Chef and charcuterie master, Justin Brunson has been instrumental in putting Denver’s dining scene on the map. Chef-Owner of (get ready – the list is plentiful): Masterpiece Delicatessan, Old Major, Masterpiece Kitchen, Royal Rooster, Masterpiece Lunchonette, Culture Meat & Cheese, and Denver Bacon Company. Read on to learn more about his unique point of view, cooking at food events around the country and his enthusiasm for a $35 spoon. There is no indication of him slowing down anytime soon.
You’re an Iowa Farm Boy. How did this upbringing steer you into becoming a chef?
I grew up with a very rural lifestyle. The farming, gardening, foraging, hunting and fishing aspects really influenced me. I shot my first deer at 12 years old with a bow and arrow and that is when I butchered my first large animal. Growing up in the country, hunting was huge for me. I didn’t have any neighbor kids around. My parents let me go into the middle of the woods, by myself, and build a tree stand. It’s crazy, that would never happen now.
Tell us about the food events around the country you’re a part of?
I travel and cook what I call the circuit. I cook at the Food & Wine Festivals in Aspen, Charleston and Nantucket, Portland Bon Appetit Feast, Hot Luck – Aaron Franklin’s first food festival in Austin. I’ve had the honor to cook at the Beard House in NYC for a Pork-a-Palooza feast and I’m going back again this year. I also work with the National Pork Board. They hold a statewide pork cook-off. The winners of each state go to Iowa and I’m teaching a class on fresh sausage. It is a little nerve wrecking to be teaching to 50 chefs who won their state pork cook-off. It’s really fun to be apart of it.
What brought you to Denver?
The mountains. I love the mountains, to go fly fishing & camp. And Red Rocks. I have a music problem; I’ve seen Phish over 160 times. I love Denver. I’ve been here 15 years now and it has been cool to see how it has grown into this little food hub. I think we get looked over all the time.
What was your path from culinary school in Scottsdale to Chef-Owner of multiple successful restaurants in Denver?
I was going to Scottsdale’s Le Cordon Bleu program. My first job was working for Michael DiMaria at the Citadel. I was right out of culinary school and this was my first experience at a fine dining restaurant. I figured everyone would be properly dressed in chefs coats and tall hats, but I walk in and everyone is covered in tats, there is metal playing, I was like, this place is like prison! I just wanted to work there so badly. I did my stagiaire (French term meaning apprentice) and did well at that. They brought me on board to run the lunch program. I was there three months and a customer asked if I would be his personal Chef to cook him and his wife dinner. That guy was Ed Sabol, who created NFL Films. I did that for six months and just really wanted to be back in a restaurant. In 2004 I moved to Denver and helped Chef-Owner Richard Sandoval open Zengo. Then I went to work for Frank Bonanno for four years; I call those the Bonanno years. What those two did for the food scene in Denver is amazing. It is pretty cool to have a powerhouse like that here in our city. I’ve always been a bit of an entrepreneur and wanted to work for myself. I was contemplating on what I could do and what Denver needs. There were places you could get a good sandwich, but not a place where you could get good sandwiches. So Steve Allee (former Pasta Cook at Luca) and I opened Masterpiece Deli in 2008 – for $80,000. We were using really good ingredients and sourcing locally where we could. We took that fine dining approach and applied it to sandwiches. We opened up a sandwich shop and earned “Best New Restaurant”; it was super cool.
Use the best ingredients and do the least amount to them. Let the ingredients really shine. Technique is also extremely important.
No question, when I got to cook for Jacque Pepin at Aspen Food & Wine Festival. I was cooking with the National Pork Board up there; it was so much fun. I deboned a 30 pound Pig, made black truffle sausage and put it in the pig, trussed it back up and used the pig as a casing, so to speak. I sous vide it and finished it on the wood fired grill. It was all crispy, I’m cutting the strings off and someone says, “Justin, look up,” and Jacques Pepin is standing there. I just started crying. He told the press the best food he ate at Aspen Food & Wine was at the Pork House from Justin Brunson. Such a moment.
Inspiration for new dishes?
A lot of the time, photos inspire me. I buy cookbooks to look at photos. I hire people who are better than me to push me and we push each other. Bringing young people in to be apart of our staff who are doing some really creative stuff.
Salt. I mean, I make Charcuterie and that’s how you preserve it. Also fermentation technique. It’s the first step in making Charcuterie. We take the meat, salt it, season it, stuff it into casing and ferment it for 72 hours at 71 degrees so the pH drops. The whole process, depending on size, takes about 8 weeks.
Aside from a knife, what piece of cooking equipment do you use the most?
Spoons. Chefs love their spoons. Everyone is using the Gray Kunz spoon now. The normal ones are like $14, but the fancy ones are around $35. The proportions of the spoon are different from average. The bowl is larger, holding 2.5 tablespoons and it is more of a precision tool; it can be used for everything.
Most important rules in your kitchen?
Be on time. Be ready to work. Most important things in life.
Your favorite spots?
Mercantile Dining & Provisions
Pho 95 (#12 no noodles or #21 add meatball)
Lao Wang Noodle House
Thank you, Chef Justin!