Colorado-born Travis Masar is currently dwelling in Philadelphia, where he's the head chef at modern Asian Sampan Restaurant. He filled us in on the roots behind his Top Chef nickname Captain Vietnam, spilled about his desire to cook more Italian food at home, and predicted Denver's food headlines for 2014.
What got Captain Vietnam interested in Asian cooking? What got me into Asian food was not knowing what authentic Asian food was. Growing up in La Junta exposed me to American Chinese food— which i like to this day— but it is not the same as authentic Chinese cuisine. Because I was older when exposed to authentic Asian cuisine, I could appreciate them more and I think it really helped open my eyes. My interest in Asian cuisine comes from the techniques such cuisines employ; Asian techniques are so different from French techniques (which is what I was originally trained in).
How did you go about learning about Asian cuisine? I learned Asian cooking techniques by going and visiting Asia with friends. I would watch my friends' grandmothers, aunts, and cousins cook in their kitchens. I also worked for a Vietnamese wedding catering company in Denver that catered only traditional Viet weddings. I always asked questions, and was always interested in learning the real way to cook Vietnamese food.
What's in store for you food-wise in your professional life? I am the head chef at Sampan Restaurant in Philly. Its a great restaurant and a great opportunity, giving me the chance to work in an environment I normally wouldn't. The company I am with has a few things in the works so it should be a good year.
And [food-wise] in your personal life? I am planning a trip to Asia, hoping maybe either South Korea or China. I really want to start cooking more Italian food at home. Watching a few of the chefs on the show and just being out here on the east coast has really made me want to cook more traditional Italian food. My passion is still Asian food, but I guess its always good to mix things up a bit.
What's your take on Denver's food scene? I really love Colorado and Denver's Asian food scene because of its diversity. Everyone knows that a trip to Federal boulevard exposes you to Vietnamese, Chinese, and Thai food. You can head to Aurora or Arvada for some really awesome Korean food. Of course, you cannot forget getting authentic, country styled Japanese food at Doma.
I think Denver is really catching up to the rest of the country on its modern side. I think since Uncle has open it has shown Denver, and the surrounding areas, that Colorado is ready for the change. I cannot wait to see where it goes and hopefully I can come back to something awesome.
What Denver restaurants are you looking forward to trying? Mercantile Dinning and Provisions and Babette's Artisan Breads. When I was home last I had the opportunity to try Acorn and Voodoo Doughnuts, which were awesome.
We asked some Denver restaurant writers to predict 2014's food-related headlines and trends. What are your predictions? I feel like some of the Denver trends are the restaurant/market and also really highlighting farm to table dinning. Also, I think Denver will see a bit more of casual style service places where they might be playing louder music, and its more of a fast pace environment but still really awesome food at great prices.
Top Chef's Travis Masar Working at Sampan [Eater Philly]
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Travis Masar [Photo: phillymag.com]