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The earls of sandwich

At Masterpiece Delicatessen, partners Justin Brunson and Steve Allee do some pretty amazing things with a little bread, a little meat, a little this-and-that. Their simplest creations — egg sandwiches, grilled cheese, turkey with pears and cranberry honey — show their command of the artistry of restraint (just enough, never too much), while their more complicated plates demonstrate a high-end, Super Frog cookery gone feral in the service of a soup-and-sandwich board. Their kung fu is strong, no doubt. But where had they learned it?

Word on the street was that Brunson and Allee were chefs — big-hats who'd made their bones under some local heavyweights, though particular names were never mentioned. This struck me as strange, because Denver is still a small town, chef-wise. Everyone knows everyone (or almost everyone, anyhow), and unlike in New York or anywhere else I've ever been, the chefs here seem to have an all-together-now attitude about 90 percent of the time. Guys help each other out. They share crews with a kind of Mormon creepiness (which, no matter how long I live in Denver, I will never get used to). Together they cook at benefits, celebrate their victories — and celebrate their defeats even harder.

And yet, I hadn't heard anything about where the Masterpiece Deli partners had mastered their craft. Before my first meal, I was wondering if all the rumors were a ploy; there are plenty of people who'd claim they sprang fully formed from Thomas Keller's forehead if they thought it would get them some reflected glory. But then I actually ate at Masterpiece, and knew for certain that these boys had done some time. To get the details, I called Brunson and Allee a couple of days after my final load of sandwiches. They were in a lull, working prep for the next morning or just messing around, so Allee said he had plenty of time to talk. And we got right to the heart of things.

"Luca," Allee told me. "That's where Justin and I met." Luca being Luca d'Italia — chef Frank Bonanno's love letter to the long, dreamy, wine-drunk and expensive Italian meals of his fantasies, one of the best Italian restaurants in the city. "Justin was grill chef; I was working on pasta at the time."

And that was it? Just two line dogs thinking they could bail out, make a few sandwiches and live the good life?

Not even close.

Allee, who handles the front at Masterpiece and cooks when he has to, had also spent years at Mizuna, another Bonanno restaurant. "I was kinda like Alex's original protegé," he said, speaking of Alex Seidel, now chef/owner at Fruition, but back then Mizuna's chef. "Alex trained me. I staged under him for a year while I was still at school." Then Allee went around the corner to Luca, where he met Brunson.

For his part, Brunson had opened Zengo with Troy Guard and done line time for Bonnano at Luca, Mizuna and Milagro Taco Bar, back when the food was actually the draw rather than the girls who'd take their tops off after half a margarita. And after that, he'd moved on to Fruition.

On the phone, Allee started running down the lineage of the rest of his crew: Jeremy, who came from Fruition and used to be Pete Marczyk's head cook at Marczyk Fine Foods; Johnny, also from Fruition; Lou, who still holds down a full-time job in the kitchen at Barolo Grill but comes into Masterpiece on Sundays to hang out and sling a few sandwiches for kicks. "It's not just us," Allee insisted. "It's not just Justin and me. It's the crew we have — this great crew."

A crew that could easily reproduce the menus of three of the most successful restaurants in the city. Who could've gone on to open a formidable fine-dining kitchen of their own. But instead? They chose to make sandwiches. Really, really good sandwiches. "Fine dining between bread," Allee told me, laughing. "That's what we want to call it."

And why did they want to do it? "We wanted to do something where we could still play with food but also have a life," Allee explained — going from the lives of line dogs to the lives of owners, from working for someone else to working for themselves, as a break.

And how had that worked out for them?

"It didn't work very well," he said flatly, then burst out laughing again.

In addition to staffing, operating and cooking at their own place, Allee and Brunson also do catering — dinner parties, fine dining, "Mizuna-type food," Allee said. "So we've got our hands in that, too." Oh, and did he mention that, because they had no money when they split out on their own, he and Brunson had to do the entire Masterpiece buildout themselves? Six months of that, then straight into working in a very busy restaurant.

"So, then, are you working harder now as owners than when you were just cooks?" I asked.

"Oh, we're working harder now..." he said.

"Yeah, that's what I thought."

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