Behind the Scenes: Denver’s farmhouse-style an epicurean revolution
May 8, 2013
Editor's note: This is the first installment in a two-part series. Check back next week to read the final story.
Ah, mud season. That time in the mountains when the snow melts, tourists disappear and restaurants close. This year the restaurants closed and the tourists disappeared. We just can't get rid of the snow! Needing a little more oxygen and sunshine, I decided it was time to descend 3,000 feet to Denver to explore the red-hot dining scene there.
No restaurant sizzles more in Denver now than Old Major, the latest brainchild of epicurean entrepreneur Justin Brunson. Situated in the increasingly gentrified Highlands neighborhood a few blocks from its sister dining spot, Masterpiece Delicatessen, Old Major serves farmhouse cuisine. Masterpiece serves up "fine dining between two slices of bread." Old Major refines the rough edges of farmhouse cuisine to create a fine dining experience in a warm, casual, "deformalized" setting.
Only two months old, the pork-centric restaurant fills up the seven nights a week it's open. With the restaurant's buzz reaching all the way to Vail Valley, it seemed the perfect spot for more behind the scenes experimental food research.
Porcine led revolution
Re-reading George Orwell's 1945 classic allegory "Animal Farm" was unusual preparation for a culinary article. However, there is a connection. Orwell tells of an aptly named prized boar, Old Major, who foments revolution to overthrow capitalist humans on Manor Farm. Culinary revolutionary Brunson latched onto the name when one of his investors, Ben Parsons of Infinite Monkey Theorem Winery, suggested it. He even displays paintings of "Animal Farm's" main characters in the bar area.
Far from being anti-capitalistic, Brunson's "whole-animal program" and return to scratch cooking is revolutionary in today's modern mass-produced food industry.
Brunson garnered a good deal of press recently given Old Major's much ballyhooed arrival. Diners are even taking time to write tomes on TripAdvisor, describing every aspect of Old Major's food, service and ambiance. Working beside these epicurean experts in their perfectly designed kitchen provided me perspective that an interview and a few minutes of observation couldn't reveal. Eleven hours gave me the proverbial fly-on-a-wall opportunity to soak in every detail about the kitchen. Ok, not a good metaphor, but you get my point.
To meet Brunson is to experience the essence of Old Major. Therefore, before I take you behind the scenes, let's meet this visionary restaurateur.
Corn fields to mountains
Chef Brunson hails from Iowa. Just like the transplanted Cajuns who never forget the taste of fresh Gulf seafood, Brunson carried his love of farmhouse cooking from his Midwest roots to Denver. Between Iowa and Denver came an intermediate stop in Scottsdale, Arizona. Culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts, which provided him with tools needed for his transcendental gastronomic revolution.
You may consider "passion" an overused term, but how else can I describe the emotion that creating and enjoying food evokes in someone who views it not merely as alimentation or a job, but as a lifestyle? When something consumes every fiber of someone's being what else can we call it? If you have a suggestion, I'd love to hear it. For the meantime, let's just say that every person who relies on Brunson for a paycheck shares that passion. It's a key job requirement.
After culinary school, Brunson joined Michael's at the Citadel. At the time, Chef Michael DeMaria's restaurant was considered one of the best in the country, a great training ground for what was to come. Something, however, was missing in Scottsdale, urging Brunson to journey onward.
When Brunson explained why he chose Denver, I couldn't write fast enough. As the flood of descriptive words about his adopted home state flowed, Brunson sounded not like the childhood visitor who eventually settled here — as he did — but as a native whose Colorado pride is unshakable. Along with his love of camping, fishing, and Denver's "big-city-with-small-town-vibes," the music scene also drew Brunson to Denver. He's "really into music" and Red Rocks provides endless opportunities to enjoy concerts and nature at the same time.
Ten years have passed since Colorado's allure drew Brunson to Denver. Brunson was Richard Sandoval's opening sous chef at Zengo in Denver's LoDo district. He then worked five years for the dynamic duo of the Denver dining scene, Frank and Jacqueline Bonanno. These were great years for Brunson as he learned his trade from a master chef and restaurateur.
Frank Bonanno's restaurants are wellsprings of culinary talent in Denver. Many of Bonanno's proteges became successful chefs and restaurateurs, including the acclaimed Denver chef Alex Seidel of Fruition. Brunson worked for Bonanno in Luca d'Italia and Mizuna before spending a holiday season with Seidel while launching his first venture, Masterpiece Delicatessen.
As mentor to many successful chefs and restaurateurs, Bonanno believes "kitchens should always be educational environments" where chefs can learn and go on to their own successes. My brief experience in Old Major's kitchen tells me Brunson will continue Bonanno's tradition of training and inspiring young chefs and improving the epicurean landscape in Denver. Just like Bonanno, Brunson also will be rewarded with the satisfaction of seeing his intellectual generosity help others achieve their own culinary success.
Deformalized fine dining
The stereotypical images of fine dining include starched white linen tablecloths, waiters dressed in tuxedos and a healthy dash of pretension. Chef Brunson proves those elements are not required for a fine dining experience. Nothing about the reclaimed bare wooden tables and professional, attentive servers in jeans detracts from the experience at Old Major.
Simply put, fine dining involves superior quality food and service enjoyed in special environment even if it is, as the restaurant's website proclaims, "deformalized." Superior quality food that honors everyone along the chain of commerce is the first element of Brunson's business model in all of his epicurean endeavors. Accordingly, Old Major qualifies as a fine dining restaurant. At least in my book it does.
When I asked Brunson if he and wife Diana Luckman had children, he responded, "No!" Quickly he modified his answer, "No, only my employees." My interaction with the servers was brief as they soldierly came and went in the kitchen, answering the call, "I need a friend," Brunson's softer version of "I need a pick-up!" My time spent with the chefs and cooks went from prep through service.
Three chefs lead Brunson's team of culinary "children:" Chef de Cuisine Galen Kennemer, Sous Chef Kona Bobeck and Pastry Chef Nadine Donovan. Kennemer supervises the kitchen's day-to-day running, including procuring the high quality products Brunson demands. One purveyor recently expressed to Kennemer his dismay that Old Major makes so many products others buy, including the guanciale, summer sausage and hand-cut duck fries.
For now, Brunson butchers two whole pigs and one lamb a week, but he believes more will be required to keep up with demand. Charcuterie production in Brunson's prominently displayed USDA approved locker begins later spring. So much is happening at Old Major.
Come back next week and you'll learn more about how the sausage is made and guests are kept happy at this revolutionary deformalized fine dining spot in Denver.