How does Old Major, a Denver restaurant known for its butchery and charcuterie programs, serve some of the best seafood in the area? As Chef/Owner Justin Brunson explains, it’s all about getting the best fish out there — not the most, the easiest to find, or the cheapest, but the best.
Operating in a landlocked state poses plenty of challenges for a seafood program. But Justin, who’s also the owner of the Denver sandwich shop Masterpiece Deli, has put time and effort into finding the right purveyors and crafting a menu based on quality and sustainability.
Read on for his best sourcing tips and learn how Old Major became about “seafood, swine and wine.”
Weed out the bad purveyors
Since opening Old Major, Justin estimates he’s worked with about 30 different seafood purveyors. Now, he’s narrowed it down to three: Foods In Season in Portland; Foley’s Fish House in Boston; and Fortune Fish in Chicago. And he prides himself on having built trusting relationships with each of them.
“These are the guys I feel are doing what they all say they’re doing,” says Justin. “They really work close with the fishermen. It comes out of the water and it’s at my spot within 24 hours, which is important to me.”
The problem, Justin says, is that new purveyors will send along samples of their seafood that blow you away — but then, once you start buying from them, the quality of the second and third orders drops dramatically. Look for people who send you the best product every time, not just the first time. If it’s not perfect, they should replace it.
“Be very wary of anybody who sends you an amazing sample box, and then three shipments later it’s not of the same quality. That means they can get it in the highest quality, but they aren’t giving it to you.”
Narrow your selection
Old Major is known for its oysters, but instead of offering a huge variety, Justin features an Oyster of the Day. He brings in oysters through his purveyor, Foley’s Fish, and focuses on quality over quantity. His oysters, he says, rival the quality of the fatty, salty, briny ones he loves from the East Coast.
“Why have 20 kinds when you can just have one that’s the best? I don’t want to eat 20 kinds, I want to eat the best.”
Pass on higher costs to customers
Flying in hundreds of pounds of high-quality, sustainable seafood to a landlocked state four days a week is expensive. Justin runs a higher food cost on his seafood program at Old Major than in other areas of the menu, but he says customers understand the value and appreciate the quality.
“Don’t be afraid to charge people!” he says. “Good stuff’s expensive. Cheap seafood means not good seafood in my world. It’s one of those things that, being landlocked here, should be a luxury item.”
Source what’s right (not just what you like)
Justin loves tuna, but you’ll never see it on his menu at Old Major. Instead, he seeks out sustainable seafood like walleye, oysters, lobsters, mussels, and properly harvested scallops. Any species that are over-fished or fisheries that are unmanaged will stay out of his kitchen.
“Just trying to be responsible to the environment is a huge part of being a chef today. And using sustainable fish is a key part of that.”
Part of sustainability is also sourcing seasonal fish. Right now it’s halibut season, so Old Major is serving halibut; next it will be walleye, then later this summer, lobster. Justin’s menu changes throughout the year according to what’s abundant. “I want the best fish at the highest point of quality they can harvest.”
Photo Credit: Dave Brown