Round two with Root Down's Justin Cucci: Linger, muthafuckas!!!!
This is part two of my interview with Justin Cucci, owner and executive chef of Root Down and Linger. Part one of my interview with Cucci ran in this space yesterday.
Favorite restaurant in America: I don't have one. Like most people who eat at restaurants, I'm fickle, and things change too much to have one favorite. It used to be the Little Mushroom Cafe in New York, which was my first Thai food experience -- but that was years ago. I lived across the street from them, like twenty steps, and I think I ordered more delivery food from them than the whole rest of the neighborhood. It was ridiculous, and after they got over the initial lunacy of getting a delivery order from across the street, they just went with it. I ordered from them almost every day. Then it was the Green Zebra in Chicago, which marked the first time I was blown away by a restaurant that took vegetarianism seriously -- and food seriously, as well. But the second time around, it moved off the top-ten list.
Best food city in America: New York. It's original gangster, and the city seems to have a great understanding of seconds, pennies and inches. It's where every second counts, every inch is used, and every penny is valuable. Plus, the food tastes good, and the right New York restaurants dispense with the bullshit and just get down to the business of making great food, in a great space, with great service.
Favorite Denver/Boulder restaurant(s) other than your own: Currently Marco's Coal-Fired Pizza -- his crust is boombastic and I never tire of the lasagna; Lola, because there's a new trilogy of guacamole, tomatillo and apple salsa and a goat cheese fundido, which gives me three vegetarian ways to get down; and Masalaa in Aurora, because it's hands-down a fresh dimension in Indian food, plus it's completely vegetarian, which makes it even better.
One food you detest: Menudo. It's just gross -- but even more so because it's a terrible boy band. Menudo released several albums that were moderately successful, during which new members replaced the original ones. However, it was in 1981 that the album Quiero Ser launched the group into stardom. The band lineup at the time was Rene Farrait, Johnny Lozada, Xavier Serbia, Miguel Cancel, Edgardo Diaz and Ricky Meléndez -- the only remaining original member. The album included hit songs like "Quiero Ser," "Súbete a Mi Moto," "Rock en la TV," "Claridad" and "Mi Banda Toca Rock." The group became very popular throughout Latin America, from Mexico to Argentina, including Brazil, although you may need a citation for that. During that time, Diaz was able to afford a Lockheed JetStar that had belonged to former American president Richard Nixon and the Shah of Iran. The plane carried Menudo's name on both sides of the fuselage and made it the first boy band ever with its own private jet. The group also had a fan base in Spain and the rest of Europe.
One food you can't live without: Ice cream. I'm an addict, in denial and relapsing all the time.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: Is this where I say, "I wish there were better (insert ethnic word here) restaurants in Denver?" and then go on to say "and more late-night restaurants that cater to (insert restaurant-industry job title here)"? Is that this section of the interview? Yes? Okay, cool, so I'd like to see better Indian restaurants -- and definitely more restaurants that stay open late that cater to bookkeepers that work in "the industry." There's only one industry, right? And definitely better delivery food.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: Less pork belly, truffles, lamb, bisques, cream, offal, veal, French desserts, truffle oil, bacon, innards, butter, French influences and people jizzing in their pants over charcuterie. And, yes, you heard me right: This is what I want less of. Let the haterade begin.
Favorite dish to cook at home: A veggie burger with aged Irish cheddar and hummus -- no bun.
Favorite dish on your menu: Currently -- again, I'm fickle -- French lentil and roasted tomato soup with crispy shallots and cumin crème fraîche. But that could change by tomorrow.
If you could put any dish on your menu, even though it might not sell, what would it be? Deep-fried, gluten-free, vegan medical marijuana brownies.
Current Denver culinary genius: I dropped out of school, so I'm going to answer this in the plural. I've got three: Biker Jim, because he sells hot dogs that taste really good and are completely addictive -- you can't hate on that; Daniel Asher at Root Down, because he's a raw-food vegetarian mad scientist who takes risks and whose creativity implodes into great-tasting food that feels good and tastes good, plus he's fully comfortable bending conceptions of stereotypes in food; and Victor Mena, the chef de cuisine at Root Down. He comes up with vibrant, diverse flavors that are complex and simple at the same time, he takes risks, and he has a quiet humility like the culinary ninja that he is. The last two may sound self-serving and self-promoting, but it's an honest answer.
Guiltiest food pleasure? Ice cream. It's my drug, and the ice cream from Little Man is my favorite.
You're making a pizza. What's on it? Cheese and sauce. I'm simple. Probably San Marzano tomato sauce and goat cheese -- but nonetheless cheese and sauce.
You're at the market. What do you buy two of? Bananas. It's super weird -- and slightly sexually suggestive -- to buy just one, and I don't want to deal with the look of disgust that buying one banana evokes. The checkout person is likely to call the perv police if you just buy one.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? A fifty-year-old balsamic vinegar that I got in, like, the '80s from Balducci's in Greenwich Village. I couldn't believe the flavors and the depth -- and that it was vinegar! It was better than my first Celine Dion concert, plus aging something for fifty years -- actually waiting for it to age -- is black-belt shit.
Best culinary tip for a home cook: Eat out at restaurants. It usually tastes better, and who wants to clean up the mess, anyway?
If you could cook for one famous chef, dead or alive, who would it be? Probably Alton Brown, so he could drop some constructive scientific criticism on me and tell me why I did what I did.
Favorite celebrity chef: Julia Child. She calls people "donkeys, "Muppets" and "cows," kicks garbage cans, says "fuck" a lot, and is a total demeaning asshole to line cooks. Oh, wait, that might be Gordon Ramsay. I always mix them up.
Celebrity chef that should shut up: That guy -- Guy, who cooks on that game show with the flavor saver and a minute to win something using a Swiffer, or something with golf balls, or sushi tacos on a dragon, or some shit like that. That guy -- yes, that Guy.
Are chefs artists, craftsmen or both? Artists are the artists, musicians are the musicians, and chefs are in the service industry. We're here to provide a service, and there's an art to providing service -- but the cooking part is a craft. Let's leave it at that.
What's next for you? Two words, four exclamation points and one comma: Linger, muthafuckas!!!!
Last meal before you die: Seriously? A glass of cold, reverse-osmosis Root Down water with lemon, so I die hydrated with a zesty citrus taste in my mouth. Besides, entrees are dead.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Denver dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.