"Everything you do in life is a stepping stone," says chef Justin Brunson. Even though his flagship restaurant, Old Major, has seemed like a permanent part of the Denver dining scene ever since it opened in 2013, Brunson had already been preparing to step away from the restaurant before the coronavirus pandemic shut it down in mid-March.
And now that he's taken the next step in his culinary adventure with River Bear American Meats, a cured-meat and butcher company he founded in 2019, he's saying goodbye to Old Major and has sold the restaurant at 3316 Tejon Street to longtime friend and colleague Amos Watts.
Watts is no stranger to fine dining in Denver; he opened Acorn at the Source in 2013 (just months after Old Major debuted), and then joined Old Major as executive chef in 2016 before moving on to launch Corrida in Boulder in 2018. Watts has not yet announced a name or plans for his new project.
For Brunson, though, the future lies in sausage, salumi, dry-aged beef and a growing focus on Colorado-raised meat. But his past at Old Major still informs his current work. "A lot of the things we're doing at River Bear came from Old Major," the chef notes. "It was like R&D work for River Bear."
So the charcuterie boards that once graced nearly every table on busy nights at the LoHi eatery served as practice for the dry-cured meats now hanging at River Bear that will soon hit the market. And while Brunson is no longer making ham and biscuits, he's curing whole hams by the truckload, and he just added a beef dry-aging room that will hold 10,000 pounds of meat that will be sold at the River Bear butcher counter at Leevers Locavore and other locations.
But Old Major wasn't just a shrine to meat in all its grilled, roasted, braised and cured forms; the menu was also dedicated to highlighting local farmers and their produce. "I loved it when farmers would show up at the back door and I would just buy everything they had," he recalls. "They're small-business owners, too, and I wanted to do everything I could to help. There was Mike 'the tomato guy,' who was growing tomatoes in an empty lot in the Highlands. Back then, I was buying 200 pounds of tomatoes a week from him at the height of the season."
For a few seasons, Old Major also had its own vegetable garden adjacent to the Infinite Monkey Theorem winery on Larimer Street. With all the produce being grown and delivered, pickled and fermented vegetables and fruit were a big part of the program. "You name it, we fermented it," Brunson recalls. "There was definitely a lot of funk at Old Major — the good kind of funk.
"I look back at all the cooks and GMs and bartenders and servers who have come through and have moved on to more success, and I can't be more proud of what we built," he adds.
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Meat production and sales now take up most of Brunson's time, but he hasn't lost the passion for cooking, so he's installing a test kitchen with a small dining area with a view of River Bear's aging room. He plans to use the kitchen to host charity fundraisers and private dining events, with the first dinner scheduled for September.
Brunson's cooking career has taken him from one of his first gigs at Michael's at the Citadel in Scottsdale (where he developed a love of foie gras, caviar, seafood and other luxe ingredients) to Frank Bonanno's Luca, to his first restaurant, Masterpiece Delicatessen, which moved in with Old Major at the beginning of 2020 (and is now closed, too). Before Old Major, there was also the short-lived but acclaimed Wild Catch, which closed after Brunson left in 2011.
Denver is not completely without Brunson's food, though; you can still score sandwiches and other good stuff at the two Culture Meat & Cheese counters at Leevers Locavore and the Denver Central Market.
Brunson admits that selling Old Major was difficult, but he says it also lifted a great deal of stress. And being away from restaurants has given him time to slow down a little. "I've spent more time with my wife in four months than the past fifteen years, so the time off has been great," he says. "But I have a place in my soul that will always need to push and create — and that's at River Bear now."