"This is not how I wanted it to go down," admits Justin Brunson.
But he had a premonition it would. Several weeks ago, Brunson, the sandwich earl behind Masterpiece Deli and the opening executive chef/co-owner of Wild Catch, the sustainable seafood restaurant that he opened in late August with partner Daniel Kuhlman, who owns Tastes Wine Bar on Tennyson Street, was cooking as a guest chef in the kitchen of another Denver restaurant when he confided that he wasn't happy with the way things were operating at Wild Catch. "It's not going the way I had envisioned," he told me. "I might have no choice but to walk."
And on Saturday, that's exactly what he -- and his staff -- did.
When I spoke with Brunson early on Friday, before the fallout at Wild Catch, he was trying to seal a deal to buy Kuhlman out, which would have left Brunson as the sole owner. The two met late Friday, and, according to Brunson, the meeting didn't go well: "This was my concept, and my staff and I built this whole restaurant -- and we did it without getting paid a damn dime and on the premise that Daniel had money in the bank to run with, which, I later found out, wasn't true, but we'd settled on a final price." And then, says Brunson, "Daniel changed it."
But while that factor irked Brunson, he stresses that a lack of communication, and, more important, the insistence on Kuhlman's part that Brunson and his accountant couldn't view the restaurant's financials is what eventually convinced him to pack his knives...and go. "This is the deal: I'm not an accountant, I'm a fucking chef, and Daniel refused to let me or my accountant look at the books, which is just insanity," says Brunson. "I have to look out for myself and my family, and it was important to me to make sure I was making a good investment."
And while Brunson acknowledges that he had his doubts early on, he had every intention of making it work for as long as possible. "Daniel didn't know how to open a proper restaurant, but I had a staff of twenty kick-ass people working with me -- people I really care about, people who are my friends -- and with the holidays coming up, the last thing I wanted was for this to fall apart," he says. "Instead of sitting here fielding phone calls and text messages from people, I'd much rather be cooking with my staff and looking after them."
Brunson took the night off on Friday to evaluate his situation and discuss it with his wife, and on Saturday, he'd made his decision. "I resigned and went to the restaurant and told my staff that at the end of the day, I couldn't do this any longer," he says, adding that he strongly encouraged both his cooks and the front of the house to continue working for Kuhlman, despite the fact that on Friday, during pre-shift, Kuhlman sent over a locksmith to change the locks (ex-manager Jonathan Greschler stopped him from succeeding) -- and later canceled the restaurant's valet service. But even after Brunson's plea, his cooks chose to follow the chef's lead, and later, so did the front of the house, including Greschler.
"Even though I wasn't cooking on Friday night, the guys killed it," says Brunson. "We did eighty covers, and I'm convinced that what we were doing at Wild Catch was some of the best food in the country." And while some might arch their eyebrows at that declaration, I've had some seriously awe-inspiring food at Wild Catch.
Food, he asserts, that he will now do elsewhere. "I'm ready for a new space, I have some money, and I'm ready to go," he says. And he has a space in mind, although he won't reveal publicly where it is. "I've been talking to a landlord, and if all goes well, then I'll have a new restaurant sometime next spring" -- a restaurant, he notes, that will continue to focus on seafood -- and heritage breed pigs, which was his original concept for Lechon, a pork-obsessed restaurant that he had planned to open with Ben Parsons, who owns the Infinite Monkey Theorem. "Sustainable seafood and heritage pigs -- that's what I want to do," says Brunson.
In the meantime, Brunson is hanging out with his staff and family and keeping in close contact with the Denver chef community. "All of my chef and purveyor friends have called to say that they support me, which means the world to me. I can't thank them -- or our customers -- enough for everything they've done for me," he says. And in return, promises Brunson, "I'm going to continue to cook my ass off, and I'm going to open the best restaurant that I absolutely can with a young, passionate and driven staff that shares the same vision."