Masterpiece Delicatessen chef Justin Brunson on opening a new restaurant and his fetish for foie gras and lamb testicles
This is part one of Lori Midson's Q&A with Masterpiece Delicatessen chef/owner Justin Brunson. You can read part two of this interview right back here tomorrow.
It's 2:30 p.m., late by lunchtime standards, but Masterpiece Delicatessen, the heavyweight sandwich shop in Highland run by Justin Brunson and his partner, Steve Allee, is hopping -- inside and out. Brunson is parked at one of the few interior tables, hunched over his notebook scrawled with notes from our interview. "I write like shit," he says, apologizing more than once for his handwriting. "I finally got a computer about eight months ago, but all this technology stuff is still kinda new to me."
The restaurant business, however, is old hat for Brunson, who's done time in some of the best kitchens in town -- Luca D'Italia, Mizuna, Zengo and Adega (now Venice) among them. But while the thirty-year-old earl of sandwiches, soups and crazy-good specials, like a foie gras and duck confit version, could have easily opened a fine-dining emporium, he made the decision to unleash a deli on Denver in 2008 instead. "I'd always wanted to open a sandwich shop, and Denver needed something like that, plus the economy was in the shits, so it was the right thing to do at the right time, and we were lucky enough to get the right space," says Brunson, an Iowa native with a wide smile and bushy red beard that hangs past his neck.
Brunson is currently searching for a second space to stash another Masterpiece Deli, and he's also partnered with Ben Parsons, owner of the Infinite Monkey Theorem winery, to open Lechon, a restaurant right around the corner from the first Masterpiece, in 2012. Lechon, explains Brunson, will be a "loud bistro that's porky, fatty, gluttonous and, believe it or not, healthy" -- in so much as he'll make everything in-house and procure ingredients and proteins from the best sources available. "It's a restaurant inspired by all the foods I love to eat -- French, Italian, German, Thai, American and Japanese -- and we're going to use the absolute highest-quality ingredients we can find."
And just because Brunson likes to push the envelope, he also plans to serve three different foie gras preparations. "I don't care what everyone else thinks, I love foie gras," he declares unapologetically. "I want to explore food and techniques, teach and push myself to do better, and, most important, have a good time creating food that I love." In this conversation, Brunson talks about his new restaurant; his obsession with lamb testicles, pigs and the Belly Shack; and why you'll never find him toying with molecular gastronomy.
Six words to describe your food: Clean, balanced, seasonal, thoughtful, delicious and local.
Ten words to describe you: Hardworking, honest, passionate, funny, bear-like, motivated, loving, driven, loud and hungry.
Culinary inspirations: Thomas Keller has always been a huge part of motivating me to make the best food I possibly can. He's been on the top of his game for as long as I've been cooking, and he's a true master of culinary arts. Plus, his technique is perfect, and the quality of his ingredients is unparalleled; he treats them with total respect. I really, really like how he doesn't do any of that chemistry food shit. Canadian chef Martin Picard is just a total badass. If I could eat anywhere in the world, it would be at Au Pied de Cochon, in Montreal. His food is fatty, porky, ducky, and he has the largest selection of foie gras dishes I've seen anywhere. I'd love to sit down with him over a cold beer and pick his head. And then there's Julia. Oh, Julia. She really is a true inspiration, because she razzed it up and really got Americans into French food. She wasn't the best cook in the world, but she put her heart into it, and she proved that anyone else who has their heart in it can cook, too.
Favorite ingredient: Pork. It's delicious. That tasty little beast has saved almost every civilization. Love the cheeks, the belly, the shoulder -- they're all fabulous.
Most overrated ingredient: White pepper. I grew up around lots of farms in Iowa, and white pepper smells like shit.
Most underrated ingredient: Vinegars of any kind, because a few drops of acid in a dish awakens the flavors and brings balance. All home cooks should have these vinegars on hand: apple cider, sherry, champagne, red wine, rice wine. Try using any of these to liven up soups, sauces or dressings. Lemon juice is also a great ingredient; a little squirt can do wonders to liven up your favorite dish.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Verde Farms microgreens. They have so much flavor, and they actually taste like what they're supposed to taste like.
One food you detest: I detest nothing, but you won't find any water chestnuts in my food. There's something about that wet-crunch texture that I'm not crazy about.
One food you can't live without: Eggs. I love them, because you can use them in both sweet and savory dishes. The key is to use good eggs from good, well-kept chickens. Try a side-to-side comparison of a cheap egg to an Heirloom egg, and you'll see exactly what I mean. Cheap eggs are bad eggs.
Best recent food find: Belly Shack. It's this bomb-ass Korean sandwich shop that I ate at on a recent trip to the Windy City. It was so good that we ordered the whole menu, but I really loved the delicious sandwiches, like the moist Korean meatballs with vermicelli noodles, cilantro, sriracha sauce and cabbage slaw stuffed into this cool naan-style pocket bread. The hot-and-sour soup was no joke, either, and the Korean barbecue beef sandwich was great, too. The flavors were big and bold, hot, sour, salty and sweet. I felt like if I closed my eyes, I could have been in Korea.
What's never in your kitchen? Rap music or any of that scientific, molecular-food bullshit. Food should never be tortured like that.
What's always in your kitchen? Gus. He's my pet plastic pig and kind of a mascot for the kitchen.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Be on time, no jeans, work hard, have fun and never stop learning.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: People who care about where their meat product comes from: how it was raised; what it was fed; the conditions it was raised in; how it was brought to slaughter; and how it was slaughtered. If people were more aware of these things, they might pay more attention to what they put in their mouths. We, as chefs, need to teach ourselves and our cooks about the issues surrounding our meat products, always keeping in mind that it's not about the lowest price. I grew up having family farms with well-kept animals, and it makes all the difference. If you haven't seen Food Inc, watch it. Most of the meat people buy from purveyors is raised on factory farms, which is so not cool. We need to continue to work with local farmers who are doing it right. There are lots of them out there. Go find them.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: Shitty delivery food. Considering how many people order delivery food each day, the choices suck. Someone please help us.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? My first set of cooking spoons, given to me by Chef Michael, the Tyrant. It was the day I took the step from tongs to spoons.
Favorite dish to cook at home: Any grilled protein with arugula and cooked vegetables with good olive oil and lemon juice and a few shots of vinegar. It's easy, fast and delicious.
Favorite dish on your menu: The seared ahi sandwich is great, but the specials are pretty tasty, too. I really like the shrimp and pork belly bánh mì that we recently did, and we occasionally do a duck confit and foie gras sandwich for $20 that sells out every time.
If you could put any dish on your menu, even though it might not sell, what would it be? A confit of lamb testicles. Cure them, confit them, cool them, egg-wash them, bread them and fry them. They're some of the best things I've ever had. Unfortunately, most people don't really dig eating the nuts.
What's next for you? I have a lot of stuff i want to do: a pizzeria, a fried-chicken shack, a vegetarian restaurant, a 24-seat restaurant with wild private rooms, and a smokehouse. But before all of that, I'm launching Lechon in the spring of 2012 with Ben Parsons from the Infinite Monkey Theorem. I think Denver will enjoy it, because Denver inspired it. I love the sandwich shop and the food we serve, but I wouldn't be satisfied just doing one concept. The best part about the new place? We're going to have a staff shot every night at 10:30 p.m. I'm going to ring a little bell every night when it's time. I'm looking to launch another Masterpiece Deli, too. Actually, are we done? I need to go look at a space now.
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