This is part one of Lori Midson's Chef and Tell interview with Clint Wangsnes, chef of Zengo. To read part two of that Q&A, check back here on Friday.
"I truly love food, and the high-stress, high-energy, crazy and chaotic environment of working in restaurants motivates and intrigues me," says Clint Wangsnes, chef de cuisine of Zengo, the Latin-Asian restaurant that New York celebrity toque Richard Sandoval opened in Riverfront Park in 2004.
Born in Littleton, Wangsnes moved to Syracuse, Nebraska -- population less than 2,000 -- when he was fourteen, joining his brother, a cook, at a local veteran's steakhouse. "My brother got me a job washing dishes, but I lied and said that I was sixteen so I could stay and work past curfew," remembers Wangsnes, who was quickly promoted to the line, where he spent his days and nights frying chickens and cooking steaks. But after four years soaking up grease in a small town, Wangsnes itched for a bigger city.
He returned to Denver, where he bounced around various steakhouses before landing a gig at Ilios, a long-gone Mediterranean restaurant that featured the kitchen wizardry of Sean Brasel. It was Brasel who pushed Wangsnes into a full-fledged cooking career. "He was my mentor, and the one chef that I've worked for who wanted to take the time to teach me the basic fundamentals and techniques of cooking -- things that I never learned being a cook at a steakhouse," he recalls.
Wangsnes stuck with Brasel, opening more restaurants in Denver and in Miami, where Brasel is now cooking and Wangsnes got a taste of the high life. "It's just a mind-blowing scene in Miami, what with all the glitzy restaurants, nightclubs, bars and lounges," says Wangsnes, who also spent time cooking in Hawaii. "I love the beach, and I'd always wanted to go to Hawaii, and I had a friend there whose couch I could crash on, so I went and got a job at a French bistro and moonlighted as a cook at a Thai restaurant." That experience furthered his interest in Asian cuisine: "I knew I loved Asian food and playing with Asian ingredients, and living in Hawaii definitely opened my eyes to the world of Asian cooking."
Island life, however, soon got the better of Wangsnes, who returned to Miami, where he met his wife, a Boulder native. It was a match that propelled them both back to Denver and Wangsnes into the kitchen of Zengo, where he started as a sauté cook before sliding into the top spot. "I've been here for just over four years, and I think we've got a great restaurant with really delicious food that pops," says Wangsnes. In the following interview, he weighs in on Denver's Mexican joints, sandwich shops, Frank Bonanno and foie gras.
Six words to describe your food: Well-seasoned, balanced, clean, textured and tasty.
Ten words to describe you: Passionate, patient, teacher, leader, calm, sarcastic, motivated, handy and humble.
Culinary inspirations: Most of my inspiration comes from my friends, co-workers and purveyors. I think sharing ideas, new techniques and products is what being a chef is all about. I love getting phone calls or texts saying, hey, you've got to check out this product, cooking method or ingredient. My wife is also a huge inspiration. She loves what I do, she loves partaking in all the goodness that comes from it, and I always have her in the back of my mind when I'm creating something new. She's a tough critic, but she's also my biggest fan, and I love it when she gets excited about my food. I also get a lot of inspiration through cookbooks; it's always great to see things through another chef's perspective.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: I'm still waiting for that moment. A great achievement would be opening my own restaurant, but I'm still not there yet -- someday soon, I hope. In the meantime, I ran a half-marathon this year, and, man, it felt good when I crossed that finish line. Maybe next year I'll go for the full.
Favorite ingredient: Citrus. I use it in just about everything; it's a great way to brighten up almost any dish.
Best recent food find: Black garlic, which has a really nice sweetness to it, followed by that tang from the fermentation. I've just recently started using it here at the restaurant. Right now I'm making a black-garlic mojo, a traditional marinade that I'm turning into a chimichurri sauce.
Most overrated ingredient: Foie gras. Don't get me wrong: I love it and enjoy eating it, but I think it's overused. Chefs put it on their menu, assuming it will make them a fine-dining restaurant -- which it doesn't. We do use it at the restaurant, in a hot-and-sour soup dumpling, but I use it sparingly.
Most underrated ingredient: Acid, whether it's from vinegar, citrus or even in powder form. It's nearly as important in a dish as salt. People don't tend to think of citrus as an important ingredient, so you don't see a lot of it in traditional recipes, but we use a ton of it here.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: I use a lot of Verde Farms' microgreens and Palisade peaches. I love stopping at all the different fruit stands when I'm in Palisade; they have great cherries, as well. My produce company, Fresh Guys, is also great at sourcing a lot of my local produce. They're in contact with all the local farms, and they know what's out there and being harvested right now. They come to my back door all excited with samples for me to taste.
Favorite spice: Star anise. There's a ton of flavor packed into that spice, and it can be used in savory and sweet applications. I love using it in braised meats and sauces, because it brings a whole different flavor dimension that most people aren't used to.
One food you detest: Fast food, with the exception of an occasional breakfast sandwich or french fries from McDonald's. I don't understand how people can eat that stuff. I've tried, and every time I regret it, especially the hamburger patties.
One food you can't live without: Pizza. There's nothing better than a well-made pizza. It's definitely my comfort food. Thin crust is my favorite, but I love all kinds, and once in a while I even crave a Chicago-style pizza with sausage.
Biggest kitchen disaster: Back in Miami, on a Saturday night before service, one of my cooks was clarifying a large pot of butter on a French-style flat-top stove and wasn't paying attention to it. All of a sudden, out of the corner of my eye, I see him scrambling, and I hear this big whoosh, and then the pot ignited, sending flames straight up into the hoods, which set off the chemical suppression system. We had to shut down and wait for the system to refill and for the fire marshal to come sign off on it. I'm more than positive there was some money that changed hands to speed up the process; otherwise, we would have been shut down for the rest of the weekend.
What's never in your kitchen? Laziness. It's the one thing I can't stand and won't ever allow in my kitchen. There's always something that needs to be done.
What's always in your kitchen? Positivity and ponzu, which is definitely one of my favorite sauces.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: We need more quality artisanal sandwich shops and delis. There are a lot of places to get sandwiches, but not a lot of places that do them well. I can't think of one place in Denver where you can pick up really good cold cuts to bring home. I love great Jewish delis and getting freshly shaved corned beef and pastrami and really great bread, but I can't find that here.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: There are way too many bad Mexican restaurants in this city -- and I mean really bad, like the ones that do microwaved rice and poorly done, greasy tacos. The last place I went to that sucked served me a taco that tasted rancid. But I do love El Taco de México and Los Carboncitos.
Favorite dish on your menu: We just put an orange- and chipotle-glazed pork tenderloin with braised lentils, yuca, anise tomatoes and a curry jus on the menu. It's got all the elements, textures and flavors that a dish needs.
If you could put any dish on your menu, even though it might not sell, what would it be? I love sweetbreads, and I've tried and tried to sell them out here, but for some reason they're just not popular.
One book that every chef should read: Not to sound cliché, but I think every young or aspiring chef needs to read The French Laundry. Thomas Keller is a legend for a reason, and it's a really inspiring book that gives a lot of great explanations of basic techniques and recipes. Then again, all of Thomas Keller's books are great tools for any chef.
What show would you pitch to the Food Network? I'd love to traipse around the world showcasing exotic produce, meats and fish. Andrew Zimmern does a good job with bizarre foods, but the focus of his show is how strange they are, whereas I'd like to do a show that concentrates on the harvesting of ingredients and the regional areas where they come from.
Best culinary tip for a home cook: Whenever you're cooking poultry, pork or even shrimp, make a quick brine marinade -- a simple mix of salt water, sugar, fresh herbs and a splash of orange juice -- before you do your final seasoning. It's a great way to really inject a lot of flavor inside the meat.
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If you could cook for one famous chef, dead or alive, who would it be? I can think of plenty of chefs I'd like to sit down and have dinner with, but the thought of cooking for them is nerve-racking, mostly because chefs are so critical. I guess if I had to pick, it would be Eric Ripert. I have a lot of respect for him, his restaurant has set some very high standards in the industry, and he seems like a stand-up guy.
Last meal before you die: A warm corned beef sandwich with mustard, pickles, fries and a tall glass of unsweetened iced tea.