In early March, after Jeremy Kittelson, the opening exec chef of Ambia, was canned during a to-the-point meeting at the Cheesecake Factory, he made it clear that he wanted to stay in Denver: "I really want to find another restaurant, where we can do the same caliber of great cuisine that we did at Ambria. I love it here in Denver, and I'm ready to move on and embrace the next challenge," he told me.
His wish was Justin Cucci's command.
"Justin contacted me a few days after that whole thing went down and said that he'd like to meet with me about coming on board, and after three or four meetings during the course of a month, we both knew it would be a good fit," says Kittelson, adding that Cucci, the exec chef/owner of Root Down and Linger, was exactly the kind of chef with whom he wanted to share kitchen space.
"I was so impressed with Justin. He's a great restaurateur, a great chef and an amazing visionary, and after coming in and staging for a few nights, I realized that I hadn't seen this kind of commitment and dedication to products since I worked at Blackbird in Chicago," reveals Kittleson, who was hired as the kitchen manager at Root Down -- a job created solely for him and a position that he predicts will likely evolve.
"When Justin and I talked, we discussed what kind of role I would have and what kind of potentially realistic opportunities would exist for me, and I'm comfortable that my current role will expand into a larger one -- that's the intention."
And since Cucci, divulges Aubrey Cornelius, who handles the public relations efforts for Root Down and Linger, is opening a second Root Down at DIA (the contract is still being finalized, but according to Cornelius, it's all but a done deal), that would pave the way for Kittelson to spearhead his own kitchen. "Justin and I talked about some of the basics surrounding the Root Down kitchen at DIA, and I'd love to get that set up; I love a challenging environment," he says.
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In the meantime, Kittelson, who stepped on the line of Root Down just over a week ago, stresses that the kitchen, which is commanded by chef Victor Mena, is a perfect launching pad for what's next. "It's so legitimate here -- this is a real team that's not about egos, and when I interviewed, I saw an executive chef and restaurateur who has two of the most successful restaurants in Denver, and I wanted to align myself with someone who clearly challenges conventional dining."
And, Cucci, for his part, couldn't be happier to have Kittelson in the kitchen. "I'm super-excited about him coming on board, and I love his food and talent. He's definitely going to be a good fit."
All's well that ends well.