Justin Brunson -- and his staff -- sail away from Wild Catch

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Lori Midson

"This is not how I wanted it to go down," admits Justin Brunson.

But he had a premonition it would. Several weeks ago, Brunson, the sandwich earl behind Masterpiece Deli and the opening executive chef/co-owner of Wild Catch, the sustainable seafood restaurant that he opened in late August with partner Daniel Kuhlman, who owns Tastes Wine Bar on Tennyson Street, was cooking as a guest chef in the kitchen of another Denver restaurant when he confided that he wasn't happy with the way things were operating at Wild Catch. "It's not going the way I had envisioned," he told me. "I might have no choice but to walk."

And on Saturday, that's exactly what he -- and his staff -- did.

When I spoke with Brunson early on Friday, before the fallout at Wild Catch, he was trying to seal a deal to buy Kuhlman out, which would have left Brunson as the sole owner. The two met late Friday, and, according to Brunson, the meeting didn't go well: "This was my concept, and my staff and I built this whole restaurant -- and we did it without getting paid a damn dime and on the premise that Daniel had money in the bank to run with, which, I later found out, wasn't true, but we'd settled on a final price." And then, says Brunson, "Daniel changed it."

But while that factor irked Brunson, he stresses that a lack of communication, and, more important, the insistence on Kuhlman's part that Brunson and his accountant couldn't view the restaurant's financials is what eventually convinced him to pack his knives...and go. "This is the deal: I'm not an accountant, I'm a fucking chef, and Daniel refused to let me or my accountant look at the books, which is just insanity," says Brunson. "I have to look out for myself and my family, and it was important to me to make sure I was making a good investment."

And while Brunson acknowledges that he had his doubts early on, he had every intention of making it work for as long as possible. "Daniel didn't know how to open a proper restaurant, but I had a staff of twenty kick-ass people working with me -- people I really care about, people who are my friends -- and with the holidays coming up, the last thing I wanted was for this to fall apart," he says. "Instead of sitting here fielding phone calls and text messages from people, I'd much rather be cooking with my staff and looking after them."

Brunson took the night off on Friday to evaluate his situation and discuss it with his wife, and on Saturday, he'd made his decision. "I resigned and went to the restaurant and told my staff that at the end of the day, I couldn't do this any longer," he says, adding that he strongly encouraged both his cooks and the front of the house to continue working for Kuhlman, despite the fact that on Friday, during pre-shift, Kuhlman sent over a locksmith to change the locks (ex-manager Jonathan Greschler stopped him from succeeding) -- and later canceled the restaurant's valet service. But even after Brunson's plea, his cooks chose to follow the chef's lead, and later, so did the front of the house, including Greschler.

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Wild Catch - CLOSED

1033 E. 17th Ave., Denver, CO

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36 comments
Kyarger
Kyarger

The food at Wild Catch was amazing. I am sad to hear it will no longer be under Mr. Brunson's direction. 

Lbortolotto
Lbortolotto

Ok People.  Let's just resign ourselves to the fact that Westword and Cafe Society are NOT journalism.  This isn't the New York Times, after all!  Let's just admit that this is a venue for chatty, catty gossip and we LOVE it!

creativegirl1
creativegirl1

Wild Catch was amazing.  Just ate there on Friday.  I do think he has some of the best food in the country.  Sorry to hear what is happening but I will follow Justin anywhere he goes.  Until then, back to Masterpiece Deli!

Philo99
Philo99

Apparently Justin Brunson didn’t do any due diligence before he jumped into business with Mr. Kuhlman. He may have blinded by the thought of owning his own fine dining establishment but you still need to do your research before you jump into bed with a weasel like Kuhlman.Anyone that has worked for Kuhlman, done business with Kuhlman or visited one of his restaurants knows this was his standard operating procedure.  It wasn’t a secret across the industry. When he first opened Taste’s on 17th most of his staff walked out and I believe some sued him for not getting paid. Just asking a few former employees would have saved a lot of wasted time. Residents of the Berkley neighborhood know to stay away Tastes, the service is horrible, the food is worse and the place opens and closes constantly.  Any interaction with Kuhlman has always been horrible.  Justin I wish and your staff the best of luck and hope you learned your lesson here, only deal with people of integrity. I believe it may be the place you are already looking at but the Sabor Latino location at 36th and Tennyson is open and waiting for a great restaurant.

Just Sayin'
Just Sayin'

Why did Justin wait to conduct due diligence until after he wanted to buy out his partner? Regardless of talent as a chef, the narrative, and who’s to blame here, who co-opens a restaurant without FIRST looking at financials?

try.fail.try
try.fail.try

It's not like this was the first place Justin walked out from. Perhaps he is a good chef but the moment he opens his mouth things go down hill. 

Jeff
Jeff

When the entire front and back of house staff walks out because of one guy, the "other side of the story" probably isn't very interesting.

Gjandrews
Gjandrews

Nice save Lori! Other side of story just posted although we all know Justin and Jon were the ONLY ones behind the greatness that wild catch could've been!

Tomjohnson1968
Tomjohnson1968

What if it's the chef, not the owner, who called the staff to tell them not to come in as a way to sabotage things? Maybe Cafe Society doesn't claim to be true journalism (because it's a Blog?) but as some other comments have suggested, this isn't journalism, it's just a bunch of quotes from an angry chef --- but problematic since it's given imprimatur of validity by Westword, an otherwise great newspaper. Did the author really claim above that "fact checking" is completed by interviewing *one* person? Also, so interesting that the chef would even do this interview with so many inflammatory quotes, if there's a true business disagreement, the proper thing to do would be to leave professionally, this Brunson guy seems to have lit things afire.

KWNissen
KWNissen

I'm glad to see Justin's PR firm got to Westword before the truth. Must be true about the pants. I'll remember that her stories are written without even a nod to real journalism in the future...

cake
cake

You moron, we are all broke and cook for passion.  No PR firm......hard work

christina
christina

There's something to be said for an entire staff that walks out with their Chef.

Looks like you don't need the other side of the story, Justin implied no one was being paid and the guy wouldn't let the accountant see the books.  I think it's pretty self explanatory.  Justin already has a successful business, he knows how to run a business.  It's obvious that Kuhlman does not know how to run a business otherwise he'd still be up and running.

Guest
Guest

So true. Justin IMPLIED that no one was being paid. Seriously, you think an entire restaurant full of employees went 3 MONTHS with no pay? That they were so devoted to Justin that they kept working for over 90 days without a single paycheck???!  From what I've heard, the only one who "didn't get paid" was Justin himself, who is an owner. Get it? An OWNER, not an employee. Right or wrong, owners of new restaurants sometimes don't get paid for 6 months, unless they have serious capital behind them to pay them out of the red. It can take at least 6 months for a restaurant to become profitable. So if Justin became the sole owner, then who would he be whining to about his lack of a paycheck?

Foodie23
Foodie23

So says Justin. If we take the word of every Tom, Dick, and Justin, then I'm president of the United States and gasoline is free. Doesn't make it true.

Foodie23
Foodie23

Seriously, Lori, I've never seen a more one-sided story. This isn't journalism, it's propaganda. Are you going to write a second story strictly from Mr. Kuhlman's point of view?

Jim Rome
Jim Rome

Was every other employee who walked out interviewed as well? Seems to me if everyone was jumping ship there probably was a pretty good cause behind it.

Francondomi
Francondomi

I, too, would like to hear Kuhlman's side of the story. Was he interviewed too?

Lbortolotto
Lbortolotto

A good rule for the restaurant business:

The ONLY partner you should ever work with is the Bank.

Etaibaron
Etaibaron

....and always, always, have more than one banker...

Number Three
Number Three

I heard Tebow was gonna run the kitchen from now on. The first 3 courses are going to SUCK but he'll really nail the fourth course.

XO,#3

Patrick Ryan
Patrick Ryan

Wow, there's a lot here, Lori.  Did you really fact check this story?

Lori Midson
Lori Midson

No, I made it all up -- Justin's quotes and all. 

therealdavebarnes
therealdavebarnes

considering you can't even get neighborhoods/counties right on this website I don't think the question was out of line.  Quotes aren't always facts by the way.

Joseph
Joseph

A chef's got to do what a chef's got to do. Best wishes Justin & crew!

Number Three
Number Three

What happened to all the fresh seafood? FISH FRY AT MY HOUSE!!!!!

XO, #3

PS I hope all the staff went away with free iPads too:)

katie
katie

it would be fair to know both sides of the story, but two things come to mind when reading this:1.  tastes sucked.  the food was awful and so was the service.  having wild catch in the neighborhood was a vast improvement and brought a fresh energy to the dining scene here. the people running wild catch were far more experienced and refined than whoever was overseeing tastes.  the staff, both front and back of house, were a fantastic team of denver restaurant veterans and it showed in every aspect of the wild catch expereince.

2.  regardless of the discrepancy in justin's story or daniel's story, an entire restaurant staff doesn't just walk out on their employment and their income unless it's REALLY BAD.  

best of luck to the displaced staff.  sorry to hear about this.

Kandi Korne
Kandi Korne

Katie, so glad you'd responded. As one of Chef's dedicated front of the house staff members, I must disclose that many of us are NOT Denver restaurant veterans and actually moved here quite recently based on the desire to help build the culinary scene and hospitality expectations of this tremendous city to where Denver could be better recognized on a national scale. (Truly, some of us have worked for a solid handful of The Best Chefs in the country.) It is a CRYING SHAME to see how this deal/no-deal came about and how, as an ordeal, Wild Catch collapsed just as quickly. Though the warning signs were apparent, our service staff never expected to show up Saturday afternoon to a pin-drop-quiet kitchen, immediate notice of reservation cancellations, being told to gather our belongings and then an offer to stick around for one Last Supper together, brisket. (Perhaps a semi-decent offer, but sorry, uh, "Brisket. No thanks.") Certainly, this is a sad state of affairs for what was a fabulous new addition to Denver proper. We hang our heads.

Scott
Scott

I love brisket.

Jon S
Jon S

Too bad, I didn't even get a chance to try Wild Catch and was looking forward to it. I'd like to hear the other side of the story as well. I've always liked the Tastes on Tennyson and went to their grand re-opening party on Saturday night and had a great time. I have a hard time believing the problems were all on Kuhlman's side.

I bet the comments on this post will be almost as fun as the TAG story, though.

Jacob Harkins
Jacob Harkins

Would like to know the other side of the story. 

Ebethcheese
Ebethcheese

This is too sad and a real loss to the Denver dining scene.  I can't wait until Justin and team return!!!

epl
epl

Actually had a reservation there for Saturday night and got a surprising call at about 3:00 letting me know that they were shutting down.  Luckily Tables was able to squeeze us in last minute, but am really disappointed that I was never able to try Wild Catch. 

davebarnes
davebarnes

Lori,Loved this scoop.Very entertaining.,dave

Mantonat
Mantonat

Real shame - my one meal there convinced me that they were in the forefront of the Denver restaurant scene. Hoping for the best for Justin and his crew.

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