Kesta writer Kala Fryman interviews Zengo DC's Chef de Cuisine, Jason Streiff
Before my tasting at Zengo DC, I had the opportunity sit and chat with Chef de Cuisine Jason Streiff. Chef Jason was extremely humble and welcoming, and gave me a lot of great insight on Zengo’s culinary concept as well as his own love for food. Chef Jason and the Zengo staff are very passionate about what they do, and it’s not only apparent from talking to them, but also from tasting the food! Zengo’s dishes are expertly created and executed to create an elevated and unique dining experience. I will definitely be returning, especially for brunch!
KH: What is your background? How long have you been a chef, and how long have you been at Zengo?
JS: I’m from Northern Virginia, and went to University of Arizona after high school. I always knew I wanted to cook, so I left University of Arizona and enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America in New York. I worked in restaurants in New York City for five years (Union Square Café to name one), but came back to the area around 2009 to be closer to my mom and began working at Zengo then. Zengo is a great fit for me, I love to cook Latin and Asian foods at home. I love the diversity in DC/Northern Virginia, and while growing up here I was exposed to a lot of different kinds of foods and flavors. My mother, though, is the main reason I got interested in cooking. She is a single mother and always had dinner cooked for us each night. As I got older and learned how to cook, I began preparing a few dinners each week for us to share.
KH: Have you traveled in Latin America and/or Asia for culinary inspiration?
JS: Not yet, but I hope I will have the opportunity to do so with the company in the near future. I pull from flavors and techniques from past jobs and personal cooking interests, and also actively seek the experience from people who have visited those regions or are from there. For example, one of my sous chefs here at Zengo is Peruvian, so I will ask him for input on Peruvian or South American inspired dishes. I really love to learn from fellow chefs and cooks, whether its here in the restaurant or at the Zengo test kitchen. Every quarter all of the Zengo chefs gather in the test kitchen and pick one Latin and one Asian country to create a special menu, the current one being Japan-Mexico. There is a lot of creative license and a lot to play around with here in terms of flavors and techniques-- Latin America and Asia are huge regions with a lot of possibilities in food.
KH: What is the inspiration behind Zengo’s Latin and Asian fusion concept?
JS: We tend to stray away from calling Zengo’s food a fusion. Really it’s as simple as the fact that Asian and Latin flavors are very bold and work well together, as do cooking techniques found in those regions. For example, we serve several sushi rolls but with Latin ingredients. We also have regional items at each Zengo location, and one of the best Cubano sandwiches in my opinion!
KH: What does the name Zengo mean?
JS: Zengo means ‘give and take’ in Japanese and we really promote sharing and togetherness here. Our menu has a lot of small plates that are meant for sharing and we make it easy to add on an extra taco or two for example so everyone in a group can try the dish. We have a flowing kitchen for such a large restaurant, which allows everyone at a table to try and enjoy each other’s food while waiting for the next dish to come out. We can accommodate large parties here and also participate in DC Restaurant Week, as well as, other activities in the neighborhood such as the Chinese New Year celebration.
KH: What is your favorite thing to cook or eat when you’re off the clock?
JS: I love pho and eat it once per week at a great place in Reston. They know me there and I don’t even need to order anymore. I also love tacos, and I frequent my local Indian spot.
KH: What would you recommend someone to try on their first time at Zengo?
Zengo's Chinese Braised Beef Short Ribs
JS: Definitely come to brunch! $35 for bottomless drinks and food. Other than that, I would recommend some of our signature dishes if someone is intimidated by the menu or not such an adventurous eater; for example our Thai chicken empanadas or the Chinese braised beef short ribs if they are more of a meat and potatoes kind of person. The regional dishes like the pan roasted rockfish and chipotle miso glazed black cod are also very popular. One of our most reordered items is the shrimp taco, which is made with never processed or frozen day boat shrimp. The charred tuna and duck confit tacos are also signature starters that people love.
Avocado panna cotta with fruit salad.
Read more about Zengo in the February issue of Kesta Happening. Also visit http://www.richardsandoval.com/zengodc/index.php for more information on menus, making reservations and contacting the restaurant.