Round two with Shaun Motoda, chef de cuisine at TAG|RAW BAR
1423 Larimer Street
This is part two of my interview with Shaun Motoda, chef de cuisine of TAG|RAW BAR; part one of our conversation ran yesterday.
Favorite Denver/Boulder restaurant(s) other than your own: I love the Cherry Cricket because their burgers are so consistent -- you always know it's gonna be a great burger. I also love Frasca; the food is inspiring, and they have excellent service.
Favorite cheap eat in Denver: Griff's Hamburgers has been serving traditional hamburgers for more than fifty years, and I absolutely crave them. I also love the late-night eats at the Denver Diner. I order the country-fried steak and the patty melt, and, yes, I said and -- not or. I'm a sucker for big meals -- I can totally put it away.
If you could change one thing about the Denver dining scene, what would it be? I wish the scene would be more supportive and less judgmental. Denver continues to build itself up as a major culinary destination, and there's so much more room for great chefs, concepts and craft. Every time I eat out, I'm amazed at the talent we're cultivating in this town. Unfortunately, it seems like instead of being supportive and encouraging, there's more criticizing and insulting going around. I just wish everyone could realize that the rising tide floats all boats -- having more restaurants, chefs and dishes in Denver is good for everyone.
Most memorable meal you've ever had: When I was about eight, my mom took a whole mullet and stuffed it with onions, lup cheong (Chinese sweet sausage), mayonnaise and ginger, topped it with cilantro and scallions, then roasted it in the oven. Eating a whole fish back then was pretty unusual -- we'd always eaten filets or steaks before then -- and the mullet was served family style in the middle of the table. It was really cool to have everyone around the table sharing and eating from one huge fish. Whenever we do the Chinese-style fish at TAG, the smell reminds me of my mom.
One food you detest: There's really nothing I won't eat, but I have to say that I'm not a huge fan of overcooked proteins, especially fish. It's not only disrespectful to the animal, but it results in an awful taste and has a tough, rubbery texture.
One food you can't live without: I eat eggs all the time, in any way, shape or form. They're perfect any time of day, and they're easy and cheap to prepare. I'm interested in working with a wider variety of different eggs and am thinking about incorporating duck and goose eggs into the menu at TAG|RAW. I'd love to get my hands on an ostrich egg -- but I probably should taste one first.
What's always lurking in your refrigerator? Eggs and ketchup.
Weirdest customer request: A guest came into TAG|RAW BAR and asked me to cook the ahi all the way through -- yep, true story.
Weirdest thing you've ever put in your mouth: Growing up in Hawaii, I've eaten just about everything you can pull from the ocean -- abalone, jellyfish and fugu -- but to me, those things aren't that weird. I once ate beef heart, and that seemed weird to me.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? My knives have all been gifts, so each one is special. A few of them were gifts from executive chefs I worked with in Hawaii; my mom bought me a beautiful sashimi knife that's so special I only use it at home; I have another one from Willie's in Waikiki that was an award for being the employee of the year that I now use at TAG|RAW to cut sashimi and sushi rolls; and I have one from my brother -- a Shun deba knife that I picked out because I knew I'd need it to break down fish and cut through bone. It's light and streamlined and really easy to work with. I've never actually purchased a knife for myself.
What was the last cookbook you bought, and what recipes are you cooking from it? Sushi: Food for the Eye, the Body and the Soul, by Ole G. Mouritsen. I buy cookbooks for the visual inspiration and the techniques, but I don't actually use the recipes, so I haven't made anything out of Mouritsen's book, but it's nonetheless a great read.
Best recipe tip for a home cook: Make the recipe at least once, exactly as it's written, and then go ahead and mess with it the second or third time you make it. What's the point of trying out a new recipe if you're going to jack with it right out of the gate?
What's your biggest pet peeve? I'm pretty meticulous, so I can't stand it when people don't put things back in their specific spots. I also get pissed when I find a dirty knife lying around. At TAG|RAW BAR, we don't tolerate dirty knives. Ever.
What do you enjoy most about your craft? Creating dishes that are unique and unexpected -- new dishes that nobody else is doing right now. I also love it when I can wow a guest with a TAG|RAW creation. That's one of my favorite things about working in an open kitchen: I hear and see every diner's comments and expressions after they taste my food. It's instantly gratifying.
Craziest night in the kitchen: When I was working at Roy's on Oahu, we used these small woks filled with hot oil to fry tempura. One night a pot of water got knocked over onto the wok, which made the flame from the burner ignite the oil and create a gigantic fireball that reached all the way up to the ceiling. The entire kitchen was illuminated by fire. It was a massive mess, a terrible stink, and pretty damn scary.
When you have a day off away from the kitchen, how do you spend your time? I head to the gym and lift weights because, well, I eat a lot of fast food and burgers. After I work out, I eat. A lot. I'm also really into cars, so I read car magazines and love to fix up my Subaru.
Which chef has most inspired you? I've always looked at Roy Yamaguchi as a role model. He opened Roy's in Hawaii and helped create Hawaiian regional cuisine. I really admire how he fuses bold flavors so that they truly blend.
If you could cook in another chef's kitchen, whose would it be? I'd love to cook with Chris Kajioka, who just opened up Vintage Cave in Honolulu. He's bringing small, clean, artistic plates to Hawaii. I'd also love to work in Mo-rimoto's kitchen. Oh, and Thomas Keller's kitchen. How many am I allowed to pick?
Most humbling moment as a chef: When I started working for Troy Guard at TAG, my first position was sauté -- and it was my first job coming out of Roy's on Oahu. Roy is one of Troy's mentors and friends, and I felt like I had something to prove. I remember messing up pretty big on a dish, and the whole kitchen was waiting on me -- and Troy didn't hesitate to let me know. I didn't make that mistake again. I want to be the best, and working in a TAG kitchen makes you the best.
Biggest moment of euphoria in the kitchen: When I serve the omakase chef's tasting menu at TAG|RAW, I really push myself to create dishes that not only aren't on our menu, but that aren't on any menu the diner has ever seen. Introducing people to completely new things like kangaroo and seeing their faces light up is incredible. That's what I love most about working at a TAG Concept -- I work hard because I choose to, and I'm not sure there's anywhere else where I'd have the freedom to create and make an impact like I do here.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: It was a big deal to get to open TAG|RAW with Troy and chef Sam Freund. I'm pretty thrilled to be celebrating our two-year anniversary in March.
What's one thing that people would be surprised to know about you? I may seem quiet, but I have a pretty wicked sense of humor.
Last meal before you die: A multi-course sushi tasting made by Jiro Ono, the sushi chef who was the subject of the 2011 documentary film Jiro Dreams of Sushi.
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