"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.
One food you detest: Canned hearts of palm. They taste like shit.
One food you can't live without: Duck fat. I love the flavor of it, and I use it in more dishes at TAG than you can ever imagine. We fry our French fries in duck fat, use duck fat to grill our meats, braise our pork belly in duck fat and even make a duck fat, fig and pistachio ice cream. Duck fat, for me, is like my olive oil. It's rich, buttery and a little meaty. You know what? I think I'm going to bottle it and use it as my olive oil from now on.
Most embarrassing moment in the kitchen: I was a twenty-year-old line cook at La Costa resort in San Diego and thought I was the shit, a total hot-shot cook and great with a knife. The executive chef, a tyrant Swiss guy, asked me to dice twenty pounds of bell peppers. So I did -- quickly. I went on break, and when I got back, the chef had dumped the garbage can on my station, which was full of the tops and ends of the peppers. He made me dice all of them, too. I was so cocky, and he embarrassed the hell out of me. His name was George, and I'll never forget him.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: More chefs taking risks, challenging themselves and pushing the boundaries. Why is New York the restaurant city in America? Because the chefs there push the envelope. There are a lot of Denver chefs who won't cook out of the box, so to speak. I have vanilla ice cream on the menu, but I also have lobster caramel ice cream. I think a lot of Denver chefs are afraid of rejection and of diners not appreciating the risks they're taking, so because of that, they stick to what makes them comfortable. I don't believe in that. I'd rather get rejected or fail while I'm pushing the envelope than spend my life making fucking salads with balsamic.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: Fewer chains. With the exception of Chipotle, which I love, I don't think that chains put out food that's good for our bodies. Chain food is previously frozen or chemically enhanced. Plus, chains take away jobs from local farmers and producers.
Denver has the best: Compared to other cities I've worked in, Denver has the best group of chefs who look out for each other. There's a real sense of brotherhood here. We help each other out with sourcing products, replacing line cooks; we just take good care of each other and always seem to be willing to help the next guy out.
Denver has the worst: Late-night foodie places. By the time the news is on, every restaurant is dead. I'd love to have somewhere to get pork belly or sushi or bone marrow late at night. Somewhere that has a cool scene where chefs can hang out after work and eat really good food. I'd love to see a place like the original Blue Ribbon in New York. Actually, I'd love to do something like that in Denver...maybe for my next place.
Favorite cookbook: Feasts From Hawaii. It's by Roy Yamaguchi, and even though it's old, I still get inspiration from looking through that book. It's beautifully put together with photos and recipes, and it really delves into the culture of Hawaii, so it's more than just a cookbook.
What show would you pitch to the Food Network? Day in the Life of a Chef. Most chefs cook from six to ten at night, but I'd love to do a show that's all about what goes on before that shift kicks into gear. There's so much more to what we do than just cook -- and I think non-restaurant people might find that fascinating.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: The gallbladder of a live snake mixed with blood and a shot of whiskey in the back alley of a bar in Hong Kong. It was a dare and pretty crazy, but the guy who gave it to me told me that it was supposed to make you strong. I guess I believed him.
Current Denver culinary genius: I don't think there is just one. I think there are different versions of a "culinary genius." There's John Imbergamo, who's been the godfather of the Denver dining scene for twenty or thirty years. Then there's Josh Wolkon, the owner of Vesta Dipping Grill and Steuben's, who's been an inspiration in teaching me how to run my own restaurant. I could say that the Larimer Square guys, Jeff Hermanson and Joe Vostrejs, are geniuses for taking talented chefs and giving them stages to create their craft. I love my bro at Lola, Jamey Fader, for having such great vision, and my wife, Leigh, for creating the Denver Five, a local culinary group that cooks at the James Beard House. People who have a vision and go after it: That's what makes a genius.
You're making a pizza. What's on it? Fresh basil, Pecorino Romano and grilled eggplant.
You're making an omelet. What's in it? Two eggs (but only one yolk), vegetables sautéed in duck fat or olive oil, whatever cheese we have in the refrigerator at home, and salt and pepper.
After-work hangout: After a long-ass day working twelve to fourteen hours, I'm completely wiped out. All I want to do is to go home and chill on the couch, have a beer to unwind, watch ESPN, play some Ms. Pac-Man, hang out with my teenager and my dog, Tag, who's always happy to see me.
Favorite Denver restaurant other than your own: The Wazee Supper Club. It has a great late-night scene and really good pizzas.
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Favorite celebrity chef: I like Bobby Flay. He's here, there and everywhere, and he seems like a cool guy who genuinely likes cooking. We did some events together in New York years ago.
Celebrity chef who should shut up: Duff Goldman, the host of Ace of Cakes. He has a goofy laugh, and I've never seen him make one cake on the show. His assistants always do it. He's all bake and no cake.
Hardest lesson you've learned: It's not easy mixing family and business. When it's good, it's really good, and when it's bad, it's the worst! My wife and I work together and we're both passionate people, so we have a lot of differing opinions on how things should look, sound and taste. We have to balance all of that, and it's been a learning process. But at the end of the day, I'm the boss at work and she's the boss at home.
What's next for you? I'm going to focus 100 percent on TAG. I've been cooking in other people's restaurants for sixteen years, and now that I have my own place, I want to focus on becoming a kick-ass business owner. Sure, I'd also love to open a hundred different restaurants, author cookbooks, host my own cooking show and travel around the world again, but the reality is that I promised my wife that I would just focus on making TAG the best and most lucrative restaurant we could. We gave up a lot to get where we are, and we have a baby coming in October, so I'm anticipating a lot of sleepless nights and poopy diapers.