Good Company: Serial restaurateur takes comfort food to new heights
Chef Troy Guard's eclectic fare grows his Denver dining empire
HOMETOWN: HONOLulu | AGE: 46
WHAT HE’S READING: “onward,” BY starbucks ceo howard schultz
favorite kitchen gadgets: a great sharp knife, a good pair of tongs and a microplaner.
Advice to budding chefs: work for the best people – even if you do it for free on your days off – and travel. see what else is out there.
In the realm of restaurants, there's what's happening in the kitchen, and there's what's going on our front. Nobody balances both aspects quite like chef Troy Guard, as anyone who has ever eaten in one of his dozen Denver restaurants can attest. His culinary empire has cooked up nine concepts, and the creativity just keeps on coming. Whether it's the Hong Kong steamed European sea bass at TAG, the fried tofu tacos at Los Chingnones or the grilled lamb pizza at Mister Tuna, Guard has a tasty take on food – and life. Customers who express an interest in what goes on in his kitchens might find themselves wearing an apron and hanging out on the line. "I love to get people involved," Guard says. "Life's too short not to have fun."
COLORADOBIZ: DESCRIBE YOUR APPROACH TO CREATING A NEW RESTAURANT CONCEPT.
TROY GUARD: My original one is TAG. It's very chef-driven, it's really all about me: my travels, my living abroad, the chefs, different culinary backgrounds I've worked with. It's very local and sustainable, as much as possible. I just like to be creative. I like to challenge myself. I don't like to be stuck doing the same restaurant over and over. I wanted to do new things and branch out. And Denver, I felt, needed that and wanted that.
YOU WERE A WEST COAST KID – SAN DIEGO AND HAWAII, WHERE YOU WORKED WITH CHEF ROY YAMAGUCHI. TALK ABOUT YOUR EVOLUTION AS A CHEF.
I started when I was 13 in Seattle. My neighbor had a sandwich shop, and I wanted to make some extra money. So he let me work there, $3 an hour. I took a liking to it. We moved to San Diego, and I got a job in the restaurant business again. I did front of the house a little bit, but I was drawn toward the kitchen. When I was 21, no girlfriend, no bills, I said, I'm going back to Hawaii because my dad still lived there. I asked around the island, and everybody said, 'You gotta try this guy out.' And (Yamaguchi) had just opened a restaurant and was making waves over there. Literally, what we now call farm-to-table, he was doing that, working with the fishermen, working with the farmers. I was like a sponge. That's where it really catapulted me into doing this as a living. I learned not only all the cooking skills and techniques, but also how personable he was with the guests. At the time, I remembered being pissed off sometimes; it was the middle of the rush, and he's over here saying hi to all these people. But I think, as you get older, you need to understand, you need to make those connections. It's not just about coming in to eat. It's the whole experience.
The restaurant business is a fickle things – you recently closed Lucky Cat in Lowry. What's your advice for would-be restaurateurs…?
Don't do it!
…and how they can avoid the open one day, closed the next syndrome?
You gotta really have passion for it. There's a lot of people you see go out of business. I don't think they really 100 percent understand the whole business. Because it's one thing to cook or manage or know wine. But to really put all those things together? You make pennies on the dollar so you really have to be thoughtful. I'll be honest: TAG almost closed. I was bleeding money in the beginning. I thought I was the greatest chef. But that's only part of it. It's understanding people, it's understanding the guests. Knowing what to order, how to schedule, what happens when it snows and you've still got to pay everything.
Most successful business people don't just rise to the top without conflict. Most experience some sort of failures on the way – it's how you recover and learn from them that makes you hopefully more successful on the next go-round. Any hugely successful restaurant owner that I look up to has also closed restaurants, be it one, or many. As difficult as it is to pull the plug, you have to be able to do that and say, enough is enough. Now, as we say – on to the next one!
You were at Zengo and 975 — one of my favorite restaurants — and Ocean. What makes Denver the right place for your culinary empire?
I just like to cook what I like to eat, but I’m also very open and asking, what does Denver like to eat? I think we were the first people to do up-scale comfort food, and then Steuben’s happened, and a lot of other places happened. Eating at a diner is so good, but let’s elevate that. In July, we’re opening a restaurant in Highlands called FNG. It’s going to be a take-off of 975, because so many people have said that, we had so much fun, it’s good, the value was there. We want to bring that back.
Which of your restaurants is closest to your heart?
Probably TAG. It’s foodier, food-technician-wise. Cooks go there to train because they want to move up in the ranks. It’s a learning ground. I think you learn more in restaurants than you do in school because you’re hands on, you’re in the moment, there’s a sense of urgency. School is great, but I never went to school. A lot of kids come out, they’ve never worked in a restaurant, and they’ve just spent thousands. And they say, it’s not what I thought it would be.
So do you bounce from restaurant to restaurant?
I do. I don’t necessarily cook on the line every night. But I go to every restaurant every three days. I talk to all the cooks, taste the food, talk to the people. I think that’s very, very important not to lose touch. Maybe people call it micro-managing. But I still want to be there and taste everything.
The service at your restaurants really seems to go above and beyond. Where does that come from?
When we hire people, we don’t always look at your resume. We look at what kind of person are you? I’m not going to hire someone who’s dull or negative. It starts with me, but the backbone of it is our director of operations, Jason Borders. He’s been with us four years now. He’s just an amazing maître d’, he cares for everyone. It’s taken me a long time to understand or realize this, it’s all about people. By the end of the year, we’ll have 600 employees. Each person is different, each person needs to be talked to, we need to do weekly and monthly meetings, and we need to keep them engaged and positive and learning. While the food is obviously important, and the ambiance and the neighborhood, if I don’t have great people, and we don’t work well together, people won’t come back.