What: Old Major
Where: 3316 Tejon Street
Pros: Pastry Chef Nadine Donovan is one of Denver’s rising stars. She crafts well-balanced, creative, and utterly delicious desserts to compliment the farmhouse cuisine at Old Major. While most of her desserts rotate seasonally, don’t miss the french macarons, or the maple bacon creme caramel (which never leaves the menu).
Cons: Old Major isn’t open for lunch, so you’ll have to stop in for dinner (or perhaps just dessert?).
It’s hard to believe that Old Major, Chef Justin Brunson’s woodsy, pig-centric spot in the Highlands has been open for over a year now. We’ve covered the buzzy restaurant from the beginning, documenting the overall experience, the brunch menu, and the happy hour. What haven’t we covered yet? Pastry chef Nadine Donovan, the mastermind behind all of the breads and desserts at Old Major. Donovan has been turning heads with her top-notch desserts since OM opened, but her career is really heating up. She was recently selected as one of the members of the Denver Five and will be cooking at the James Beard House in New York City this fall. I stopped by to chat with her and sample some desserts off her most current summer menu.
“I come from a long line of bakers.”
The stunning open kitchen at Old Major is all gleaming stainless steel, filled with cooks moving at a frenetic pace. Among them is Chef Donovan, a picture of calm concentration. While many chefs pursue other careers before finding their true callings, pastry has been in Donovan’s cards since birth. “I come from a long line of bakers,” she says. “My grandfather was a bread baker in England, and my mother was a pastry chef in Canada, so I kind of naturally fell into kitchens.” Her professional start in pastry was scooping ice cream at Parisi’s, after which Donovan attended culinary school and went on to work at Fuel Café with Chef Bob Blair. After a successful tenure there, Donovan decided to move to Portland to experience a different culinary scene. She baked bread at New Cascadia, meanwhile gaining experience by staging at Le Pigeon and The Woodsman Tavern, two of Portland’s top restaurants.
At that time, Justin Brunson was looking for a pastry chef for Old Major, and Jonathan Greschler, Old Major’s former general manager and previously a Fuel employee, recommended Donovan. The pair flew out to Portland and spent a weekend with her, and the rest was history. Donovan promptly moved back to Denver and accepted the gig.
At Old Major she crafts a seasonally rotating roster of desserts, as well as making all of the restaurant’s breads. Everyone who sits down for dinner is welcomed with a warm, tender pretzel roll served with mustard butter. Don’t skip the ham and biscuits, a small plate combining house smoked ham with Donovan’s warm cheddar chive biscuits and a touch of red pepper jam. I could make a meal of these alone.
Desserts at Old Major
Whatever you do, when you go to Old Major, save room for dessert. Donovan changes the menu frequently to use the freshest produce. One dessert that never leaves the menu, however, is the maple bacon crème caramel. “I know it can be cliché to do a bacon dessert, but Brunson owns Denver Bacon Company, so I had to work bacon in somehow.” Donovan steeps bacon in the custard base, imbuing it with a subtle smokiness that pairs well with the maple. The silkiness was offset by the crunchy bourbon popcorn. While the glassy candied bacon added a gorgeous magenta color to an otherwise beige plate, I found the texture tough and unappealing, almost like a piece of dried out jerky. This didn’t really affect my enjoyment of the creme caramel, however, which I ate almost all of.
One of Donovan’s newest summer desserts is the Meyer lemon bar, which certainly reads like a simple farmhouse treat. Yet on the plate, this sophisticated dessert smartly combined elements of multiple classic lemon sweets. A lemon poppy seed ice cream and shards of crispy lemon pound cake augmented the creaminess of the lemon bar. An olive oil powder provided balance and intrigue. Donovan uses tapioca maltodextrin to turn fats into powders. When the powder hits your mouth it melts back into a liquid. This technique wasn’t just for show—it elevated an otherwise accessible, straightforward dessert.
Donovan always has a seasonal macaron on the menu as a small bite option for those who can’t handle an entire dessert. The chocolate orange macaron I tasted was textbook perfection.
While the funnel cake Donovan has just added to the summer menu was fun and light, the Rocky Mountain Road was probably my favorite play on summer flavors. This dessert was a walk down a road of texture and temperature, sweet and salty. Roasted marshmallow semifreddo, warm fudge, a pecan brownie, toasted meringue, and chunks of aerated chocolate make for a deeply satisfying chocolate lover’s dream. This dessert perfectly illustrates what Donovan does best—clean flavor profiles with an attention to contrasting texture, temperature, and salty-sweet that makes for perfectly balanced desserts.
When I asked Donovan if she still eats desserts, she replied quickly—“Absolutely! That would be like a chef not going out to eat. I’m always looking to be inspired by new things. ” She is clearly someone with who brings passion and creativity to her craft. At just 24 years old, maybe that explains why she seems to have a wealth of experience beyond her years, and she’s definitely getting the national recognition for it. And luckily for us Denverites, she plans to stay in the Mile High City. “You can really grow and shine here more than other places,” she said. “Old Major is my home now.”
All photos by Jackie Collins.