Word of Mouth

Occupy Denver Thunderdome chef Justin "Crunchy" Gwin moves to Step Nightclub

Justin "Crunchy" Gwin is best known as a loud-talking, dick joke-telling, action-packing chef at Occupy Denver's free (and now former) kitchen, the Thunderdome. And while he might be the Thunderdome's only chef to have avoided arrest, Gwin still managed to blend food politics with anarchist politics while he supported the kitchen's several incarnations, even as altercations with Denver police destroyed one after another.

This weekend, Gwin will transfer some of his humanitarian goals -- specifically, local sources and low prices -- to a more mainstream venue when he becomes the new chef at Step Nightclub.

Gwin's relationship with Step started at the end of May: The month-old, bass-friendly club is located roughly two blocks from the studio where Gwin and other Thunderdome personalities record the group's weekly live radio show, and word of mouth indicated that owner Ryan Kirk planned to open a kitchen. Based on his own trips to other local clubs, Kirk thought he had a good idea for increasing the new nightclub's draw: It already focused on art and music, so why not add food?

"When Crunchy came along, we were thinking about doing finger foods like chicken fingers and that kind of thing, and now he has this whole fancy menu that will really raise the quality of our business," Kirk says. "He steps outside of the norm on a lot of things -- especially food."

Over the next few weeks, Gwin and Kirk made the necessary adjustments to make Step's kitchen functional. It hadn't been used in years (decades ago, it was Regas Christou's first Greek restaurant), "and if you leave something sitting for a couple years, it gets kinda grimy," jokes Gwin, who previously worked as a sushi chef at TAG and as the executive chef at the now-defunct Kiva. (He almost became defunct at TAG, when he lit his afro on fire.) But really, Gwin adds, "All the equipment worked and everything was up to code, so the hardest part was figuring out where to turn on the oven."

Four employees will be working in the walk-up kitchen; after ordering, Step patrons will be able to watch their food being prepared before they move on to any of the venue's strategically arranged seating. And if they're good multi-taskers, they'll be allowed to take their food to the dance floor: All the portions are arranged so as not to mess with anyone's mojo.

The menu is a simple, nine-item affair that Gwin designed and describes as his take on "modern Colorado cuisine." Many of the ingredients are locally sourced, and Gwin made trips across the area to decide which farms offered the best produce for his recipes. His cherries, for example, will come from a local orchard, while he plans to grow lettuce himself inside of Step.

Gwin shows his skills in this Thunderdome cooking video:

The single-most expensive item on the menu -- a dish of pork-belly sliders -- costs $9, and the menu focuses on easy-to-manage, late-night fare: ceviche tacos, sour cherries wrapped in beef bacon and red-wine syrup, a candy bowl stuffed with Step-made caramels and hard candies.

"It's an especially interesting project for me: Can Thunderdome business practices be applied to a typical business?" Gwin asks. "With the beef bacon, let's say, it's sourced beef from another restaurant, and I've turned basically something would throw away into something that makes money. Basically, we're trying to make things local, taking the Thunderdome into the real world."

On Saturday, Step's new kitchen will launch at 7 p.m. with an open food tasting, during which all menu items will be available at a 50 percent discount. In its infancy, the kitchen will stay open from 7 p.m. to 2 a.m. Thursday through Sunday, though Gwin hopes to expand to weekdays once business grows.

"I want to cook some of the coolest food in Denver, and I want this to be a new late-night spot," Gwin says. "Denver right now is this really burgeoning food scene with a lot of young guys in a lot of kitchens doing things they know and things they don't know. There are so many restaurants here that are awesome, and this will be one of them." He laughs. "I'm really just trying to be one of the cool kids."

See also: "Step Nightclub moves into former Deadbeat Club space; grand opening slated for this Friday." "Occupy Denver has an on-site kitchen: Welcome to the Thunderdome." "The Thunderdome, Occupy Denver's original kitchen, launches video cooking series."

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Kelsey Whipple
Contact: Kelsey Whipple