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You're the first person who's asked for hot sauce since I opened," says Troy Guard. The owner and executive chef of TAG, a three-month-old restaurant in Larimer Square, isn't quite scolding me, but he's made it perfectly clear that his steak tacos, a plate of which sits in front of me, don't need no stinkin' hot sauce. "The steak's already been marinated in habanero and chipotle," he tells me. I take a bite and discover that he's absolutely right. But even if he weren't, who am I to argue with this soft-spoken, albeit pointedly honest, kitchen magician, a chef who's been captivating Denver with his globally influenced food for more than six years?
While Guard was born in Hawaii, his career in the kitchen began in San Diego, where he was a line cook at La Costa resort. He returned to his native Hawaii just after college and, as luck would have it, hooked up with famous fusion chef Roy Yamaguchi, a move that would eventually take Guard to the Pacific Rim, where he launched Roy's China Max in Hong Kong and, later, several Roy's outposts across Asia. After eight years working with Yamaguchi, Guard took a bite out of the Big Apple, where he met Richard Sandoval, the New York-based restaurateur whose "Modern Mexican" concept landed Guard in Denver as the opening chef at Zengo. From there, Guard went on to spearhead the kitchens at nine75 and Ocean before finally opening TAG in May.
"So far, so good," says Guard about his first three months with a place all his own. In the following interview, he speaks candidly about his commitment to making TAG a success, his plea for more risk-taking chefs, and his brush with whiskey, blood and a snake's gallbladder.
Six words to describe your food: Continental, social, playful, eclectic, global and inspiring.
Ten words to describe you: Passionate, committed, obsessive, loyal, dedicated, driven, creative, funny, crazy and focused.
Culinary inspirations: Traveling the world and living all over Asia, working in New York City among some of the greatest chefs in the world, and living in Hawaii, where I learned just about everything I know from Roy Yamaguchi. I was planning to go to culinary school, but Roy told me to save my money and work for him. He took me under his wing.
Proudest moment as a chef: When I was 24, Roy Yamaguchi picked me out of a whole army of chefs to be the executive chef for Roy's China Max, a restaurant that he opened in Hong Kong. At a really early age, I reached a goal that I never thought I'd reach until much, much later in life. I was cooking in a foreign country, working with foreign ingredients, dealing with people who didn't speak a lot of English and cooking for very different palates, so I felt really challenged. There were so many things working against me, and yet I totally kicked some Hong Kong ass.
Favorite ingredient: Yuzu, a Japanese citrus juice that I really got into when I lived in Japan. It tastes like a lemon, an orange and a grapefruit, and it's great in vinaigrettes, sauces and marinades. I also use it a lot in fish dishes. There's always a bottle of it in my fridge at home.
Best food city in America: New York. It has every kind of restaurant imaginable, and after you've had one meal, you can walk it off so you're hungry for the next stop.
Favorite music to cook by: Metallica's Kill 'Em All.
Most overrated ingredient: Balsamic vinegar. It tastes great, but it's just too easy to throw open a bottle of it and toss it on a salad. I wouldn't have such a problem with it if chefs were more creative with it, but they use it too often without any skill or creativity. I do cook with it at TAG, but I put miso paste in mine and use it on my grilled hanger steak entree.
Most undervalued ingredient: Organ meats. They take time to break down and a lot of love to cook them right. You have to start the prep time like six hours early, and most chefs don't have the time to work with organ meats — or they're just too lazy. It's not like throwing a steak on the grill: Organ meats require a lot of commitment, but the end result is worth it.
Favorite local ingredient: Pueblo green chiles are totally rad because they have such well-rounded flavors — earthy and sweet, but they still pack some heat. You can find them in any supermarket or at the farmers' market. A lot of the farmers' market guys will even roast them for you.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Come in early, don't talk, keep your head down, work hard and don't ask why. I have a plan for everyone.
Favorite New York restaurant: Union Square. It's been there for twenty years with good reason. The service is always fantastic, it's in a great location, the kitchen uses great seasonal ingredients, and the owner, Danny Meyer, has done tremendous good for the restaurant business.