Chef Amos Watts, weeks from reopening The Fifth String, dies at 43

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Amos Watts, left, and Justin Brunson met in 2003 when Watts worked at Jax Fish House and Brunson was a regular there. (Courtesy Justin Brunson)

Denver chef Amos Watts, owner of The Fifth String, has died weeks ahead of the acclaimed restaurant’s reopening. 

Watts, 43, died Sunday morning after a medical episode, according to his friend Justin Brunson and former mentee Caroline Glover. Neither were fully sure of the nature of the episode. 

“He touched a lot of folks in his time here in Denver,” Brunson said. “He’s going to be greatly missed by all the chefs here in town. We all loved him. He was a giant man, a very amazing person.”

Brunson described Watts as “one of the most talented chefs Denver has ever seen.” But cooking wasn’t always his plan. 

“I wasn’t interested in anything in college,” Watts said in a 2011 interview with Westword. “And I never, ever thought I’d be a chef, but I dropped out of college, and my dad told me to go cook.”

Watts grew up in Nebraska and found his way to Denver to go to culinary school at Johnson & Wales University. He began working at Jax Fish House in LoDo and met Brunson, a regular at the restaurant, in 2003. 

Watts moved away from Denver and eventually landed in California, where he worked as sous chef at Cyrus, a Michelin Star-awarded restaurant. He returned to Denver around 2011 and eventually became the head chef at RiNo’s Acorn. 

It was at Acorn that Watts trained Caroline Glover, a James Beard award-winning chef who went on to open Annette and Traveling Mercies in the Stanley Marketplace. 

“He mentored quite a few young cooks that have gone on to open their own places or be executive chefs,” Glover said. “I think that speaks to the type of chef that he was. I know that was really important to him, that he provided as much knowledge as possible for people to grow. That has to be one of his biggest legacies.” 

Glover said she thrived under Watts’ guidance and high standards, learning how to balance flavors and pay attention to details. And after Acorn, she said Watts became a cheerleader for Annette and went from boss to friend. 

“He was definitely a force in the culinary world,” Glover said. “He was larger than life. I learned a ton under him.” 

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Amos Watts stands with Attimo Winery owner Jon Schlegel. The Fifth String operated within Attimo in recent months. (Courtesy Amos Watts)

Watts left Acorn around 2015 when Brunson asked him to be his executive chef at LoHi’s Old Major. The duo worked together for a few years before Watts left to help the owner of Acorn, Bryan Dayton, open the Mexican restaurant Corrida in Boulder in 2017. 

“Amos was one of my best friends,” Brunson said. “It was really amazing to work side by side with somebody that was so talented and fun.” 

Three years later, the pandemic hit, and Brunson wanted to get out of the restaurant business. So he sold his lease for the Old Major space at 3316 Tejon St., as well as all fixtures and equipment, to Watts. 

“He had huge aspirations to be on his own and operate a restaurant with his wife Jessica,” Brunson said. 

Watts and his wife opened The Fifth String in 2020, focusing on small-plate “upscale American” meals, wine and cocktails. They closed in LoHi last August, in part due to a health scare. Watts told BusinessDen in February that doctors found benign tumors on his jaw.

“I didn’t know if I’d be able to be a chef,” Watts said in February. “That was scary. I just wasn’t able to be there as much.”

Seven surgeries and a clean bill of health later, Watts said The Fifth String — which had been temporarily operating from a Ballpark winery — would reopen with its own space along Colfax in the Hale neighborhood

“We’re just ready to cook and bring back The Fifth String to its original state,” Watts said in February. 

The Fifth String — which Westword included on its 2023 “Top 100 Restaurants We Can’t Live Without” list — was less than two weeks from reopening at the time of Watts’ death, according Brunson. He said he doesn’t know what will now happen with the restaurant.

“He was one of the most jovial, funny, excited, energetic, beautiful humans I’ve ever met in my life,” Brunson said. “He loved everybody, working hard and cooking hard.” 

Watts is survived by his wife and two children, son Loren and daughter Sloane.

“He really made them a part of every venture he did,” Glover said of Watts’ family. “If you knew Amos, you knew his family and you knew how much they meant to him.”

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