Meet the Chef: Freddy Nguyen
Denver Poke Company’s Freddy Nguyen
A lot of poke places are franchises, run by entrepreneurs hoping to capitalize on the rise in poke popularity. At Denver Poke Company, things are done differently. “First and foremost, I’m a chef before I’m an owner,” says Freddy Nguyen, owner of Denver Poke Company, a hot little spot on Platte Street near LoHi. “A lot of the things I do, I create because I have that passion for food,” Nguyen says. And that love is apparent in every bite.
The result of his passion is a menu of poke bowls that have more in common with sushi from some of Denver’s top spots—which is where Chef Freddy learned his trade, first as a lead chef at Sushi Den for nine years and later under the tutelage of the masterminds at Matsuhisa in Aspen. Which is to say he knows his fish. We caught up with Freddy the day before his Instagram takeover of @diningoutmagazine’s account to hear what else he knows for sure. Here’s what he had to share.
“All of my experience is in Japanese food, which, like poke, deals with a lot of fish. My poke has a lot of Japanese influence, with Hawaiian as well. All of our sauces are made in-house, and we only use fresh fish.“
Chef Freddy Nguyen
Tell us about the concept behind Denver Poke Company.
I’ve been a sous chef for over 20 years now. I was raised in New Orleans, traveled around and did consulting work. Then I met my wife, and we wanted to start a family. Starting a family is tough and you need both parents to be there and be present. If you’ve ever had restaurant experience, you know it takes long hours, especially for chefs. We work from like nine o’clock in the morning all the way to 10, 11, 12 o’clock at night, sometimes longer. I wanted to do something on my own that didn’t require me to be away for too long. But I didn’t want to venture too far off of what I’m trained in, which is Japanese cuisine and sushi. At the time, poke was coming up in popularity—we’ve been open for like five years now, but at the time when we opened, there were only two other poke places in town. After we opened, a bunch of other poke places popped up.
What is the mission behind Denver Poke Company?
The mission is very simple for me. If you love sushi and you eat sushi, you know it’s very expensive. One person can drop $50-plus very easily at a really nice place. I wanted to create an affordable way to eat your sushi, but in a bowl form that you can take with you. It’s healthy, it’s fresh, it’s gluten-free, it’s for everyone. That’s what I wanted. I wanted everyone to come to eat at my place, whether they have an autoimmune disease or not. I just wanted to make sure that we can take care of everyone.
We get our fish fresh every day, we cut it, and then we serve it. At the end of the day, if we run out, we run out, but we’ve been around for five years so I know how much we tend to need.
Without giving away any of your secrets, what makes Denver Poke Company stand out above the rest?
You know, it’s not a big secret: Use fresh ingredients. Some other poke restaurants claim that they use fresh fish, but a lot of them use frozen fish. And I know that for a fact—it’s not because they don’t want to, though.It’s because fresh fish costs more money than frozen fish. And then if you don’t know how to handle fresh fish or don’t have experience in it, you are gonna waste a lot of money. And with my experience and background in Japanese food and in sushi, I know how to take care of fish and make it taste best.
I want to make sure like we can have something affordable for people. I can eat sushi every day, but I could go to a sushi place by myself and eat like $50 worth and not be full—that would cost $100. But if you come into my place, you get a bowl for around 15 to 20 bucks on average—and you will be full. I have people that come in three, four times a week telling me “I can eat this. I’m healthy, it’s healthy and I’m full afterwards.”
What’s your favorite thing on the menu?
My favorite thing on our menu is the 808. It’s a traditional classic poke, like a Hawaiian poke, but I put a little twist on it—I kind of make it my own, with spicy tuna poke. Our fish is cut into cubes rather than ground up like you’ll find at some poke places, so you actually taste the fish more than the sauces or anything. I want people to taste how fresh the fish is. We don’t drown our bowls in sweet soy or spicy mayo or anything, we use sauce as a condiment, giving people the option. We can add spicy mayo, but we can serve it without any as well.
What does the future look like for Denver Poke Company?
Right now, I’m just working on my brand. That’s why we do all of the events like Top Taco and Rare Steak Fest. At Top Taco, we took second place in the creative. At Rare, in the VIP section “turf” category, we got first place. There’s a demand for it, so I just want to get our name out there.
“I’ll go to Tommy Lee’s restaurants, Uncle or Hop Alley, or to see Jesus Sylvia at Golden Mills or McGregor Square, or Jeff Osaka at Sushi-Rama. Just hang out, see them and catch up, and support them.“
Chef Freddy Nguyen, Denver Poke Company
Where do you like to dine in Denver when you’re not at your restaurant?
I’ve been a chef in Denver for a very long time now, so I usually go see my friends that have restaurants and support a lot of the chefs that I know. I’ll go to Tommy Lee’s restaurants Uncle or Hop Alley, or to see Jesus Sylvia at Golden Mills or McGregor Square, or Jeff Osaka at Sushi-Rama. Just hang out, see them and catch up, and support them. They’ve been around, and they’re my good friends too, and they helped me when I was just starting. So I want to pay that back as well.
What did people see during your Instagram takeover of @diningout?
A day in the life of a parent owning a business—a restaurant. My wife was out of town, and we have two kids, ages four and six. I usually wake up in the morning and get them ready then take them to school then, you know, go buy stuff for the shop and then go to work after that and go pick them up when I’m done at the shop and then the rest of my days with them.