"The first statement I get from anyone is, ‘Oh, the mac and cheese!’” That’s what Brandon Muncy says he hears when he tells people that he’s the new executive chef at the Rackhouse Pub, which will reopen later this year on Blake Street. That macaroni and cheese had a well-deserved reputation at the original location on South Kalamath Street, which closed in April 2014, but Muncy has been working on new ideas for the new restaurant — ideas that he thinks will be every bit as popular as the eatery’s first menu.
When the Rackhouse opened on an industrial stretch of Kalamath in 2009, it was a pioneer in more ways than one. Not only was the location off the beaten path, but the bar served as the de facto tasting room for Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey, with which it shared a building. The new space, a cavernous warehouse that was once a book bindery, is equally daring, even if its address in the trendy River North neighborhood is a safer bet. The Rackhouse will share space with Bierstadt Lagerhaus and C Squared Ciders, and will also serve as the tap room for both companies.
Muncy sees his kitchen’s proximity to two alcoholic beverage-makers as an opportunity to introduce new ingredients to his cooking. He’s been looking at using not just beer and cider, but also the raw ingredients and byproducts of both to create unique flavors in traditional dishes. Since signing on with Rackhouse owner Chris Rippe earlier this fall — and leaving his post at the Lobby, where he was the executive chef for just over two years — Muncy has been learning more about cooking with beer and cider yeast, wort, spent grains, and other edible components of beer and cider fermentation. This was something he’d experimented with a little at the Lobby, but lately he’s been learning more from chef Jensen Cummings, whose Brewed Food catering company has a similar mission.
“We want to get away from using finished products to cook with,” Muncy explains. “Every recipe will include ingredients from the brewing process.” That could mean using wort — the thick, sweet liquid that gets fermented into beer — in a braising liquid instead of beer, or using yeast to add umami to a sauce. “I want to emphasize the fact that brewers are a big part of the culinary world,” he adds.
Working with Brewed Food has allowed Muncy to increase his knowledge in an area of cooking that doesn’t have any go-to resources. “It’s important for me to push forward and do things I’ve never done before,” he notes. “But I realized that it hasn’t really been written about.”
Because the Rackhouse is being built to intertwine with Bierstadt Lagerhaus, he’ll have plenty of ingredients to work with from owners Bill Eye and Ashleigh Carter. The main dining room and bar will be located on a mezzanine above the brewery, but the kitchen sits on the ground floor, with lager tanks within view of the pass-through. And C Squared isn’t much farther, so cider yeast and cooked-down cider could find their way into vinaigrettes and other sauces.
Muncy moved to Denver several years ago, after graduating from Northern Arizona University’s hotel and restaurant management program and apprenticing in Utah at a luxury hotel and resort. He chose Denver specifically for its budding restaurant and brewery scene, arriving just as a new wave of craft brewers were beginning to open tap rooms across the state. Most of his childhood and school years were spent in small towns, first in upstate New York and then in Flagstaff, Arizona. “I chose Denver because it’s a big city but not a huge city,” he says. “It was a bonus to me that it was being put on the map as a culinary mecca.”
He worked at the Corner Office before getting a shot as the head chef for the Lobby. “It was really jumping in with two feet,” he recalls. “I had to learn all about menu development and staff retention and training.”
But when Rippe began advertising for an executive chef for the Rackhouse over the summer, Muncy knew it was the job for him. “I’ve always wanted to be in a brewery or a distillery,” he explains, “and I really liked this concept; it’s almost like a business commune.” And getting to work with a distillery is definitely a possibility; Rippe says he’s hoping to entice an artisan-spirits maker to the building.
Muncy’s approach to cooking is similar to Rippe’s overall vision for the restaurant, which takes a familiar concept and adds something unique to the mix. The Rackhouse will be Denver’s only restaurant located entirely on a mezzanine, with no walls and only a waist-high railing separating guests from the open space above C Squared and Bierstadt and the gleaming copper fermenting tanks jutting into the space from the floor below. It’s still a basic tap room — a brewpub, even (to use a term that’s fast becoming outdated in the industry) — but the dining room will give the impression of floating in open space, with panoramic views of the mountains and the city from expansive second-floor windows.
“A lot of people are receptive to new things, which is good for a chef. It makes it easier for me to play with my food,” Muncy says. He likes to experiment, but he knows that diners still want a certain level of familiarity. “Just because it tastes good and is creative doesn’t mean it will sell well,” he points out. “I want food to be playful enough that it’s fun to make and teach [to my team], but people will still respond to [it].”
That teaching element is also a big part of Muncy’s approach; he learned from his job at the Lobby that staff retention is one of the most difficult aspects of the restaurant industry. “To keep cooks and retain people you need to keep things fresh,” he notes. “It’s already hard enough to find good help and good talent.” Training is difficult right now, as the Rackhouse’s kitchen is still undergoing construction. But Muncy says that everything should be in place by the end of this month, and then he and his team can focus on hammering out the details of the menu.
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While Muncy’s been busy working to get the place open, he knows he’ll be even busier once customers start piling through the doors — so he’s been using his spare time to check out more of Colorado’s beer scene. “I’m really a creature of habit,” he admits, “and working at the Lobby kept me at Great Divide.” It’s still one of his favorite breweries, but he’s also a fan of Denver Beer Co. and of beers from Berthoud’s City Star Brewing — “to cook with and to drink.” He also discovered Horse & Dragon Brewing Company in Fort Collins through the New Kids on the Block beer festival hosted by the Lobby. “They’re probably one of my favorites right now — but if you ask me again in a week, it could change,” he says.
Although the original Rackhouse was known for its proximity to Stranahan’s, it also had a reputation for a comprehensive tap list of top beers not just from Colorado, but across the U.S. Once Bierstadt begins brewing beer, taps will be dedicated to the beers and ciders made under the same roof as the restaurant. Rippe plans to introduce a cellar program for bottled beers, but the majority of beer poured will be Bierstadt’s. Muncy likes that idea, he says, because it will allow him to focus on creating dishes that pair with specific beers and ciders.
What does that mean for one of Denver’s finest mac-and-cheese plates? It will be back, Muncy and Rippe agree — but maybe with a beery twist.