Zengo's Clint Wangsnes on black garlic, his last meal and Denver's really bad Mexican food
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.