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