Troy Guard finishes his phone conversation with a real estate agent and then hops on a call with his lawyer to discuss lease negotiations. It's 9:15 a.m. and he's already taken his third call since dropping his daughter off at school and arriving at his company's headquarters in the TAXI development in RiNo fifteen minutes ago. A half-hour meeting with some property developers eager to land a Guard concept for their new project follows, then we jump into Guard's Mercedes SUV and head to his RiNo cantina, Los Chingones, where he grabs a spoon and tastes his way through the day's fresh salsas, skipping the F'in' Hot habanero sauce (which he says is a little too spicy for his palate).
This is the pace that Guard will maintain for the next twelve hours or so, until he wraps up an off-site charity event where he's greeting guests and cooking dishes — because occasionally the chef/owner of twelve restaurants (soon to be thirteen) still gets to cook the food he's spent a lifetime honing and perfecting.
"When I got into cooking when I was thirteen, it was because I loved to cook and serve food to people," recalls Guard, who's now more CEO than kitchen general. "But I wanted to make more money — and that meant taking on more responsibility."
After working in big-time eateries in San Diego, his home state of Hawaii (where legendary chef Roy Yamaguchi was his mentor), Hong Kong and New York City, Guard moved to Denver to work for Richard Sandoval at Tamayo and Zengo. In the mid-2000s, he helped launch Ocean and Nine75 (both long gone) before opening his own restaurant, TAG, in 2009 in Larimer Square. On May 18, Guard will celebrate the ten-year anniversary of TAG by bringing in ten chefs who worked in the TAG kitchen before moving on to other things, including some opening their own restaurants.
Over the past decade, Guard has gone from an intense, sometimes volatile (he prefers "passionate") chef overseeing one restaurant to a businessman with more than a hundred employees, a pride of investors to satisfy, and a growing portfolio of eateries to oversee — not to mention the job of making sure that every bite of food at every one of those eateries is good enough and unique enough to continue to capture the dining public's attention. He says he still occasionally loses his temper, but that's because of his drive for perfection, and he tries to use his passion to inspire rather than intimidate. He learned from European chefs in his younger days that belittling individual employees doesn't do much good — because he was frequently on the receiving end of such behavior.
Age and experience, as well as raising kids, have taught him that employees respond better to incentives and personal attention than anger. If he's visiting a restaurant, he'll ask one of the workers there to name the five core values of the TAG Restaurant Group; if the worker gets it right, Guard pays a cash prize on the spot. He'll weigh a stack of fresh-cut steaks, and if they're the right size, he'll reward the meat cutter.
At Los Chingones, Guard introduces me to sous-chef Javier Sanchez, who has worked for the chef for eighteen years, going all the way back to Tamayo. Sanchez explains that he was immediately drawn to Guard's desire for perfection and his ability to command a kitchen. "He likes everything perfect," Sanchez notes. "Every day we work to come up with new flavors, new dishes."
Edgar Drago, the restaurant's head chef, has only been with the company for two years, but he agrees with Sanchez, pointing out that Guard will swoop into the kitchen, create a new sauce on the spot and show the team how to make it. It's up to everyone else to pay attention and then re-create the sauce consistently.
After a quick tour of Los Chingones to make sure that everything's set for lunch (Guard stops at all of his restaurants at least twice a week), we make our way through downtown traffic to Guard and Grace, the company's highest-grossing restaurant. Even though Guard is the boss, he still has to circle several times to find a parking spot, eventually pulling into a garage since all the meters are full. "I could have used valet parking, but I didn't want to give them extra work when they're busy helping our customers," he explains.
Guard and Grace has never charged for valet parking, even though it costs about $70,000 a year to maintain the service. Guard says he's always looking for ways to offset the growing cost of labor, insurance and food, but so far he hasn't had to look at the steakhouse's valet policy. One glance into the dining room, and it's clear why penny-pinching isn't a priority: The place is booming, even during mid-week lunch on a rainy day. Every table is full, there are more guests at the bar than many downtown restaurants see in a day, and business types in sharp suits hang out near the host station waiting for a table. The private dining room is also booked; plates of identical salads crowd the pass as runners circle through like airplanes above a busy airport runway.
In a professional kitchen, standing still means you're in the way. You have to watch the rhythm and then plunge in, navigating your way through like a kayaker in white water. Guard leads me into the turbulence, and I adjust my stride to match the waiters guiding platters over my head, the cooks and their flying elbows, and the expediter, who somehow manages not to send a steak flying as I jostle his arm with my shoulder.
We land in a back room lined with lockers, an old-school setup you don't see much in today's smaller restaurants. Chef Khamla Vongsakoun, new to the helm here and fresh off three years as executive chef at Departure (which just closed in Cherry Creek), greets me and immediately guides me back out into the fray, where we settle into an eddy between the wood-fired grills and the raw bar. He tells me this is the most energetic place he's worked since his time at Tao in New York City, consistently one of the top-grossing establishments in the entire country (a place where Guard also worked in his younger days).
Vongsakoun says that his new boss is open to suggestions, so he's hoping to introduce more Asian flavors onto the menu in the coming months. They should be a good fit, since Guard has also made Pacific Rim cuisine a career-long specialty.
Guard returns with a boxed lunch and we head back to corporate headquarters. In the car, he tells me that even with Guard and Grace as busy as it is and with growth of that brand in the works — a Houston Guard and Grace is expected to open in October, and he'd like to add a few more around the country in the coming years — his first love has always been TAG, and he still feels most comfortable behind the stove there. But with big changes on the horizon for Larimer Square and with TAG's first ten-year lease ending, he's looking to renegotiate a new deal amid uncertainty. He's not sure how Larimer Square will evolve under new management, and he admits that closing TAG is not out of the realm of possibility, even if that's the outcome he'd least like to see.
Back in the office, Guard's lunch is plain rice and some tuna sashimi. He winces a little as he eats, and it's clear he can't open his mouth very far. It turns out that he broke his jaw in an accident two weeks earlier, and he's been on a soft-food regimen ever since. The injury didn't keep him away from work, though, even if he's defying doctor's orders. "I couldn't be away from all this," he says, pointing to the blueprints of the upcoming Houston steakhouse, the menus of every one of his restaurants lining the conference-room walls, and his cell phone, lighting up with new texts and calls as it sits on the table next to his sashimi. Despite discomfort, Guard still manages a few bites of a chocolate chip cookie from Guard and Grace's pastry chef.
Guard is busy for the rest of the afternoon in meetings too confidential for my ears; while he's out of reach, the company's new vice president of operations, Tim Fannin, explains why he came to work for Guard. "He's an interesting combination of confidence and humility," he says. "He knows what he doesn't know. And he listens hard."
Fannin says he's been in the office long enough (since last summer) to notice Guard's continuing transition from chef to CEO. "But in his soul, he's still the guy in his clogs cooking dinner down on Larimer Street," the VP adds. "People may think chefs have big egos, but he knows it's really all about the customer and their experience."
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Fannin points out that TAG Restaurant Group organizes or participates in about forty charity events every year, so Guard and his team are always preparing for upcoming fundraising dinners months ahead. "I think the first thing that comes across with Troy is what he's done for the community," he says. "He's already doing that in Houston, because he wants people there to know he's not just coming in from out of town to take their money."
Before I leave, Guard makes sure I have a few of the chocolate chip cookies he couldn't quite enjoy himself. Over the next few weeks, he's planning on trips to not just Houston, but New York City and New Orleans, looking into the possibilities of opening restaurants in those cities. Food halls, high-end steakhouses, new outposts of the fast-casual Bubu — they're all on the table.
"But this is our foundation," the chef says of Denver. "And I can't let that foundation get weak."
TAG will celebrate its tenth birthday on Friday, May 17, and Saturday, May 18, with favorite dishes from past decades, plus past chefs, bartenders and servers. Call 303-996-9985 or go to TAG's website to book a table.