Five years ago, chef Justin Brunson, an up-and-coming Denver chef who had already made a name for himself with his killer sandwich shop, Masterpiece Delicatessen, launched Old Major in the home of a former rollerskating rink in Lower Highland. Since then, the restaurant has helped put Denver on the national culinary map with its whole-animal cooking, local-farm ethos and pioneering charcuterie program.
Old Major just celebrated its fifth anniversary, and Brunson plans to keep celebrating Denver by growing his cured-meats business and evangelizing about Colorado to all who will listen, through his television and guest-chef appearances across the country. At Old Major, he's expanding the space to include the Foxwood Room (if you missed the reference, give Animal Farm a re-read), which will provide overflow seating on busy nights as well as plenty of room for private parties and special events. This summer, he'll kick off production at Red Bear American Charcuterie, his new cured-meats company. And when the Denver Central Market launches its second location at Denver International Airport, Culture Meat & Cheese will be part of the smaller version of the original RiNo food hall. We talked to Brunson about Old Major and cooking with friends.
Westword: What have the last five years at Old Major been like?
Justin Brunson: It went by real fast! But we're still getting busier — that's the crazy part. That shows what a great neighborhood this is. And Masterpiece Deli is turning ten this year, too.
Do you have any regrets or anything you would do differently?
[Pauses]. No, I wouldn't change a thing. I learned so much, but it was hard. This one [Old Major] almost broke me in year two. I thought, "Is this what I really want to do?" But things got better after that.
What are some of the changes you've made to keep things fresh?
I took the nose-to-tail plate off. Forty different versions of the same dish was more than enough. We've added more small plates at the top [of the menu] and more of an à la carte steakhouse menu at the bottom.
How have things changed for you as a chef?
I used to worry about awards and reviews. But now I just want to cook good food. I want happy employees. I want a full dining room. I want to support local businesses.
Will you open any more restaurants, or is this it?
I don't know, but it's addictive, it's a buzz. The hardest thing right now is finding good folks.
Because of the labor shortage?
Yeah. I love the marijuana industry in Denver, but I hate what it's done to our business.
[Finding a job] is so much different than when I was a kid in Iowa. They would load up a busload of thirteen-year-olds and you would de-tassel corn. That was your summer job.
You've been doing more television recently [including filming a pilot called SEARious Meats for the Food Network]. What do you like about being on food shows?
I just feel really lucky. It's cool to show people that Denver's not just a cowtown — there's great stuff going on here.
You also do a lot of traveling for charity events and special dinners. What do you have planned this year?
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I'll be out there three out of every four weeks every month this summer. Aaron Franklin [of Franklin Barbecue in Austin] is building me a giant hoe for Hot Luck [an Austin festival in May that benefits the SAFE Foundation]; we're going to be cooking hoe cakes on it.
On September 30, I'm going to do a huge barbecue party here. I'm bringing in Sam Jones, Elliott Moss, hopefully some other great people. It feels really nice to be out there cooking with these guys...sitting around a fire, cooking, drinking out of a bourbon bottle and telling lies to each other all night long.
Where will that be?
Right out here in the parking lot, if I can get the permits.