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Asia Research Trip

I knew I was getting close to embarking on a 3 week R&D trip through Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, and South Korea with a few of our SRG leaders, when I was sitting at the clinic with my wife less than a week out trying to get shots. The doctor told me that it was too late to get mosquito shots but not to worry because “you most likely won’t die when you get dengue fever – you’ll just feel like you’re dying for several months”.

Now that we are back I am proud to report that nobody has gone into disease related shock, we are all safe and sound, and travelled very well together. Besides having to find a dentist to help GG with an infected tooth from some surgery he had prior to our trip – everything went as smoothly as a journey like that can. By the way – for $35 US dollars in Vietnam – you can get a full-service experience at a top-notch modern dentist office including: x-rays, diagnosis, treatment and medicine. That tells you something about how health care in America has gone awry. We will leave that topic for a future newsletter.

What a trip it was! Every day we had multiple lifetime experiences. Of course, we did things that average tourists couldn’t given our industry connections, and many things that you couldn’t buy if you had all the money in the world. And besides eating and drinking our faces off everywhere we went, we dove deep. We learned and built new perspectives on the countries, people, culture, histories, religions, traditions, economic drivers, geographies and overall life everywhere we went. We asked as many questions as we could and built and forged relationships with people that will carry through for the rest of our lives.

I’m confident that when we open Departure Cherry Creek this summer the team is going to knock it out of the park, in addition to the Departure Portland team introducing new and exciting things. And, as an enterprise – we will continue to bear fruit for years in our other businesses from everything we learned and brought back with us.

So this month I wanted to do something different, share our trip with you through some perspectives from the group, as well as a link to a slideshow (with commentary) as we journeyed through Southeast Asia.



If anyone has questions or wants to know more, please reach out to me directly @ Have a great month, see you in April!


P.S. If you are on social media you can follow our journey via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, by “searching” the following #hashtags that we used to document our research.

#srgabroad #ggisglobal #japan #toyko #thailand #seoul  #southkorea #cnTravelerEats #vietnam #jookjanyeon #pohang #gochujang #vietnamfood #phuquoc #phuquocisland #redboatfishsauce #hochiminhcity #monngon #TLPicks #chiangmai #coffee #gg30000 #TLPicks #instatravel  #tourism  #wanderlust  #bangkok

A few takeaways:

Top experiences that evoked change in your thinking because of the trip?

MG (Megan McGinness, General Manager of Departure Cherry Creek): Be a better host! We encountered some of the most amazing and kind people on our journey throughout S.E. Asia. The people that hosted us took several days off of work to show us around, make us feel at home and really show off where they were from. They even put up with our grueling eating schedule (every 2 hours) and didn’t judge us or back out. Their commitment of time and hospitality will change how I view not only my guests from out of town, but being present in everyday life.

GG (Greg Gourdet, Executive Chef of Departure Portland and Culinary Director of the Departure brand): To find true understanding, you must know the story behind your food- it is very often richer and more complex than you think.

MCT (Michael Carr-Turnbough, SRG Corporate VP of Culinary Operations): I think one of the many top experiences was the fact that so many restaurants, food stalls, and vendors had a singular focus and specialized in one or two items. We visited several restaurants that focused on one item or cooking style. It could be grilled fish, soba, ramen or bahn mi and what they did they did amazingly well. Many of the street vendors either sold pineapple, coconut or mango, chicken, pork or fish, but they did not sell anything else, just those items at the peak of freshness and flavor.

PK: Toto Neorest Washlets! Where have you been all my life?

List any “hospitality” or “service” related experiences that were meaningful to you and that can be adapted for Departure Denver?

GG: We were greeted with an above and beyond level of hospitality in hosted countries. Our tour of Red Boat Fish Sauce in Vietnam and Jook Jang Yeon Miso Farm in Korea involved door to door car service and endless hosted meals, including home cooked. Our hosts completely dedicated themselves to us for the time we were together with utterly attentive information delivery about culture and history. And departing gifts.

MG: Hospitality does not take a common language or a translator, only relevance and intent. We spent a day at Red Boat Fish Sauce, on an island off the coast of Vietnam. We had a guide that was our translator, however, the rest of the people we spent the day with spoke Vietnamese. Their home was located where there factory was and from the moment we arrived, we were made to feel like we lived there as well, but better, no dishes after lunch! From the meal they prepared, learning the local toast in Vietnamese to our day trip on the fishing boat to the Gulf of Thailand. There were so many examples of true hospitality on this one single day, offering a nap in their hammocks after our flight in, to swimming cold beverages out on a life jacket for us to enjoy while we were swimming. The only intent was to make us comfortable and provide a unique experience.

In Seoul Korea, after a late dinner, we decided to check out a bar that Brandon Wise had told us about before we departed. Upon arrival we were greeted warmly and offered a table and our coats to be checked. Once we entered, it was literally like we transcended into a different realm. The music was perfect, volume was high and the wait staff and bartenders all seemed to be choreographed to the energy of the music. We were greeted immediately and given a cocktail menu. A few minutes after this, we were greeted by the head bartender that inquired if we needed any further detail on the menu and cocktails. Our drinks arrived quickly, the stemware was beautiful, the drinks perfectly balanced and everything was done with a very warm smile and a true interest of making our experience amazing. There was no sense of being overly attended to, just the sense that we would always have what we needed to have a great night.

PK: I fell in love with the “blessings and good wishes upon others prayer bowls” at the Buddhist temples. I also was amazed at how everyone we met took such pride in what they did and the country and cities that they lived in. You would have thought they all worked for the department of travel & tourism. They didn’t take anything for granted, feel like they were entitled to anything, and went about each day like the glass was half full and it might be their last.

Top ingredients that inspired you to duplicate or innovate on for Departure Denver?

GG: Doenjang- Korean organic fermented soy bean paste, Korean organic soy sauce, gochujiang- fermented Korean chili paste. Crispy edged onion studded Mung Bean pancakes in Korea, Fermented Rice Corn and Coconut Pudding in Thailand, Herring Coconut Onion Salad in Vietnam, Grilled Dried Fish in Japan.

KM (Khamla Vongsakoun, Executive Chef of Departure Cherry Creek): The single most important factor I gained from this trip is the appreciation for simplicity in terms of ingredients and flavor profile. The meals that impacted me the most wasn’t the Michelin multi-star meals as it was just the home cooking including the Red Boat Factory and the Jang Soybean Factory. It was the least complicated dishes that was made for the group on this trip that helped me regain the admiration for ingredient first philosophy in cooking.

Every country we had the opportunity to explore was a lifetime experience having a well-traveled and knowledgeable tour guide almost every step of the way. Learning about the agriculture, politics, infrastructure, and traditions gave way to the understanding of the culture. Although every cuisine were amazing in its own way, I have a bias towards the Thai flavors and the amazing balance of spice, sour, sweet, salty and its seductive flavors. The larbs, hearty noodle soups, spicy Thai salads, and curries led the way with full bold and in your face flavors. With this thought, my focus with these dishes moving forward will be to keep the recipes true to its culture as much a possible with a slight change in presentations. No need to change what generations have perfected.

My personal highlights:
1. Herring Ceviche- red boat fish sauce, lime juice, shredded coconut, basil, mint and chili (a clean dish with the herring being the highlight with a touch of acid and fresh herbs to round it all off)

2. Grilled Snapper- red boat fish sauce, lime juice, honey, chili, garlic (the fish sauce and sugar heightened the fish giving it a smoky BBQ flavor but not overpowering the snapper)

3. Grilled pork and beef at the Jang soybean factory- plain grilled meats with the Gochujang (fermented chili soybean paste) and the Doenjang (fermented soybean paste) doing the talking. Two ingredients out of the jar that hasn’t been basterdized in any way is used to enhance the grilled meats. Simple but full of flavor. We had the same grilled meats elsewhere with different gochujang and doenjang that was nowhere as good as the Jang factory bean paste.

4. Steamed Konagai Oyster from Nagasaki- simply steamed with a tomato dashi. Oyster was paired with the subtle flavors of a tomato infused dashi.

5. Chutoro Negiri-Chutoro (a medium fatty cut from the belly) on top of short grained rice with red rice wine vinegar.

6. I had quite an experience with a market octopus. CHECK OUT THE VIDEO HERE!

MCT: Tons of great ingredients and inspiring ingredients, too many to list but if I had to pick one, I think the aged pork we tasted in Seoul was very intriguing and delicious and something we could work with. I also was very intrigued by all of the fish roe from several different species available.

PK: Although we ate; grilled whale, poached pig brains, smoked rattlesnake, coagulated blowfish sperm, undigested water buffalo stomach tartar, dog, lots of fried bugs, and live octopus – a few things that stood out to me was the overall spices and aromatics added to everything in Thailand, the fresh fish and ramen’s in Tokyo, all of the tropical fruits, the Banh Mi’s in Vietnam, and the grilled meats in Korea. The simple, clean, fresh and complimentary ingredient combinations blew me away.

Any specific learnings you had about “team” traveling, or key things you learned about one another?

MG: I learned a lot about each person that I traveled with. First thing I learned about travel in general…..Don’t underestimate the value of a bed over a redeye flight…’s not the same.

Here are a few things about my travel partners:
• There is only one fish in the entire world that MCT doesn’t recognize, I witnessed it!! (Still undetermined, maybe nobody knows!) His knowledge is truly remarkable.

Peter is GENUINELY that excited about life!!

GG has the ability to make connections anywhere in the world, his engaging personality set us up to be loved and hosted of wherever we journeyed.

Khamla is living proof that “Not all who wander are lost” in the literal sense. Whether it was boarding a plane, getting a seat at a restaurant or cruising a market, the words “where’s Khamla” were often said. He was never far and always on time.

MCT: To be honest it was amazingly smooth sailing. GG is very popular; we had fantastic contacts and guides in every city, Khamla wanders (very self-sufficient), Megan is very good at logistics and planning and Peter asks everyone all the questions you would want to ask them so you don’t have to! Also, both of the Chefs know an extraordinary amount about a wide variety of Asian cuisines. I was very impressed with the breadth and depth of their knowledge.

GG: You have to be a workaholic to work for Sage. 😉

PK: All you have to do to work for Sage is Be Hungry For Life, and be committed to being the Best in the World at what we do! 😉 We have a company of people that I can only describe as salt-of-the-earth, caring, and insanely great.

MCT truly is definitely “The Professor”, “The Patient One”, and The Protector”. The protector because we were in a giant open market in Thailand, he noticed a few guys (including a corrupt police officer) who were about to try to steal MG’s engagement ring off her finger – and jumped in between them and gave them the stink eye. Instead of picking a fight, he asked them if they could help him with directions!

GG, MCT and KM have forgotten more about Asian food, the ingredients, and preparation styles than I could ever know – even if I spent the rest of my life studying it.

• I am not going to offer to take MG “glamping” anytime soon. She sure can appreciate and knows all about style, sophistication, good tastes, uber-hospitality, and the good life!

• If you want to get stopped everywhere you go for pictures and autographs, grow a mohawk, get a huge smile, laugh a lot, and 25,000 Instagram followers like GG. That guy should run for office with the United Nations if he ever gets tired of being an amazing chef.

• We left with 5 and came back with 4. KM flew back to Singapore after we finished up in South Korea and got married. I’m not joking. That is definitely a topic for a future newsletter!

KM can grant more blind trust to anyone I have ever met. We were out on a sardine fishing boat in the Gulf of Thailand, and had anchored a couple hundred yards from shore. The rest of us had already jumped into the open ocean, which was pretty deep, to start swimming to where we could stand. Khamla is standing on the bow of the pitching boat, like 10 feet above the water line, and says to me and MCT “I can’t swim, but if I jump in, will you guys make sure I don’t drown? And help me get to shallower water. Is that OK and can you do that for me?” Amazing! I learned a lot from that experience. And, of course it wasn’t until later that we found out there were lifejackets on the boat!

List any cultural influences that impacted you.

MCT: The love and passion for food in every culture was amazing, the locals almost live to eat, food is everywhere. One item for me that left a lasting imprint were all of the amazing markets we visited with food, beverages and local goods for miles and miles in every city. Very hard to explain without seeing it and something unfortunately we could never do in this country do to all of the regulations and politics. And those markets are where the locals go to shop for their homes, to buy their produce, meats, seafood and condiments to cook with. I would be remiss if I did not mention the hospitality, it was overwhelming how amazingly kind and gracious almost everyone we met were. (Except the commuters in Seoul, a bit aggressive in the subway – it was game on, like hallway hockey getting from one place to the other).

GG: People in the countries we visited have very strong grasps on their cultural heritage. Maybe more so than we do about American cultural heritage. Preserving tradition is important in the countries we visited. America is very focused on moving “forward”.

PK: I was fascinated about how the governmental and political landscape in each country has had such a profound impact on every aspect of life. How those places have grown and evolved over the years into how they currently live and breathe based upon the political structures, views and histories.

Cooking methods, vessels, presentations that excited and enticed you to learn and use or innovate upon for Departure Denver?

MCT: Gregory mentioned the soup tureens that were definitely something. What I did see were tons of adaptations to the Konro grills we use for our kushiyaki items. There were A-frames and mechanical spinners to roast the meats on some of them. (see picture)

GG: Tom Yum soup pot in Thailand. This raised, heated metal vessel is a great shared dish piece.

PK: Hot towels, chopsticks that are beautiful and functional, meats cooked over burning hay, square watermelons, albino strawberries, and NO TIPPING policies! You’ll have to come to Departure to see some other surprises for yourself in the next few months!