Chef Sam Auen is a force of nature
It may be impossible to capture Sam Auen and his outsized personality with just words.
And not only is black and white an inadequate palette to capture this life and his, let's say, colorful language, newsprint hardly seems made to withstand the philosophical, emotional, conversational and culinary tsunami that is Sam Auen.
He has earned an almost cult-like following in metro Des Moines for his restaurant Tacopocalypse and his brand of boundary-less food. His next project, Krunkwich Ramen House, will open "sometime before Jan. 15," and an unnamed River Bend-area pizza place is slated to open next summer.
Both are the subject of much drooling and pining from his legions of Facebook and Twitter followers. And there is a cookbook in the works, which he described like this: "Imagine if you opened the book, and it was like hanging out with me. It'll be like that."
Auen also has caught the eye of Food Network's "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives" host Guy Fieri, and will be featured on that show Jan. 16. Fieri has invited Auen to Santa Rosa, Calif., to celebrate his birthday and "hang out with some Food Network people," Auen said. The invitation seems wholly in keeping with the chef's unconventional life.
Since we have only words, to get a better feel for the perfect storm that is Auen, imagine you're reading this through the lens of a kaleidoscope. During a tornado. Naked. A few bright shards might shed some light.
And that may be the closest you'll get to understanding a man who is both scary smart and has been prone to doing dumb things; who guards himself with an armor of tattoos, a prodigious beard and a lot (a lot) of cursing, but speaks freely about his lowest moments; who waded through years of an anti-storybook life and is now working on a chapter in which he finally gets to be the hero.
Years spent as drinker, womanizer
When Auen uses the words "drinker and womanizer" to describe himself, he's speaking of his teenage years, although a vein of that kind of crazy still runs in him — just a little deeper and a little less dangerously.
"I was that punk rock, skater dude, metal head guy," he said.
He started his culinary career as a teenager, cooking at Eggrolls Etc. in Denison. It was just a typical teen sort of job then, but it's also where he learned about the Korean flavors that are the hallmark and wonder of Auen's food. "That's where I learned to make bulgogi and kimchi," he said.
By the time he was 18, Auen had a son and figured it was time to earn a real living, so he joined the Army, where he spent three years stationed at Fort Campbell in Tennessee. While this fact might strain the credulity of anyone who has met Auen, he said he learned a lot.
"The military was helpful in transferring to kitchen work," Auen said wryly. "I got used to being screamed at."
By the late '90s, after the death of his father, Auen was caught in a long downward spiral that included a divorce and substance abuse. When his father died, Auen was — because fate has a wicked sense of humor — working at a Taco Bell. ("Boom! The taco story begins!")
Three more kids, more partners and more restaurant jobs later, Auen still has a fondness for good whiskey, but life is more sane, and Auen is a different sort of man. And while he is not on the wagon per se, he says, these days he at least walks beside it.
'Lifelong protester,' who keeps learning
Thanks to Auen's maternal grandmother, with whom he spent a lot of time, little-boy Auen spent many hours with Julia Child and Jeff Smith and other television chefs. By the time he was 6, he said, he had a pancake recipe. "It was great. My mom called me Chef Boyar-Sam."
Larry Cleverley, who owns Cleverley Farms in Mingo and is a Downtown Farmers' Market fixture and produce supplier to many local restaurants, got to know Auen when Auen was cooking at Café di Scala.
"He has interesting ideas about food — and about other things — and he always wanted to soak up knowledge. I really admire that," Cleverley said. After tasting some Tacopocalypse fare at Auen's popular Taco Tuesdays at the Cumming Tap in Cumming (the moniker of which earned him a "cease and desist" letter from attorneys for Taco John's), Cleverley invited him to cook tacos at his farmers' market stand.
"He really got some momentum from that — he sold a lot of tacos," Cleverley said. "Then he got his own stand."
As has happened many times in Auen's career, he butted heads with the show-runners ("I'm a lifelong protester," Auen said) and left the market.
"Sam is a person of extremes, but I've never had a cross word with him. He is who he is," Cleverley said. "I like him. I've always liked him."
Auen addressed his hotheaded tendencies with a shrug.
"I've made some enemies, but I feel like I've grown up," especially in the past few years, he said. "I believe in what I'm thinking … and that can lead to some heated moments."
But however strong Auen's tempestuous yang, the vulnerable yin of him seems nearly equal.
"My first night cooking on the line at Centro, I cried. I went outside and had a cigarette and teared up. I was thinking, 'I'm never going to be able to do this,' " he remembered. "The second night, I kept my tears in until I got home. I sat down on my ... futon and cried. I mean, I survived the military. This was that hard."
"I've always been a passionate and moody person," Auen said. "But it's leveled out some now." Today, he said, tears are more likely of the grateful variety. He owns up to getting a little teary when people come in and gush about his food.
Ideas keep coming for menus, eateries
Auen's falling out with the market folks was one of the catalysts that led to the Tacopocalypse storefront and Auen's other in-the-works projects. But his prodigious talent in the kitchen was noticed long before, in other kitchens.
During his stint at Beggars Banquet (a defunct deli that was ahead of its time), Auen, a vegan then, pushed vegan choices way before vegan was cool. When he went to Centro, he took the vegan message there, where chef George Formaro was eager to hear it.
"He showed me that vegan can be interesting," Formaro said. "I always really liked the flavors he put together, and to this day, one of my favorite soups is a sundried tomato-chickpea that he makes."
But one day, it dawned on Formaro to wonder: If Auen was vegan, how did he taste all the food sent out of the Centro kitchen? Tasting is an unbreakable rule for chefs — most chefs anyway.
As Auen recalls the scene: "George came in the kitchen, and he said, 'You don't taste as you're cooking?!' "
"It's crazy," Formaro said, "that he was a vegan and he was turning out all this great non-vegan food without tasting it," still sounding disbelieving. "Maybe someone else tasted it for him?" ("Nope," Auen said.)
In fact, Auen seems to have a little of the same kind of (good) crazy that Formaro has. The kind that makes you carry a notebook around to capture ideas when they occur (and they're always occurring), and create menus for restaurants that don't yet exist, and think about the next step before this one is complete.
To wit: Don't expect Krunkwich to stay in the same Des Moines Street location that used to house Tacopocalypse.
"That spot is going to be my incubator," Auen said with a mischievous look.
Formaro has watched Auen's growth — both personal and professional — with pleasure. People "are incomplete," Formaro said. "If we're lucky and open to it, we get to change and grow. It's people who think they are 'done' that I worry about.
"Sam has always known that he's a work in progress."
LIVES: Des Moines
EDUCATION: Denison High School
CAREER: Owner, Tacopocalypse and soon-to-open Krunkwich Ramen House (plus a pizza restaurant to open in July 2015), 2010-present; co-wrote and starred in "Crowding the Pan," a cooking show on Channel 8.2, 2013; chef de cuisine at Zen, 2009-2010 (now closed); Centro and Gateway Market, 2006-2009; Beggars Banquet (now closed) and Café di Scala, 2004-2006; earlier jobs in cooking and restaurant management.
FAMILY: Four children
15 PEOPLE TO WATCH IN 2015
These are central Iowans in business, arts, nonprofits, civic activism and nonelected government positions who are expected to make a difference in their fields of endeavor in 2015. Readers were invited to submit nominations. Selections were made by Des Moines Register editors and reporters. Look for profiles daily through Jan. 4.
Earlier profiles: At DesMoinesRegister.com/PeopletoWatch, see profiles of Greg Edwards, president and CEO of the Greater Des Moines Convention & Visitors Bureau; Gilbert Vicario, senior curator at the Des Moines Art Center; Des Moines Police Officer Kelly Drane; developer Richard Hurd; Marvin DeJear Jr., director of the Evelyn K. Davis Center for Working Families; Jennie Smith, owner of Butcher Crick Farms and a sales manager at Kemin Industries; Stephanie Jenks, one of the world's top young triathletes; Nate Noble, a pediatrician who specializes in treating children with developmental disorders; Harrison Inefuku, digital repository coordinator at Iowa State University; Jeff Kaufmann, chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa; Blake Rupe, founder of Re-App; Scott Sanders, Des Moines city manager; Benjamin Ullem, Drake University Law School dean; and Kenia Calderon, a Drake University student who helps other young immigrants pursue higher education.
Year in review: Look back at 2014 at DesMoinesRegister.com/YearInReview.