Hawaii might be an island paradise, but when opportunity came knocking for Robert Juan, he didn’t hesitate to swap the ocean for the mountains. “I miss the sand and the sunrise on the beach,” says Juan, who joined Zengo as chef de cuisine this fall. “But if you have to trade it in for something and there’s a chance to work with one of the country’s best chefs, this was worth trading for.” The chef he’s referring to is global restaurateur Richard Sandoval, the man behind Zengo and more than forty concepts in locales ranging from Dubai to Washington, D.C.
Juan has only been in town for a matter of months, but he’s packed a year’s worth of work into them. Last fall, Zengo underwent a menu reboot that gave the twelve-year-old restaurant more of an Asian, rather than a Latin-Asian-fusion, flair. “It’s [Sandoval’s] baby,” says Juan, “but he said, let’s move away from the ‘fusion’ word. Let’s try to bring Asian cuisine to another level.”
Don’t worry, brunch fans: The menu may have gone in a new direction, but Juan reveals that Zengo’s bottomless brunch isn’t going anywhere. Here’s more of my conversation with the chef, edited for length.
Westword: How long have you been at Zengo?
Robert Juan: I’ve been working at Zengo since September 2015, having relocated from Hawaii to Denver.
What is the stamp you’ll give to the restaurant?
The stamp I’d like to give Zengo is consistency. I really want to home in on giving what our guests want: consistent execution of food every single day. The menu has already evolved into a more Asian feel since my arrival. But in the coming months, I’d like to start exploring other Asian countries and cuisines for Zengo.
Tell me about the new menu.
The menu change happened two months after my arrival. Chef Richard [Sandoval] wanted to move away from the Latin-Asian concept and move forward into a more streamlined Asian menu. Now the menu spans Japan, China, Korea, Vietnam. We’re not just focusing on one Asian country. We took a lot of dishes from travels that Richard has done and from my travels, and we’ve tried to incorporate them into the menu. It was a collaboration between corporate chefs and myself, with a lot of testing and trial and error.
How are guests reacting to the new Asian emphasis?
To be honest, it was a great change. That menu had been here for, what, I want to say maybe ten years already? It was due for a change. Guests are more excited for it. They keep coming back, but now they have more to come back to. It’s great for us and great for the brand. Richard is very well known here in Denver. People know who he is and what he brings to the table.
Why did you decide to start cooking?
I’ve been in and out of the restaurant business since I was in high school. I didn’t take it seriously until about ten years ago. Cooking was something that I was drawn to. No one gets into this business to become famous; you have to be passionate about what you do and understand that there are negatives and positives, even in this industry. I started my career as a sushi cook. I have always been fascinated by Japanese cuisine, and I knew that this would be the catalyst for more things to come.
What’s your earliest food memory?
I remember going to the local Japanese restaurant in Milwaukee with my parents as a child. They exposed us to many ethnic cuisines at an early age so we wouldn’t be picky eaters when we grew up. But both of my parents were excellent home cooks. I picked up Filipino comfort food from my mom and grilling from my dad.
How long have you been in the business?
I’ve been in the business for more than twenty years, which includes a lot of front-of-the-house work as well. About ten of those years are in the back of the house.
What are a few career highlights?
I went to the Cordon Bleu in Chicago to be more well-rounded. I knew that I wasn’t going to be a sushi chef forever, so I wanted to learn more about the cooking aspect. I’ve always been fond of working in luxury properties as well. Some notable highlights are working for the Fairmont Hotel in Chicago, a short stint at the Trump International Hotel in Chicago, the Grand Wailea in Maui, the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel in Hawaii and the Four Seasons Resort in Hualalai, Hawaii.
What was it like making the switch from luxury properties, where guests were always on vacation, to Zengo?
I do love the hotel-and-resort industry, but I’ve worked at stand-alones, as well, so for me the transition was easy. When you’re feeding people who travel, they think, ‘I’m here and I want to relax. I don’t want to be rushed.’ They want a meal at their own pace, but they want a high-end experience. Richard offers the same things, the same high-end dining experience. People who are staying at hotels — they’re a little harder to please. They’re on vacation, their expectations are higher, and you have to deliver at a higher standard. I still deliver at the same level and pace, but it’s comforting for me to see regular faces versus transient guests who you might not see for a year because they’re on vacation.
Did you have a mentor?
My dad had a huge impact on my life. He always told me that I could live anywhere in the world and succeed. True to form, I’ve lived all over the U.S. and have worked for some of the best chefs in my young career, and have enjoyed my culinary adventure so far.
Do you have a signature dish?
I’m Filipino, and Filipinos love pork! It’s not a signature of mine, but I make it on my own when I can. The dish is called adobo, and it’s a Filipino classic, with braised pork in soy sauce, apple-cider vinegar, garlic, black pepper and bay leaves. Pair that with garlic fried rice and tomato relish and you’re in heaven!
Adobo chicken is on Zengo’s menu, but will you ever do pork adobo?
Chicken is more guest-friendly, right? When it comes to pork, people think it’s too fatty, not good for your health.
Hardest moment in your career, and what it taught you?
Not everyone will enjoy your food, and you need to be humble. You learn to adapt to guests’ needs and try to accommodate to the best of your ability. You really can’t please everyone, but we try our best to do so.
Guilty pleasure in terms of food?
What ingredient are you excited about right now?
I like seasonal produce and anticipating the seasonal changes for new products. One thing I will be looking forward to are ramps, a wild spring onion.
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Do you ever cook at home? If so, do you have a go-to dish?
I do cook at home, but it’s hard to cook small portions. I always feel the need to cook more than I need to because I work in a kitchen. I like easy meals at home; I save the complicated things for work. Home is where I can kick back and relax, so I don’t really go out of my way to do a four-course meal just for myself. [I make] simple dishes like pasta or steak, but the real go-to dish is ramen — and not the instant kind, either.
What changes would you like to see in Denver’s food scene over the next five years?
I’d like to see more Asian concepts here in Denver, more izakayas or even Chinese BBQ and dim sum.
Best tip for a home cook?
Be patient and read the directions. I always like to use the word “mise en place,” which in French translates to “putting in place” or “everything in place.” Before you start cooking, make sure you have all of your ingredients ready so you’re prepared.
Zengo is located at 1610 Little Raven Street; find more information at 720-904-0965 or richardsandoval.com.