Behind the Scenes: Modern culinary revolution makes a return to the past
Editor’s note: This is the second installment in a two-part series. Visit http://www.vaildaily.com to read the first story.
The media and politicians routinely denounce oil companies as enemies of the environment and poster children for corporate greed. I’m amazed the food industry thus far escaped such demonization despite its creation of food high in marketing value and relatively low in nutrition. Mass food production reigns supreme in America.
Thankfully, there are still bastions of respect for artisanal food production methods that honor Mother Earth and her bounty. Old Major, the newest addition to Denver chef Justin Brunson’s growing epicurean empire, is one of those places. My question, however, is Old Major a last bastion or the scene of a culinary revolution to bring tradition back to America’s kitchens? To discover the answer, I recently went behind the scenes at Old Major for an “experiential research” stage.
Whole animal approach
Producing a menu based on “honest and upright” farmhouse cuisine doesn’t come easy. Daily, chefs and cooks work from 7 a.m. late into the night meticulously prepping and serving the restaurant’s farmhouse-style cuisine.
The cornerstone of any farmhouse meal is meat. Each Wednesday, Brunson and his chefs butcher two Duroc pigs and a lamb. Most days, fresh fish arrive from top, sustainable purveyors across the country. From the pigs come house-made sausage and guanciale. Although making the 40 pounds of sausage that restaurant patrons consume each week is a relatively quick, 30 to 40 minutes process, guanciale production requires eight days of curing and six weeks of drying. Given the restaurant’s weekly guanciale requirement of 25 pounds, it is a never-ending cycle.
Brunson considers charcuterie making “one of the most artisanal things one can do.” In the U.S., however, the USDA’s onerous certification requirements rendered house-made charcuterie relatively nonexistent. How did mankind survive all those years without strict government food regulation? Perhaps that’s why we did survive.
Despite the cost to comply with the regulations, Brunson decided the effort was worth it. He constructed a glass-walled charcuterie locker in Old Major’s dining room. A salami test is underway with fresh, house-made charcuterie expected to appear on the menu soon.
Lending a hand
Finding a useful spot for a novice in a kitchen with 13 chefs and cooks isn’t easy. Sous chef Kona Bobeck stationed me next to him, where we worked together to make the staff meal.
Bobeck chose goulash for the main dish of the “family meal,” the more harmonious moniker for the staff meal provided before service. With my brand new 10-inch Wusthof chef’s knife in hand — little girl, big knife — I went to work preparing a mise en place of onions, carrots and potatoes. Bobeck combined the vegetables with house-made sausage and stock, San Marzano tomatoes, guanciale stubs and spices to make a perfect dish for the family meal: hearty, bursting with flavor and easy to eat on the run. Goulash is a great dish to make with stray ingredients in your refrigerator.
Behind me, pastry chef Nadine Donovan deftly twisted thick strands of dough to make the evening’s pretzel requirement. Brunson’s love of pork and pretzels was born in one of his favorite cities, Philadelphia. Always fond of bread service, Brunson now has fun providing warm house-made pretzels at the start of each meal instead of the usual rolls or sliced bread. Donovan and her assistants prepare 1,400 pretzels a week, all lovingly twisted by hand.
No ducking the details
Bobeck then assigned me to the team’s newest culinary professional, Jordan Quidachay. A recent graduate of Johnson and Wales, Quidachay mans Old Major’s garde-manger station. It falls upon him to prep the restaurant’s wickedly delicious duck fat fries. On that day, that pleasure was mine.
To demonstrate the attention to detail given to everything at Old Major, I thought I’d describe the process of prepping the fries. Fortunately, the tedious, time-consuming work of peeling and cutting potatoes into tiny sticks then blanching them in duck fat fell to someone else earlier. My task began with four sheet pans of chilled potatoes waiting for me in the walk-in cooler.
Each 7-ounce serving of fries is individually bagged for efficient handling during service. In Brunson’s kitchen where perfection is a given, it’s not a simple matter of grabbing a handful of greasy potato sticks to weigh and bag. Short stubbles of fried potatoes, however tasty, don’t make a nice presentation.
I donned rubber gloves and went to work picking out long sticks and laying them directly on the tiny scale. It was then I looked up and saw intern Ire Evans talking to Quidachay while pointing at the scale. Apparently, Quidachay assumed I would have better sense than to plop fat-soaked fries directly on the scale. He assumed wrong.
No doubt, my face was beet red when Evans handed me a box of deli paper squares to place on the scale. Once I regained my confidence, I resumed weighing the fries. I completed 32 7-ounce portions of fries in approximately 90 minutes. Quidachay and I calculated the manhours required to make an evening’s worth of duck fat fries. Taking into account my slower speed than seasoned cooks, we determined almost three man hours were needed. When you order the $7 duck fat fries at Old Major — and I know you will — remember that number. It’s a labor-intensive process that produces an exceptionally tasty product.
When the bar opened at 3 p.m., patrons settled in to enjoy happy hour on the recently opened patio. The first dinner guests arrived at 5 p.m. As the pace quickened, I didn’t need my watch to know service started. Down came the pendant heat lamps while chefs transitioned from prepping to cooking.
Prepping, however, never ends in Old Major’s kitchen as long as the lights are on. From early in the morning until the kitchen closes around midnight, someone is always prepping something. There was still much to prep.
I joined Ire Evans at the butcher-block covered island. With a bird’s eye view of the busy line, we shelled garbanzo beans, another time-consuming process. Ten pounds of the one-bean pods yield about two quarts of shelled beans. It’s also another example of Brunson’s dedication to quality given the enhanced flavor of fresh beans.
Soon Brunson appeared at the island station with his whetstone to sharpen his knives. It had been one of those meeting-filled days that make Brunson “wish he could just be a chef.” With service smoothly underway, Brunson could do just that.
For the next two hours while I shucked peas and scrubbed rainbow carrots, I delighted in chatting with Brunson as he skillfully broke down and wrapped large cuts of recently butchered pork. The energetic atmosphere and intoxicatingly lovely food mesmerized me as “friends” — the wait staff — shuttled plates from the kitchen.
It was a day of new, exciting experiences spent in the company of people for whom cooking is not a job, but a lifestyle. Having observed them for 11 hours, I think I answered my question. With Old Major well on its way to success, Brunson’s destined for a future of “creating jobs and handing out paychecks” as he expands. Fortunately, Old Major is not a last holdout of artisanal cooking, but a revolutionary concept where everything old is new again!
Suzanne Hoffman is a freelance writer specializing in food, wine and travel. Her blogs are http://www.suziknowsbest.com and http://www.winefamilies.com. Email comments about this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.