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Root Down's Justin Cucci dishes on pot, pussy and soup talk

Root Down's Justin Cucci dishes on pot, pussy and soup talk
Lori Midson

Justin Cucci Root Down 1600 West 33rd Avenue 303-993-4200 www.rootdowndenver.com

This is part one of my interview with Justin Cucci, owner and executive chef of Root Down and Linger. Part two of my interview will run in this space tomorrow.

Justin Cucci has spent the majority of his life in restaurants, having taken his first baby steps at the Waverly Inn, a heralded New York restaurant opened by his grandparents more than forty years ago. "I learned to walk there. I ate there and basically lived there for the first 25 years of my life -- mainly because the food was better and there were cuter girls than at home," says Cucci, the owner/executive chef of Root Down and, soon, Linger, a small-plate restaurant opening in Highland in May.

Cucci's infant steps soon led to bigger ones, and by the time he turned eighteen, he was firmly entrenched in the family business, taking turns as a busboy, bartender, server, floor manager and occasional chump. "The kitchen at the Waverly wasn't the teaching type, so I made it to the salad and pantry stations -- the chump stations -- but there was a strict code that it was the chef's kitchen and we had to stay out of it," recalls Cucci, who eventually managed his grandparents' restaurant. "I'd gone to college for a semester, dropped out, professed my love for the restaurant and convinced them to let me run it," which he did -- for eight years -- until his grandparents decided to sell it.

He stuck around for another year, but with new owners, the Waverly became "a different restaurant," he remembers, so he made his exit, bumped around New York for a while and then moved to Key West, where his mom and sister were living -- and where Cucci got his first real job in the kitchen. "I had decided that I ultimately wanted to be a chef -- that I wanted to get into the kitchen, if for no other reason than the back of the house could drink and play Steely Dan, unlike the front of the house, which has a lot of rules," explains Cucci. So he got a job as a line cook during the breakfast shift. "I loved that job, and I loved rocking breakfast. It's still my favorite meal," he says.

Unfortunately, he also had an obsession with orange juice that got him axed. "I got fired -- not for drinking booze -- but for drinking too much orange juice," confesses Cucci, who evened the score when he bought the restaurant from which he'd just been fired, turning it into a fast-casual joint that focused on vegetables. "It took off like a bomb," says Cucci, who then went on to open a "Floribian" restaurant -- a cross between Floridian and Caribbean -- before deciding that he was hungry for something else. Like a move to Denver.

 

He scored a job in the kitchen of the long-defunct Beehive (that spot is now Table 6), and was promptly kicked to the curb after his first shift. "I got hired and fired on the same day," recalls Cucci. But that didn't stop him from trying to get his foot back in the door: "When I took the job, I didn't know what the hell I was doing -- but I did know that I really, really wanted to work there, so for three months, I'd drop by every week or so, until finally, one night, the chef looked down the line at another guy and then asked me if I could start tomorrow." Cucci had been given another chance -- and this time he did it right, starting as a pantry plebe and moving up...and up...and up, until be became the sous chef. "I was probably the cheapest sous chef on the planet at the time," jokes Cucci, who stayed at the Beehive until it was sold, in 2001.

He returned to Florida, built on what he'd learned at the Beehive, made some money from a restaurant sale and then moved back to Denver in 2007. "I started looking for a space, found the garage that's now Root Down, embarked on what was a way too ambitious project that worked -- and did it my way," says Cucci, whose next restaurant, Linger, will focus on Turkish, Indian and Moroccan street foods, all of which will be sharable. "Entrees are dead," he insists.

Cucci, however, is very much alive -- and lively -- dishing on pot, pussy and the '80s party bus in the following interview.

Six words to describe your food: Available at Root Down and Linger.

Ten words to describe you: It's probably best to ask other people for their opinions.

Culinary inspirations: Cookbook author Deborah Madison, who has a great approach to food and was one of the first chefs, aside from Alice Waters, to plug into seasonality, farmers' markets and vegetable-focused food. And Janice Henning, the owner of the now-defunct Beehive, really exemplified a fresh approach to seasonal food, plus she brought meat and fish into the equation. She was a bohemian, while her sous chef, Yoann Lardeux, was the complete opposite: methodical, precise and very much the typical French chef, at least stylistically. With him, there was only one way to peel an onion -- and there were no variations. He did it his way, and he was a great chef. Willie Thompson, who was the chef of the Waverly Inn for 45 years -- and a great family friend -- personified persistence, integrity and consistency. The only time he didn't show up for work was when he had a heart attack -- the day after he had a mild stroke in the kitchen and didn't want to leave.

Favorite ingredient: Joy, because much of the industry is devoid of it, so it's really nice when something is made with it -- and it really does make food taste better.

Most overrated ingredient: Truffles. They really are overrated, and adding them to a dish doesn't make it better.

Most underrated ingredient: Common sense, probably because it's so rare and hard to find.

 

Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Lately, Noosa Yogurt, Bliss coconut-chocolate chip ice cream and Big B's Ginger Apple Cooler drink, all from Whole Foods.

Favorite spice: Piment d'Espelette -- a Basque pepper. It's delicate, yet adds a great depth of flavor. It's great on veggies and fish, and it has a pleasant heat to it but never overwhelms. Blah, blah, blah to the food words, descriptions and opinions: Just try it -- you'll like it.

Best recent food find: Biker Jim's reindeer dog. It's ridiculously addictive, plus he always tells me it's vegetarian so I don't have to feel guilty.

What's never in your kitchen? Pussies.

What's always in your kitchen? Pussy. I'm totally pro-female in the kitchen.

Favorite music to cook by: The music of a full restaurant bustling with hungry guests -- and all the lovely music made by the energy in a busy restaurant.

Rules of conduct in your kitchen: I've got a few choice quotes to answer this: "The trouble with most of us is that we would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism"; "The strength of a man's virtue should not be measured by his special exertions, but by his habitual acts"; "If you are going to achieve excellence in big things, you develop the habit in little matters. Excellence is not an exception, it is a prevailing attitude"; "Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work"; "Individual commitment to a group effort -- that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work"; and "Wisdom is knowing what to do next; virtue is doing it." In my own words, take the job seriously, but don't take yourself too seriously.

Biggest kitchen disaster: Cleaning -- and emptying -- 35 pounds of still-warm oil out of the fryer and into the container it came in, then lifting it by the handle and having the bottom melt out, essentially dropping a bomb made of hot oil all over the place. Cleaning five gallons of fryer oil off a kitchen floor took days -- and it sucked and was a disaster, and it was during a Key West summer, where the temperature was well over 300 degrees at night in December.

Weirdest customer request: Seriously, there's nothing that stands out. We get a lot of special requests because of allergies and the like, but the requests don't bother me -- nor do I keep track, because my staff and I are there to do whatever it takes to serve the guest. It's a simple formula. Plus, we have a safe word -- unicorn -- in case a guest's request involves S&M or bondage, so within those parameters, nothing is weird...except, of course, snowballing. We need to draw the line somewhere.

 

Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: A fucking triple-dose half a pot cookie given to me by one of Root Down's more insidious staff members at a Tracy Morgan show during last year's annual staff outing with the drunk bus driver of our '80s (in a bad way) "party bus" with no air conditioning, in Greenwood Village. Weirdest. Night. Ever.

One book that every chef should read: The Flavor Bible, because it's like the religious Bible -- but without all the fantasy. And it's about flavors, which is helpful for chefs.

What show would you pitch to the Food Network, and what would it be about? A show that makes fun of all the other cooking shows on the Food network -- like a Talk Soup aimed at the "We're doing such important things, like curing cancer and saving lives"-type attitudes of some of the people on that network. I'd call it "Soup Talk" -- either that, or I'd do a seasonal vegetarian cooking show.

What's your favorite knife? Is this where I'm supposed to mention my favorite Japanese knife that someone in the kitchen turned me on to? Okay, cool: It's a J.A. HENCKELS "Morimoto" knife that one of the line cooks let me use -- without him knowing. It's well balanced, feels good and sharp. Ka-pow!

Greatest accomplishment as a chef: I haven't achieved it yet, but I'm still trying. Having no greatest achievement is what keeps me going. It's all about the journey, not the destination.

Hardest lesson you've learned: That I'm not a rocket surgeon, and I can't lead a gift horse to water, so I'm stuck in the restaurant business. You can put that in the bank and smoke it.

Read the rest of Lori Midson's interview with Justin Cucci.

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