Inspired by her Peruvian grandmother, this Miami chef has the whole country buzzing

The day she won her James Beard Award, Miami chef Valerie Chang was rushing and more than a little frazzled.

Five days earlier, her beloved grandmother Maty — for whom Chang’s Peruvian restaurant Maty’s is named — died in Peru, and Chang and her family had flown there for the funeral. With the Beard Awards scheduled for June 10 in Chicago, Chang didn’t arrive in the Windy City until that morning. She raced to Bloomingdale’s to buy a dress. She hadn’t changed the time on her phone and thought she was going to be late (she wasn’t).

When she arrived at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, where the awards were being held, she noted her competition. She was sure the award would go to New Orleans chef Arvinder Vilkhu of Saffron, not only because he’s tremendously talented but also because he had a seat in the front.

Instead, she made Miami culinary history.

Chang, 32, is the first chef in Miami to win Best Chef: South since Michael Schwartz of Michael’s Genuine and Amara at Paraiso won it in 2010.

The interior of Maty’s Peruvian restaurant in Midtown Miami.
The interior of Maty’s Peruvian restaurant in Midtown Miami.

“I kept thinking, ‘It was always going to be me,’” Chang says now, marveling from her restaurant in Midtown Miami. “Not like I knew I was going to bring it home, but like despite all the self-doubt in the weeks leading up to it, no matter what stories I made up in my head about who was going to win, it was me.”

Few should be surprised by Chang’s win. Since it opened in March 2023, Maty’s has been earning national attention and praise. Bon Appétit named it one of the best new restaurants of 2023; so did Esquire. In its annual Global Tastemakers Awards earlier this year, Food + Wine ranked Maty’s one of the best restaurants in the United States, writing “What she is doing with Peruvian cuisine in Midtown is truly one-of-a-kind.”

Maty’s is a loving tribute to Chang’s late grandmother, from the carefully chosen family photos on the walls to the Peruvian dishes Chang has molded into something new and different. The imaginative menu ranges from tangy tiraditos to creatively prepared vegetables to classic entrees like lomo saltado and a whole Dorade served with aji amarillo buerre blanc (Chang calls the fish “the star” of the main courses).

But even more, Maty’s is a salute to the invaluable lessons Chang and her brother Nando learned from their grandmother and a thank you for the sacrifices she made.

“Everything about this restaurant is inspired by what she taught us,” Chang says. “How to be resilient. How to work really hard. How to make our American dream come true.”

Chef Valerie Chang on the patio of Maty’s restaurant in Midtown Miami.
Chef Valerie Chang on the patio of Maty’s restaurant in Midtown Miami.

The Chang siblings were born in Peru. When their parents emigrated to the United States, they stayed behind with their grandmother, living with her for 10 years before they too came to the U.S.

“I grew up very close to her,” Chang says. “We were attached at the hip.”

Her grandmother cooked every Sunday, but the kitchen didn’t call out to Chang until she came to the United States and watched her father Fernando working in the industry.

“He had to,” she says. “Restaurants are the only place people figuring out their immigration status can work. But once I saw my dad doing it and then my brother, I realized that could be a possibility.”

In 2018, the family opened the first Itamae as a counter inside the then-St. Roch Market food hall (now MIA Market) in the Design District, quickly catching the eye and palates of fans of Japanese-Peruvian Nikkei cuisine. In 2020, Itamae moved across the Palm Court into its own space, then last year was replaced by the family’s sushi restaurant B-Side, which closed in May. The original B-Side at 1-800-Lucky food hall in Wynwood remains open.

Chefs Val and Nando Chang at the counter of the original Itamae at the former St. Roch Market (now MIA Market), which opened in 2018.
Chefs Val and Nando Chang at the counter of the original Itamae at the former St. Roch Market (now MIA Market), which opened in 2018.

Throughout the changes, the family continues to work together. Success by one is success for all. Fernando Chang wanders through Maty’s in the morning, wanting to know if he needs to pick up some avocados. Nando Chang, who opened his omakase dining concept Itamae Ao just through the swinging doors on the far side of the bar at Maty’s, sits in on morning staff meetings.

Chang’s James Beard Award, they believe, is a win for them all.

“It means a lot for us, this recognition,” Fernando Chang says. “She represents us.”

Nando Chang says he too is proud of his sister and that she will take being a representative of the Miami culinary scene seriously.

“She’s going to support our city,” he says. “Val goes out and eats and drinks at every restaurant in the city. She’s got the pulse of who’s doing what.”

Highlighting other Miami chefs is a responsibility Chang doesn’t take lightly. She credits such Mango Gang pioneers as Allen Susser and Norman Van Aken for paving the way for her family’s success. One of her first phone calls she made after she won the award was to Chef Timon Balloo, who created the cutting-edge restaurant Sugarcane just across the street from Maty’s. He opened it in Midtown’s infancy, drawing guests from around the city.

The dorade at Maty’s restaurant in Midtown Miami is the “star” of the menu, according to Chef Valerie Chang.
The dorade at Maty’s restaurant in Midtown Miami is the “star” of the menu, according to Chef Valerie Chang.

“I called him to thank him,” she says. “He changed my career. I never worked for him, but what he did at Sugarcane changed the way people looked at this city. He showed how much fun we could have in a restaurant.”

She also called Chef Michelle Bernstein to say thanks: “She’s opened so many doors for women in Miami, especially Latina women.”

Miami has changed since Bernstein and Balloo were new to the scene. Bernstein is reviving her Design District concept Sra Martinez in Coral Gables; Balloo is blazing trails in Fort Lauderdale with his innovative restaurant The Katherine. More national and internationally known restaurants have been flooding into Miami since the pandemic, raising rents and worrying some in the industry that Miami’s talent will suffer.

But to Chang, the changes feel positive.

“I think it’s gotten more authentic,” she says of the Miami scene. “People are cooking what they want to cook, what’s right for them. You can be any type of restaurant in Miami and get praise for it. You don’t have to stick to a certain cuisine. Now you can just be yourself a little more. There’s a lot more flavor in this city.”

Chef Valerie Chang holds her James Beard Award for Best Chef: South at Maty’s restaurant in Midtown Miami.
Chef Valerie Chang holds her James Beard Award for Best Chef: South at Maty’s restaurant in Midtown Miami.

Chang herself is adding to that flavor and intends to keep providing it in the best way possible. The celebration has died down, so it’s back to work for the excited restaurant staff that cheered her on via Livestream the night of the award. Rumor has it pots and pans were brought out and banged upon, and the patrons in the restaurant cheered, too, when they realized the Miami chef had won.

Reservations have increased since the win, but Chang knows that with awards come great expectations. With a year under its belt, the team at Maty’s will be focusing on fine tuning the menu, the service and the bar program, all to continue what Chang calls “one of the most beautiful years of my life.”

As for the fact that her grandmother died before she could hear about the award? Chang smiles.

“She knows,” she says.

Maty’s

Where: 3255 NE First Ave., Miami

Hours: 5-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday; brunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday-Sunday

Reservations and more information: www.matysmiami.com or 786-338-3525