One of the most important cornerstones in any high-end Asian restaurant - or indeed, any high-end restaurant in general - is the quality of ingredients in its food. Few people know this better than Chang Sup Shin, the Director of 1004 Gourmet, a family-run business that not only runs one of the region's best East Asian food stores (which boasts two physical stores and an online shop), but also supplies an ever-growing number of luxury hotels and restaurants (including some of the most recognizeable names in town - if you've had a fancy miso black cod dish, chances are that it's Chang's company that supplied it), as well as local arms of global retail outlets such as Carrefour. As if that isn't enough, Chang and his wife have also recently launched LamiseBeauty.com, an online beauty shop focusing on Korean Beauty (popularly known as K-Beauty) products, the first of its kind in the region that came as a direct response to a gap and demand in the market for innovations in East Asian beauty secrets. Not too shabby for someone who has accomplished such a successful entrepreneurial track record by the age of 32 - and Chang's not ready to stop there, with plans to move his retail shop to a much bigger space next year, that will incorporate a brick-and-mortar concept for Lamise Beauty, as well as a cafe focusing on speciality coffee and Asian desserts.
Aside from his stellar natural entrepreneurial instincts and his unstoppable drive, perhaps it's Chang's upbringing - that was chiefly right here in the Middle East - that lent him such a unique perspective on understanding consumer needs in the region. Born in South Korea, Chang's family moved to Saudi Arabia when he was two years old, before relocating to Dubai in 1992, when he was just 7 years old. Dubai is as much of a home to him as South Korea is, and Chang loves the fact that it's safe, that the standard of education in the region is so high, that it's close both the beach and the desert, that it's in such close proximity to the rest of Asia and Europe, and that it's so culturally diverse. "You get to meet so many people of so many nationalities, religions, and backgrounds [here] - it helps open your mind to different cultures. It's a great place to live and raise a family," he says.
It certainly was for him - growing up in that environment allowed him to explore an enormous range of his interests, from music (he's passionate about hip hop and rap music, and even wrote and recorded some tracks of his own in his youth), art, hotels, architecture, interior design, sports, real estate, and entrepreneurship. "The one that stuck was real estate, as my dream was (and still is) to develop property," he says, continuing: "This desire stemmed from the transition Dubai had made from [being] a town in the middle of the desert, to a city recognized by the rest of the world." Chang completed his higher education at Penn State University in the USA, before moving to New York City upon graduation, where his brother - now a successful chef living in the Big Apple - was a student. "I stayed in my brother's tiny dorm with a bunk bed to see if I can land a job in the real estate market. Due to visa limitations, as an international student, I looked for a job that was flexible for both the company and myself; a real estate agent. After landing a job, I passed the NY Real Estate exam and felt like I had conquered the world until the Lehman Brothers / Mortgage crisis hit. I didn’t make much money, but I learnt a lot about the ‘ABCs’ (always be closing) of sales. I think this has stuck with me ever since. After not being able to obtain a visa in the US, I decided to come back to Dubai and support the family food business, 1004 Mart. My father convinced me to start a new division of importing food from Japan and to approach hotels and restaurants. I think this was where my real career began, but my experience as a real estate agent in NY was a big factor in the beginning - cold calling and blindly approaching hotels and restaurants. Honestly, it was a tough two years until we started growing, but now that our restaurant distribution business is stable, I am focusing on expanding our retail shop as well as our online presence in the UAE," Chang says.
Being in the industry has made Chang - a natural foodie - even more passionate about food, and the work that goes into the F&B industry at every level. "One of my favorite parts about the food industry is being able to appreciate food more. If somebody goes to a museum and looks at art pieces, they may think that it’s visually pleasing. But if you understand the the history of the artist, the story and technique behind the art, the meaning of the piece, then it will have a more profound effect on your experience. That is the way I feel with food, and that is what I want everybody to feel about our food," he says.
So how does such an ardent career foodie, constantly surrounded by an endless smorgasbord of some of the world's most tempting culinary delights, keep his health in check and stay in shape? When he's not working, Chang enjoys playing basketball and spending time with his friends. He also follows a principle of balance when it comes to his health, explaining that he used to shy away from "naughty" food such as pizzas and burgers, but has since learned to balance it out by eating what he wants when he wants, but always within moderation, while also keeping active (he plays basketball a few times a week). "My philosophy is to do what your body tells you, and I don't eat when I'm not hungry," he says. Read on for his answers to our questions in the hot seat.
Who inspires you?
People who genuinely give back to the community.
People who do the things I cannot do - especially people in the creative industry, like musicians, artists and actors.
People that ooze intelligence and have depth.
What's the best lesson your mum or dad ever taught you?
My mum has always told me never to harm other people.
What might surprise people about you?
I used to rap in high school.
Do you have any hidden talents?
I can rap?
If you could pick any superpower in the world, what would it be and why?
To live forever. I don’t think I can get bored... and I’d love to see how the world develops in the next 100-200 years. I really don’t understand people who say they wouldn’t want to live forever!
If you could give one piece of advice to others, what would it be?
To live without regrets.
What's your favorite dish to cook if you want to impress someone? And what could someone cook to impress you?
I used to cook omelettes for my wife (then girlfriend) in college. My wife’s spicy pork with kimchi and vegetables is insane...
What's your favorite city in the world and why?
Such a difficult question. I loved Amsterdam - the centre, anyway. The houses, canals, and streets feel like a fantasy land. They have great coffee, beer, cocktail bars and restaurants. I love that everything is within walking distance and that there are lots of museums and history.
What's your go-to shower or karaoke song?
Korean: Drunken Tiger - I Want You. English: Linkin Park/Jay Z - Numb/Encore. As for shower vs. karaoke singing: It's karaoke, all day err’day! RIP Chester.
When was the last time you were really scared?
When my wife had to undergo surgery.
What's the best gift that anyone's ever bought you?
A holiday to Japan with my brother, from my parents.
What do you think is your best and worst quality?
Best: I think I’m able to make people feel comfortable.
Worst: I’m very emotional.
What's the best way to make up after a fight?
What's your guilty pleasure?
Glass(es) of nice whiskey.
What's the best compliment you've ever had?
That I’m funny.
If you could have dinner with any one person living or dead, who would it be and why?
Noam Chomsky or Tupac.
What's your biggest regret?
Not living a more motivated, action-packed, multi tasking, proactive life. But I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’m not mentally, intellectually or physically built for that. Also, not reading more.
If you could give one key piece of advice to your younger self, what would it be?
Study harder in college. Read more.
What are your hopes and dreams for the future?
Open this shop in 6 months, open another two in two years, franchise it globally. My hope is to make lots of money, retire early and look into philanthropy. I also want to open a restaurant in the next 2-3 years.
What's one thing you'd never give up for anyone else?
If your life were a movie or reality TV show, what would it be called and why?
40 Year Old Virgin haha! Or really, Master Of None - finding true love, trying to find success as a minority, and most importantly - traveling and eating great food.
Of all of your life accomplishments so far, what are you most proud of?
Marrying the only love of my life.
Three key items on your bucket list?
Sky diving; traveling to over 120 countries (especially Peru, South America in general and Bhutan); and going to the top restaurants in the world.
What are the first things you notice in a person?
The way they talk, and their appearance (looks, fashion etc).
What are some of your biggest pet peeves?
Obnoxious, arrogant, racist, xenophobic, ignorant, judgmental, shallow, cynical, hypocritical people.
What are three of the most attractive qualities in another person?
When it's intellectual, understanding, empathetic, comforting people I can learn from.
What's the secret to finding happiness, in your opinion?
Being happy with who you are, living without regrets.
What's one of your most epic childhood memories?
In high school, we were at a club and my friend Young came to pick us up. He was 16, didn’t have a license (probably never drove) and brought his car to the club. He picked up 7 guys in a Toyota Prado. We were enjoying the ride, bumping the new Talib Kweli album (which I paid $20 for in 2001 - A LOT OF MONEY IN HIGH SCHOOL!) and he suddenly decides to take a right turn. In normal circumstances it would have been ok, but he was going 100km/h. The car skidded left on two wheels, hit the curb and flipped 2 times. We would have hit a wall but somehow we landed, right-side-up, inside a man hole that was under construction. Nobody was seriously injured and to this day, nobody knows why he took the right turn. He claims he knew a short cut. We think he was just a bad driver. I still avoid a ride in his car. It’s also interesting because one of our friends who was in the car, Aaron, is now a rapper and recently released a track with Talib Kweli! Full circle.
If you knew you had one year left to live, what would you change about the way you're living right now and why?
I’d travel more, and eat more with my favourite people.
How do you get through life's challenges when things get tough - any particular mindset or mantras that you rely on as a go-to?
Whenever I’m in a difficult situation, I always think about other people that are going through a lot more than I am. There are terminally ill people, people starving and refugees who have lost families and it would be very selfish of me to complain about challenges unrelated to that.