20 Under 30: Johnson Tan
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Photo Kevin O'Riley
Owner/executive chef, Ocean Zen and 5 Spice China Grill
Born: May 6, 1981
Ocean Zen is, by almost any measure, Springfield’s most successful restaurant. You might be surprised, then, to know that the man behind the menu is only 27 years old. Classically trained in Scottsdale, Arizona, Johnson Tan was working at nationally known restaurants in the Phoenix area and California (Typhoon, Nobu) in his late teens. In the early ’00s, Tan returned to the Ozarks to work at Chateau Grill in Branson. Then, in 2004, he and brother John opened Ocean Zen. The rest, as they say, is history.
The key to success, Johnson says, is one part food—his specialty is OZ’s Chilean sea bass (“It’s got to be new and trendy,” he says)—and one part party. “And it’s gotta be a good atmosphere. People like to come to Ocean Zen because it’s upscale dining, but not so table-cloth-stuck-up; you can come in a group and be loud.”
That theme has carried over to the Tans’ newest venture, 5 Spice. Johnson grew up around Chinese food (his father owned the Happy Family restaurant on South Campbell), so he knows what he’s doing with the menu. “I want the city to taste real Chinese food, rather than eating at a buffet,” he says.
Johnson and his brother have designs on franchising Ocean Zen, but don’t worry; you’ll keep getting your sea bass straight from the man himself. For now Johnson is enjoying the view from the top of Springfield’s culinary heap, and is always tweaking Ocean Zen to make it more efficient and the food more spectacular. “It’s what I do. I like to create food.”
What is one local restaurant that you do not own but you enjoy?
"We recently ate at Flame for my birthday, and it was phenomenal. Mike Jalili and those guys to a really great job."
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