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Behind The Apron: Joe Brunner, Mezzaluna

Photos by J. Alan Paul Photography

When it comes to dining, we often glance at a menu, patiently wait with a growling stomach and then devour what is soon placed in front of us. However, many of us don’t quite understand all that goes on behind the scenes and how these delicious dishes get from point A to point Belly. We talked with a variety of chefs throughout the area and let them give us a peek into a day in their lives. Their culinary delights don’t just appear out of thin air and should not be treated as such. Join us in exploring what it really takes to be able to don a chef’s apron.

Joe Brunner


309 Roberts St. N., Fargo

About Mezzaluna

Located downtown, just behind the historic Fargo Theatre, is Mezzaluna, a casual, fine dining spot. Expect an upscale eatery with the decor and menu of a big-city restaurant, the warmth and familiarity of a small-town joint and the mystique of a 1920s speakeasy.

South Fargo native Joe Brunner is the newest Executive Chef at Mezzaluna. Brunner, however, did not come to the chef life from birth. After a two year stint studying Criminal Justice at NDSU, he decided to switch over to NDSCS culinary school in Wahpeton to follow something he’s always known: cooking. Growing up around his mother and grandmother cooking inspired him to switch back into this life, and Fargo eaters are thankful for this decision.

After working with Eric Watson, owner of Rustica and Mosaic Foods, at NDSCS, Watson approached Brunner about a job working with him at Rustica and Mezzaluna. Brunner rose through the ranks, becoming sous chef to Watson and then ultimately executive chef of Mezzaluna. In April, Brunner joined co-owner Taylor Snelling in taking over Mezzaluna, all while ensuring the Fargo staple stayed true to its roots.

Brunner and his team at Mezzaluna release four seasonal menus throughout the year, so he always is on his toes and thinking of new things to feature. “We have to think of the time and what is in season with our local farmers. Me and my sous chefs brainstorm and research. We sit together and come up with ideas, maybe based on what we have done before,” said Brunner. Keeping the menu new and fresh each month is certainly a task that pays off with diners who frequent Mezzaluna.

“When you find that dish and you know it’s the one, that’s the best part of the job,” said Brunner. “We’ve gone through so many dishes where you put out the dish and it sounded great in your mind, but it just ended up not working.” After processes of trial and error, Brunner noted that when it all falls into place and both himself and the customer are satisfied, it’s the most rewarding experience.

Food from Mezzaluna
Mezzaluna’s Fargo Original braised pork shank with roasted corn puree, pickled fennel relish and ginger gremolata.

A Day In The Life

7:30 AM: Wake up. Check my phone for messages and e-mails. Get up and grab something quick to eat.

8:00 AM: Leave the house. Stop and grab a coffee on the way into the restaurant.

8:30 AM: Get to the restaurant and unlock the doors for deliveries and staff to show up. Get down to the office, send some more emails, double check orders coming in for the day to check if I’ll have to head to the store to grab a couple of things.

9:00 AM: Organize prep list for the day for everyone (including myself) to execute before the PM cooks show up at 4PM.

9:15 AM: Start knocking out big prep projects like 6-hour braised pork shanks, braised duck leg, salmon fabrication, beef tenderloin fabrication, chicken fabrication, duck fabrication and soups/sauces.

10:00 AM: Morning staff shows up (Sous Chef, Prep Cook, Dishwasher). We have a little get together to determine who is going to do what and if they know how everything is done. If not, I or my Sous Chefs Jared and Brittney will show how it is done. Training and teaching are a big thing at Mezzaluna. Knowing every project and station is key.

11:00 AM – 2:00 PM: Meetings with representatives from all my distributors throughout the week. Once the prep list and store runs are finished, I give my team a little break before we roll into dinner service. During this time, I like to take a second and do some research about different seasons, different flavors, different concepts that maybe we would want to feature in our upcoming menu. We’re always looking for something different.

3:00 PM: Meet with Front of the House managers to talk about Reservations and to organize how service is going to go from both sides of the restaurant.

4:00 PM: PM crew shows up for dinner service (doors open at 5). Ensure that they have everything they need.

5:00 – 9:00PM: Doors open. Friday and Saturdays, I’m the Expo, which means I organize and send out all the food to the guests. After the rush is over, Jared (my sous chef) and I go downstairs in the prep kitchen to brainstorm and spitball ideas we came up with throughout the day.

10:00 PM: Start to wrap up what I’m working on. Make sure everyone is looking good on their Mise en Place for the night. Once they’re all good to go, I’ll take off.

10:30 PM – 11:30: Leave the restaurant.

11:00 PM – 1:00 AM: Get home. My girlfriend, Nevada, gets home around the same time so I like to make us something to eat, but nothing crazy. I start to wind down and just watch some TV. Some would say that’s a perfect time to try and get away from the restaurant, but that never works out. The only TV I find myself watching is anything to do with cooking and food. Even while watching TV I’ll open one of my cook books and look up something I just thought of…it’s never ending. But that is why I love what I do, this career is ever changing. And with what I want Mezzaluna to be, we have to stay with and even ahead of the trends. After all this, I’m ready for bed and I hit the sack, excited for what tomorrow is going to bring.

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Alexandra Martin

Written by Alexandra Martin

Alexandra Martin is the editor of Fargo Monthly. She hails from Huntsville, Alabama, but graduated from Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri with a degree in Fashion Communications. When she's not in the office, she is busy taking care of her small zoo of pets, cooking up vegetables, or listening to true-crime podcasts.

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