It hasn't exactly been all spring flowers for Justin Cucci, the owner of Root Down. Despite snatching a Best of Denver award for its unassailable contemporary cocktail roster (served by a cadre of the town's coolest bartenders), Jason Sheehan skewered the joint in a review published in early April, and now comes word that on April 24, just after service, Cucci booted exec chef Ryan Leinonen, the guy responsible for putting out the tofu pot pie that Sheehan called a "culinary Frankenstein-ism," and which may have led, at least in part, to Leinonen's dismissal.
"I didn't feel like my standards for the kitchen were being executed well, so I let him go," explained owner Justin Cucci when I got him on the phone this morning. "I'm a chef-owner, a lifelong kitchen guy and very hands-on, and I think Ryan expected a kitchen without any interference. The problem, though, is that consistency was always an issue with Ryan, and he got very frustrated because we were always so busy. I'd tell him that you can't choose your success, that this is what's happening, so embrace it. I was more than willing to give him more equipment, more staff, but in the end, his biggest flaw was that he couldn't handle the volume."
And volume is something this almost-six-month-old restaurant at 1600 West 33rd Avenue has to contend with on a daily basis, including this past Saturday, when I bellied up to the convivial bar to watch the Kentucky Derby post-commentary. By the time I left at 7 p.m., the bar was eight-deep, the dining room full. "We never expected such a floodgate," confessed Cucci, "and being so busy from the beginning meant that I couldn't be in the kitchen as much as I wanted to be."
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But that's all changing. "I'm going to be taking a much more active role in the kitchen, and because of that, I don't plan to hire a new executive chef. I really don't want a kitchen liaison any longer," admitted Cucci.
The menu has changed too, sort of. The infamous pot pie is gone. "It didn't fit on the spring menu, and while we might have revamped it if it was January, and not April, it just wasn't in check, so we dropped it," said Cucci.
As for Leinonen, Root Down's dropped chef who'd come from The Kitchen, he's not saying a whole lot. "It wasn't a good fit for me," he wrote in an e-mail. "I'm taking a few weeks for myself, doing some part-time consulting work and carefully entertaining some offers of employment. I'm being very open-minded about what the future holds."
And what does the future hold for Cucci? He just wants to get it right at Root Down. "No excuses," he told me. "I want everything to be perfect."