By Kyle Gayton, Interview by De La Vaca
Chef Justin Brunson | Old Major
There’s something to be said about a person who not only dreams but follows through to make their dreams a reality. Honestly, a good lot of us trade in our dreams as we “grow up” in some way; whether it be for a 9-5, for a family, for financial stability, for other people’s expectations… Some people just get tired and go to sleep, some don’t dreamt at all, and some chase nightmares. It takes a certain kind of person to throw caution to the wind and truly chase a dream; Chef Justin Brunson of Old Major in Denver is one of those dreamers.
In 2003, a dirty 23-year-old Le Cordon Bleu graduate hippie named Justin Brunson wandered into Colorado, moved into his sister’s house in Erie, and that is where his story begins. At the time, Colorado wasn’t as fast-paced as today. Old towns were still old, and rough parts were still rough. The now chic LoHi area was still the Northside, a much more impoverished, ethnic, and family focused part of the city; nowhere near the sophisticated foodie hub it is today (due to gentrification). Some spots, though, were opening up (we can thank chefs like Frank Bonanno and Richard Sandoval being foodie catalysts in Denver).
Chef Justin started out in a restaurant called Moscoutah, but soon became the executive sous chef at Zenga (a Richard Sandoval restaurant). Beautiful plates, beautiful people, working hard, playing harder; a young Chef Justin got to experience a fast-paced upscale lifestyle from the tools of his craft. A little later, however, Chef Justin wanted more focus and seriousness. He linked up with Chef Frank Bonanno at the restaurants Mizuna and Luca. Though it may seem that he trekked a sizable distance, Chef Justin was only getting started.
In 2008 Chef Justin opened his first establishment: Masterpiece Deli. A carni-centric farm-to-table sandwich shop in the up and coming LoHi area. The deli saw a great deal of success, and for good reason. Seriously. If you haven’t been yet, go there immediately and see just what you’ve been missing out on. After Masterpiece, Chef Justin opened up another restaurant down the way on Broadway called Royal Rooster, which holds heavy emphasis on and pride in regard to fried chicken. That’s right folks, fried chicken. But wait, there’s more…
2013 rolled around the bend and Chef Justin opened the renowned Old Major. *Denver foodie slow clap* Old Major saw massive success in a considerably short amount of time. In that same year it was named one of 5280 Magazine’s “Best New Restaurants” followed with 5280’s “Best Restaurants” for both 2014 and 2015. Brunson and Co. was born, and he was flying hi. But Chef Justin wasn’t fully satisfied. Not in the slightest.
Chef Justin has been known for making salamis, bacons, and sausages. However, he was unable to sell them as product because they weren’t made under USDA inspection. Chef got to thinking, and something somewhat magical of a solution came to fruition. After saving up a chunk of money, he bought a 7500sq. ft meat processing facility and River Bear was born. It made so much sense to make such a move. Denver was lacking in this area. He told us that, “If you go to Chicago, there’s like 20 sausage makers…”, and he makes a valid point: Denver doesn’t have anything like this, especially one with an old-world ferment and dry style. River Bear is quite new, but can be found at local grocers like Alfalfa’s with more locations to follow.
As it stands right now, Chef Justin has five restaurants and one meat processing facility, which sounds great. But as the running theme goes “he’s just getting started”. He plans to open another two restaurants and a butcher shop in the not too distant future, one of which I am very excited to say is coming to a Boulder, Colorado near you. It’s kind of a homecoming, with his first stop in Colorado being Erie, Boulder County has been waiting for his return.
…Oh, and did I mention that he sometimes travels the country serving as a guest host on Food Network’s “The Best Thing I Ever Ate”?
The man works hard. Barely gets the day off. He makes room for Phish, but after that, the man plugs away night and day in pursuit of his dreams. As previously stated, there’s something to be said about a person who not only dreams but follows through. The man is a master of his craft, a true artist, a visionary, one hell of an entrepreneur, and an all-around humble guy. I highly suggest you go to one of his establishments, take a seat, enjoy the flavors and smells, experience great service, relax with your familiar, and most importantly honor the bar. You won’t regret it. You may even remember that you are still very much alive and well. You might even shed a tear. Cheers!
Chef Jeff Osaka | Empire
Who would have thought that a walk back from the bathroom would have changed somebody’s life forever? Sounds comical, but it’s not uncommon. Henry Rollins scooped his last ice cream before fronting Black Flag, Kurt Warner stocked his last pallet of canned goods before becoming a Superbowl champion, Christopher McCandless woke up from his screaming daydream of a privileged life to pack his bag and trek through the Alaskan wilderness (unfortunately dying as a result, but you get where I’m going here). For some, greatness stems from a self-awakening, and that was the very case for Chef Jeff Osaka. This is his story of greatness.
Chef Osaka grew up as the middle child of five children in a rough and tumble neighborhood in Los Angeles; Crenshaw and Martin Luther King to be exact (it’s the area where much of Training Day was filmed). The family lived in a region where many Japanese families migrated after World War II. His grandfather owned a Chinese restaurant (given the time, the Japanese were quite unpopular, so opening a sushi den would have been a poor business choice) and his mother was an excellent cook. But at that time, Jeff wasn’t all that interested in cooking. As he told us, he “wasn’t that kid who pulled up a step stool and helped mom make dinner”. He was busy playing outside with friends or watching TV instead.
His first real career path was working at a local grocery store, and from there advancing up the company ladder. At 28 he was in a managerial position overseeing three departments and making a decent living. Then one day Jeff and a friend went out for lunch – and aren’t all good things surrounded with food? – and that day would forever shape the course of his life. Upon returning from the restroom he noticed the workers in the kitchen, a crew of people in white coats scurrying about, orders being yelled out, knives chopping, pans on fire; it all looked so new and exciting to Jeff.
He asked for an application that very day and landed an interview with the chef the following day. Jeff wasn’t overly confident about the interview. He figured that the chef wouldn’t give him but ten minutes of his time and call it good, but quite the contrary! The chef gave him an hour of his time and hired him on the spot. But this chef had something different in mind for Jeff. He was placed next to the sous chef instead and started cooking immediately and it was here, in this kitchen, where Jeff found his calling.
Chef Osaka set his eyes to something much bigger. He quit his job at the grocery store, and set sail up and down the California coast, found himself in Las Vegas, and even landed in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. During this span he became a personal chef, a knife for hire, worked under two Michelin Star restaurants, and opened his first bistro. A year into the bistro, he learned a harsh lesson in business; the wolves in sheep’s clothing. What once was a good business partner/ friend ended up showing their true colors by taking the money and running off. But that didn’t faze Chef Osaka. He was just beginning, and his eyes were set for the Mile High City.
In 2008 Chef Jeff opened his first restaurant in the ballpark area called 12, which changed its menu monthly (there’s a cocktail at Empire named after it, and its damn tasty). Osaka Ramen was born in spring of 2015. This same year Chef Osaka also started his first kaiten-styled Sushi Rama and helped open the Denver Central Market!
2016 was quite the year for the hungry chef indeed Chef Jeff found himself in Congress Park, but with different intentions. The area didn’t seem to fit the profile for sushi nor ramen, so he started 12 @ Madison at the end of the year. That same year, Chef Osaka refocused on Sushi Rama,opening one in 2017, another in Lone tree the next year, and scored a contract with Denver International Airport to open a Sushi Rama. Impressed yet? I am too.
And that leads us to Empire lounge, the twelve-year-old restaurant built in a forty-year-old restaurant. Filling the shoes of former head honcho Chef Jim Cohen, Chef Osaka stepped in as partner setting a new example and standard for both kitchen and establishment. Giving the lounge a different kind of brightness and leadership, Chef Jeff handed the controls to his kitchen staff allowing them to give input on the menu and giving credit where it’s due. Chef Jeff now rounding fifty-five years of age has since taken himself to the golf course. A game that takes precision, patience, and even a stroke of character and understanding of both oneself and opponent. He currently owns eight standing restaurants and lives a quiet life in Wheat Ridge. Where he may go next wasn’t fully disclosed, though ideas are percolating, but does it matter? He’s already accomplished so much and brought more than enough tastiness to our state.
From humble beginnings to a well-established and well-known Denver chef, I think it’s safe to say that that trip to the bathroom was well worth it. Who would ‘a thought? Cheers to you, Chef.