Justin Brunson is happier than a pig in mud. The chef-owner of Masterpiece Deli recently launched Denver Bacon Company, he's on the prowl for a second location to open another Masterpiece, and in February of next year, he'll unveil Old Major, a seafood, swine and wine restaurant in Highland that broke construction just a few weeks ago. And he's just hired Nadine Donovan, the pastry chef of his dreams, to spearhead the sugar finales.
See also: - Justin Brunson will open Old Major -- a swine, wine and seafood restaurant -- in Highland - Bacon, beer and Justin Brunson: Porky photos from Denver's kick-ass Bacon and Beer Festival - Masterpiece Delicatessen chef Justin Brunson on opening a new restaurant and his fetish for foie gras and lamb testicles
Brunson first heard about Donovan's finesse with sweets from grape guru and Old Major wine director Jonathan Greschler, who had worked with the pastry chef at Fuel Cafe -- and in August, Brunson took off for Portland, where Donovan was then working at a high-volume bread bakery and spending time in the kitchens of Le Pigeon and the Woodsman Tavern, to check out her repertoire, only to discover that she'd broken her hip and wasn't cooking. Still, she managed to bust out a box of oatmeal cream pies and her version of Oreo cookies, and, says Brunson, "they were some of the best fucking cream pies and cookies I've ever had." And since Donovan was itching to move back to Denver, where she has family, Brunson kept her on his radar.
Donovan returned to Denver six weeks ago, and Brunson immediately brought her on board at the Deli, where, he notes, she's been working the front of the house, and last week, he gave her the opportunity to do a dessert tasting, using the Squeaky Bean kitchen, to see if she had the chops to become the pastry chef at Old Major.
He was blown away. "The Squeaky Bean let us borrow their kitchen because they have the best equipment, and while she only had two short mornings to get everything together, she absolutely killed it," he says. "She did four different desserts, including a tangerine semifreddo with olive oil cake and tangerine molasses and tangerine foam that was fucking out of this world -- I couldn't stop eating it." In addition, she wowed him with an apple beignet with sour cream ice cream, honey candy and an apple cider gastrique; pecan pie with molasses ice cream, sugar-coated chicharrones, candied pecans and bourbon anglalise; and a six-way chocolate plate. "She also also baked some savory breads for me that were full of mad skills, and every single one of her desserts was delicious -- I cleaned every single plate all on my own," admits Brunson.
Donovan, who's just 23, graduated from Johnson & Wales and comes from a long line of family bakers and pie makers, and the opportunity, she says, to work alongside Brunson and his team, was precisely the kind of long-term gig that she was looking for. "I wanted to uproot my life for him, because at this point in my life, I want to work with people who really look at food in an elevated way, and I want to be around people who really respect food in the same way that I do -- and Justin and I are completely on the same page, plus his attention to detail is beyond inspiring" she says, adding, too, that the "ability to be a part of building a restaurant from the ground up has been incredibly awesome."
She describes her pastries as "simple and delicious," and her focus at old Major, which will pimp six to eight desserts that will change four times a year -- at least -- will be on "using great ingredients and getting back to classic desserts." She notes, too, that she also has a weak spot for pies. "I love playing with pies, and the secret is in the crust. The crust has to be perfect."
Her pastries, says Brunson, fit perfectly into his own cooking philosophies. "Like my menu, her deserts aren't pretentious; they're just delicious, straight-up awesome stuff, and what we're doing at Old Major is informal fine dining, which means the cooking will be comfortable -- amazing but comfortable, and the service will follow suit."
And he firmly believes that Donovan is a rising star. "When she made those desserts for me, she nailed it, plus she's young, motivated and ready to work. I can see her being one of the best pastry chefs in this city -- for sure. I can't even tell you how lucky we are to to have her."
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So much so, says Brunson, that he has plans to make her the head pastry chef for all of his restaurants -- and there will be more, he promises. "We're doing more restaurants, and this is a person that I definitely want to have grow with us -- she's really that talented, and we're going to have a very bright future together."