Chef Duy Pham opens new location for Japanese food spot Hana Matsuri

Chef Duy Pham almost left the restaurant industry altogether when he departed from his executive chef role at For[a]ged in the Dairy Block three months ago.

“I’m kind of at that age where I need to do this because I love to do this. or I need to do less of it before I no longer like the industry, which was where I was headed,” he said.

Luckily, the Vietnamese chef, who rose to local restaurant industry fame in his 20s while working for now-shuttered restaurants like The Normandy and Tante Louise, decided to stick around. Pham has now partnered with restaurateurs Steve and Jessie Liu on a third Hana Matsuri, a Japanese fusion restaurant with locations in Westminster and Lakewood.

But Pham has put his own flair on the new spot, which opened last month at 658 S. Colorado Blvd. in Glendale. He’s started an omakase program (only at this location) for $150 per person with 20 or more rotating items on the menu each night, depending on what fresh fish and seafood he can get his hands on.

“The second I walked into the restaurant, it felt right,” Pham said. “I finally felt like I was home.”

Before his new gig, Pham was tired of the monotonous routine of daily restaurant life, especially when he was tied to a set menu at For[a]ged. So during his brief hiatus, he made custom furniture and knives, catered a few special events and sold Pokemon cards to subsidize his income.

“The problem was, it’s stressful,” he said about those part-time gigs. “At least at For[a]ged, I knew every single week I would have a paycheck.” But now, “I wasn’t creating or making people happy like I used to. There’s no instant gratification for furniture or knives. I kind of lost my purpose.”

When Pham was ready to get back out there, he had a line of opportunities waiting for him, some of which were out of state, which he said was out of the question. “I’ve basically been here my whole life, and that’s not something I’d compromise, no matter how much money I was making,” he said. Other roles were just a bit too corporate for his liking as a hands-on chef.

When Pham got in touch with Steve Liu — who also owns Land of Sushi in Centennial and Kyoto Ramen in downtown Denver — he was initially trying to help a friend land a job as a sushi chef. But when Liu heard that Pham was a free agent, he decided to create a position just for him.

Pham is now part-owner of Kyoto Ramen in LoDo, helping the Lius revamp the menu, as well as Hana Matsuri’s Glendale location.

“[Steve] told me I could do my food, make people happy and create, and that’s exactly what I wanted to do,” Pham said. “It’s a dream I don’t have to worry about labor costs, food costs or someone calling out sick. I felt like losing my purpose ended up helping me find my real one.”

Pham’s omakase menu changes every night. Whether sitting at the sushi bar or a table, guests can indulge in at least 20 courses of delicate creations, like bluefin tuna with seared foie gras and truffles or a smoked tomato, lobster and Dungeness crab bisque. He’s using his own Vietnamese upbringing, plus classic French and Japanese cooking techniques to turn whatever quality ingredients he can get his hands on into an experience for the guest, whether that’s A5 wagyu from Japan, uni from Santa Barbra and Japan, live scallops, razor clams, lobsters or oysters.

“This is the first time I’ve worked with an owner that has experience as a chef, so he understands me and my vision,” Pham said. “Having an owner who cares more about the quality of the food and product than the bottom line is so refreshing.

Whatever he doesn’t use on the omakase menu, Pham will make a daily special out of the ingredients. For example, one day he was craving a tuna fish salad sandwich after buying a whole bluefin tuna, so he made his own upscale version on some Japanese milk bread, and guests were able to order it later that night. “Our specials sheet alone has more dishes than most restaurants’ menus,” Pham said. He said the response from clientele has been great, and he’s already letting some of his regulars help plan his specials for weeks ahead.

“I’ve been in the industry so long, and when I was young and hungry, I would put in 14 to 16-hour days,” Pham said. “But the more experience I had in the industry, the fewer hours I wanted to work. Now, they’re not making me work long hours, but I look forward to putting in those 16-hour days like I used to, and I’m having dreams about food just like I did when I was younger.”

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