Restaurant empires are only as good as the chef in charge of day-to-day operations. Justin Brunson — who’s poised to extend his own empire with Masterpiece Kitchen — knows this, which is why he tapped the talented Amos Watts to be executive chef at Old Major. Watts joined the team a few weeks ago, bringing with him more than fifteen years of experience, most recently as head chef at the highly acclaimed Acorn, and before that, as chef at the Jax Fish House in LoDo. One thing Watts isn’t bringing to Brunson’s porcine temple, however, is kale salad. In our conversation, he admitted that he chiffonaded enough kale at Acorn to last a lifetime. Here’s more of what the 35-year-old chef had to say, edited for space and clarity.
Westword: Will you be making any changes to Old Major’s menu going forward?
Amos Watts: I haven’t made any changes yet. We’re going to work on the spring menu soon, and I’ll be able to put my stamp on that menu.
What will that stamp look like? Will there be any surprises?
Not any surprises. We’re not going vegetarian or anything! I’ll be continuing the good food they do here, just putting my mark on it.
This is a hard business. What keeps you motivated?
I’ve been cooking professionally since 1999, and what keeps me going is that I never stop learning. I love trying new techniques. I don’t have a ton of experience in charcuterie, so it will be exciting to work with that.
Do you do other things to stay motivated? Running, other hobbies, stuff like that?
I don’t run, though I probably should! I have two kids who keep me really busy — they’re six and twelve. I try not to take a lot of stress home.
Why did you decide to start cooking?
I fell into it. I was going to college and wasn’t sure what I wanted to go to college for. My dad suggested that [cooking] might be something I should do. I went to Johnson & Wales here in Denver and graduated in 2003. I met my wife there, too.
What’s your earliest food memory?
I grew up in Omaha and southern Illinois, and I remember picking morels with my grandpa, and wild blackberries, and making cobbler with my grandma.
What’s been a career highlight?
I worked as sous-chef at Cyrus restaurant in Healdsburg, California, under Douglas Keane. It was a two-Michelin-star restaurant.
Did you have a mentor, and what did that person teach you that still rings true today?
I consider Keane a mentor. Working at that level ingrains good habits in you — mainly, holding yourself to certain standards and not deviating, being proud of what you serve, taking responsibility for mistakes. Basically the two things he taught me, what I live by in the kitchen, are these: Fifty-one percent of any problem is my fault. If everybody admits that, we’ll do well. The other is “Go back and check.” Those are words I live by.
Do you have a signature dish?
It’s not something I’ve ever sold at a restaurant, but I think if you ask any former kitchen employee of mine, they’ll say I make really good chicken tikka masala. I used to make it for the family meal at Acorn all the time.
What’s the biggest flop you’ve ever served?
This is easy, super easy. It was New Year’s Eve 2008 at Cyrus, and it was the only time I ever could’ve thrown up from nerves. I was in charge of lobster soufflé for the first course. I don’t remember what we were charging, but it was a ton. I have a million excuses but never gave them, but what happened is that I had an extern weigh out everything. He mis-weighed a bunch of the dry ingredients. I was doing the soufflés as they were seating. Some were too wet, some were too dry. I thought I was going to get fired! For the second seating, I ended up redoing the entire thing from scratch, and the second seating came out fine. It goes back to the whole thing of “Go back and check.” I shouldn’t have assumed [the extern] knew how to use a scale. I still think about it daily…. If you live by the “Go back and check” mantra, a lot of problems won’t happen.
What was the hardest point in your career?
When we had our second kid, I thought I was going to work for my dad, out of the kitchen. It lasted all of six months. He does recruiting and consulting. I tried to do it, but it just wasn’t for me.
But cooking is for you. Why?
It’s something I’ve done for a while, and I think I’m good at it. I like being in the kitchen. I like the people who work in kitchens. I like all the organizing and the team mentality.
What ingredient are you excited about right now?
Broadly speaking, because it’s not a specific ingredient, I’m excited about charcuterie. Also, it’s a cool time to come in [at Old Major] as a chef. Spring is one of the most fun times to create a menu. There’s more stuff to play with, everyone’s excited for all the greens…. I’m excited to use spring ingredients for the spring menu.
One ingredient you wish would disappear?
Not that I want it to disappear, but after working at Acorn for two years, I guarantee I’m not putting another kale salad on the menu!
Do you ever cook at home?
I met my wife in culinary school, and she cooks a lot at home. My daughter and I started making deep-dish pizza. It’s worked out pretty good. I make easy stuff like that, grilling out, roasting veggies and stuff.
Best tip for a home cook?
It’s said enough by every culinary student, but get a nice cutting board, a really sharp knife and a few nice pots. I have some really nice Le Creuset pots from my mother-in-law, and it really makes a difference. I do have a ton of gadgets at home, but a sharp knife and good pots are the most important.
What changes would you like to see in Denver’s food scene over the next five years?
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I’d like to see the growth continue. It’s an exciting time to be a cook; there are so many places to work, so many people willing to try new things.
Old Major is located at 3316 Tejon Street; for more information, call 720-420-0622 or visit oldmajordenver.com.
Former restaurant reviewer Gretchen Kurtz has taken over Chef and Tell. Send suggestions for future interviews to firstname.lastname@example.org.