Cafe Society

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

Page 3 of 4

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.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Lori Midson
Contact: Lori Midson