The incoming chef at Zentan is a Vietnam native with a finance degree from Rutgers University who impressed her new employer when she was asked to prepare sushi from scratch for a second interview. Jennifer Nguyen told Kimpton Restaurants she needed three weeks – to get the vinegar for her rice started.
Given that 50 percent of Zentan’s food sales are from raw fish and vinegared rice, “I needed a chef that understood sushi,” says Danny Bortnick, Kimpton’s D.C. director of restaurant operations.
Nguyen, 42, brings a broad resume to the downtown restaurant. She has worked at the French-themed Bouchon in Las Vegas and the Japanese-accented Morimoto in Philadelphia. Before coming to Washington, she cooked at the now-dark Mizu Prime Steak & Sushi in Austin.
When Nguyen unveils her new menu in May, it is expected to include more interactive dishes, including designer beef cooked on Japanese river stones, and Thai accents including house-made curries.
Zentan opened in the Donovan House Hotel with the guidance of Toronto chef Susur Lee in 2009. Last April, the San Francisco-based Kimpton took over the property. By mutual agreement, the busy celebrity chef and the restaurant and hotel company are parting ways at the end of the month, says Bortnick, who is also executive chef at Firefly in Dupont Circle.
“It’s not a broken concept,” he says. “Zentan is a very busy restaurant.” But “for me, a restaurant should always be an evolution.” Zentan was “a concept moving sideways.”
Nguyen has her work cut out for her. Bortnick says his ultimate goal is for Zentan to be “one of the top five Asian restaurants in the city.”