Hot dogs and champagne. Not the most natural of pairings – but it works, as proven by Bubbledogs, launched in 2012 by sommelier and chef Sandia Chang. California-born Chang worked in some of the world’s top restaurants – including Copenhagen’s Noma and Per Se in New York – before setting up Bubbledogs and Michelin-starred restaurant Kitchen Table in 2012 alongside her husband, chef James Knappett. Sadly Bubbledogs closed last month as a result of Covid-19, but it lives on via Bubbleshop: Chang’s new online store. Here she gives us the lowdown on the new, cheaper, cooler generation of fizz that sits at the centre of her business: grower champagnes.
Can you tell us a bit about your career background?
I always wanted to be in this industry – when I was a little girl everyone else wanted to be princesses, but I wanted to be a waitress. After university I went to culinary school, and then moved to New York City to chase my dream of becoming a chef. Very quickly I realised that being a chef is not that glamorous after all, and it didn’t fit my personality. To become a chef you have to be very obsessed with food, but I liked the whole picture: the food, the service, the people and the wine. I quickly left the cooking world and got a job at Per Se. They have the most amazing wine list and wine cellar, and I used to volunteer my time to do stock checks. That’s how I started to learn about wine. I met my husband James at Per Se, we got married and both went on to work at Noma in Denmark. It was there that I got into grower champagne. I moved to England, helped open Roganic, and then went on to launch Bubbledogs.
What was your aim in opening Bubbledogs?
I always loved champagne – especially grower champagne – and I found that in England everyone was still very set on the big brands. Grower champagne is so much more affordable; the producers are mainly just families trying to sell wine and make a bit of money out of it. I wanted to teach people about these amazing small producers, and also create a champagne bar that was really relaxed and not stuffy.
Why did you decide on hot dogs?
It came down to the fact that I wasn’t able to open a bar without serving food. When I was living in New York, I wasn’t making a whole lot of money but I had access to really good wine. My friends and I would often take our wine to cheap Chinese restaurants that let you BYO or go to the local pizza house. We realised it’s not about expensive food and wine, it’s just about good food with good wine and good friends. People always pair champagne with caviar – which is a great match because it’s salty and oily and you need something fresh to balance it out – but we decided: let’s be rebellious and do hot dogs. They’re one of those foods no-one is intimidated by, so I thought it would be a great way to get people to come into a champagne bar who might not have before.
Are attitudes towards champagne changing?
Since I started in the wine world eight years ago, it was so hard to find small champagne producers. There was nobody drinking it therefore the restaurants weren’t asking for it, so the suppliers weren’t importing it. It was a real struggle at the beginning. But now you see lots of places offering grower champagnes, which means consumers are asking for it and recognising it. I like to think it’s all me – but it’s not! It’s a lot to do with my colleagues in the industry, we’re younger and more open to different tastes. With food, people want to know where things come from, and the same goes with wine nowadays. I always encourage people to drink, so I price my wine as low as I can to allow me to make a bit of money. I’d rather you drink two bottles rather than one expensive bottle.
How do you find grower champagnes?
There’s a few ways. One is through suppliers: if a supplier has anything new they’ll come to me. Also through the producers themselves – they know the ins and outs of the champagne world and they tell me when there’s a new kid on the block. I import about 60 percent of the champagne on my list directly. That’s been great because I get more allocation, and I also build a better relationship with the producers so I get inside information all the time.
Which types of champagne work best for the upcoming Christmas season?
The best type of champagne for Christmas is something a bit fuller and more mature. Fresh champagnes are also great around Christmas because it’s a time when you eat lots of indulgent food, so fresh champagne can help balance out the flavours.
You’re married to a chef – do you have a very culinary household?
We do. My daughter is a one and a half and she literally eats everything – we bought a roast duck from Chinatown the other day and her and my husband were fighting over it. I get criticised a lot by James when I cook though!
What makes a good sommelier?
You have to have a real passion for it, and be able to self-teach. It’s a constant learning process: every vintage is different, every producer is different. You have to keep that momentum going. Also, there’s the physical side: people often don’t realise this, but 60 per cent of our job is unpacking boxes and doing stock checks. You have to have that stamina and the humility to know it’s not all glamorous. Finally, the most important thing is listening to people.
Where’s your favourite place to drink champagne?
Bubbledogs, and my home. I always travel to Scandinavia to find new producers. One of the issues about opening a grower champagne business in England is we get very little allocation of these great producers because the majority of them will allocate them to countries like Denmark, Sweden and Japan. They feel like those people appreciate grower producers more than the English. I go to those countries to find new things because they get cooler stuff than we do.
Favourite London restaurant?
I don’t go out to drink much, but I do frequent Sager and Wilde in Hackney.