couldn’t afford to eat at expensive places) and I jokingly said to my friend ‘One day, I am going to open up a champagne and hot dogs place’.

Hot dog and champagne 1 low res
Hot dog and champagne

What do you think makes a good champagne? 

I think essentially champagne is just wine with bubbles in it. Tasting champagne is a bit like tasting wine. I have a little trick when I taste champagne – I like it a little bit warm and a little bit flat so that you can taste the base wine.

You are a huge advocate of artisan champagne – how important is it to you to support independent growers?

I feel like the big brands don’t really need my help because they have so much marketing budget behind them. They have such a strong following but the growers they don’t really have a marketing budget – they are just a farmer growing grapes to make wine. I wanted to help them to sell the wine that their grapes had come from.

How would you describe a typical day at work? 

There is no typical day but I come in at ten o clock usually every day – we have a routine where we say hello to everyone on the team and check in on everybody. I tend to my emails for about half an hour and then we have a front of house briefing before lunch service. Sometimes I jump in on lunch service or have meetings for marketing/PR or meet with new suppliers. At 4 pm, we have our staff family meal – which we are very proud of. At 5 pm, we have a briefing for Bubble Dogs and then 5.30pm briefing for Chefs Table and then service and I usually go home around midnight.

Sandia with the Bubbledogs team low res
Sandia with the Bubbledogs team

How do you go about developing new ideas and recipes for the hot dogs?

A lot of the recipes come from growing up in LA – chilli dogs, corn dogs, classic New York dogs with the sauerkraut and the onions. We also do a buffalo dog that has all these flavours with buffalo chicken but we make it a bit more elevated with the likes of pickled celery to add some nice freshness to the hotdog. We also do melted stilton on the top of the hot dog.

You also have Kitchen Table which is located at the back of Bubble Dogs - how do you go about choosing the wines and champagnes to pair with James’ tasting menu? 

The menu at Kitchen Table changes every night it would be very hard if we hired a sommelier to pair wines as you never get to taste the dishes. You would have to work on your instinct and experience. Because James and I have worked together for so long – I know his food and I know his style even with a dish that I had not seen or tasted before it is easy for me to imagine what wine would go well with it.

How important are awards and accolades to you?

Accolades are great when they come along but they are never one of those things that you aim for. We never really think about it, maybe it’s because we are so busy. Every day we just come to work and we want to do better. The best thing that accolades have done for us is to attract better staff.

James Knappett Kitchen Table main dish low res
Scallop dish by James Knappett,Kitchen Table

What are the qualities that make a good sommelier?

I think the most important thing is listening to your gut. Every person has a different taste and everybody is looking for a different style of wine. You never want a wine that goes perfectly with a dish it’s really important to listen to what your guests want, how much they want to spend, how much they want to drink.

Who or what has been your biggest inspiration?

I would definitely have to say Thomas Keller – everything about the way that he works to the way that he treats his staff is always something that I look up to and is something that hopefully I can do with my own staff. He treats everyone the same way from the kitchen porter to the guests that spend thousands of pounds in his restaurant.

What advice would you give to someone who is looking to begin a career in the hospitality industry?

Don’t do it! Joking! Always keep learning – you never know too much. Always learn and always keep your eyes out. Fernand Point says: “As far as cuisine is concerned, one must read everything, see everything, hear everything, try everything, observe everything, in order to retain, in the end, just a little bit!”.

By Emma Harrison

@canteenemma

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 9th August 2018

Sandia Chang, Founder, Bubble Dogs