In My Kitchen: Justin Cucci, Owner and Chef, Root Down

January 2011

Justin Cucci learned to cook by looking over chefs’ shoulders at the Waverly Inn in New York City, which his grandparents owned. But in 2000, he headed west in search of something new. He found a job at the Beehive, but the farm-to-table concept was so foreign to Cucci that he was fired after one shift. After much persistence, he was rehired—and promoted to sous chef within the year. By then, however, he was craving change and followed family to Key West, Florida, and opened a restaurant. Five years later, Cucci sold his eatery and returned to Denver to open Root Down in 2008. He hasn’t stopped there: Linger, his new small-plate restaurant in lower Highland, is slated to open shortly.

Soy Joy Through a personal quest to better understand soy sauce, Cucci has ended up with a collection that would make any sushi restaurant jealous. The most intriguing is a sweet soy with a thick, syrupy consistency. He has had it for about two years, and the bottle is covered in dust. “I don’t have much use for it, but at least I understand [the condiment] better now,” Cucci says.

Quick Tip “Put vinegar in soups,” Cucci says. It brightens the flavors and “makes the taste buds come alive.” Cucci recommends using sherry vinegar or other kinds of acid like lemon juice. Don’t overdo it; a little bit goes a long way.

Yard Work Cucci’s art collection includes works from Ginger Green, the same artist who painted the modern pieces that adorn the walls of Root Down. Green, an artist in Key West, sold the paintings to Cucci by the yard—for an incredible deal.

There’s No Place Like Home As an homage to his roots, Cucci has a few framed reminders of his New York days, including a bus ad for the Waverly Inn from the early 1980s.

A Nut for Butters The cupboards in Cucci’s kitchen are filled with a variety of organic items, including butters and spreads. The butters ranges from traditional peanut to hazelnut and chocolate-coconut. He even makes his own nut butters at Root Down for the raw menu.

The Enlightened Kitchen Cucci has an impressive collection of religious art—including these Buddha statues in his kitchen. “I’ve always loved collecting religious things,” he says. For him, though, the collection is about art rather than faith.

    Dried Cherry & Toasted Oat Waffles with Noosa Honey Yoghurt (Serves 4–6)
  • 5 ½ ounces old-fashioned rolled oats
  • 4 ounces all-purpose flour
  • 3 tablespoons brown sugar
  • ¼ teaspoon ground ginger
  • ¼ teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • 3 large eggs, beaten
  • 2 ounces unsalted butter, melted and cooled
  • 16 ounces buttermilk (room temperature)
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla
  • Noosa Honey Yoghurt (for garnish)
  • ½ cup rehydrated dried cherries (soak in hot water for 5 minutes)
  • maple syrup
  • Toast the oats in a 10-inch sauté pan over medium heat, about 3 minutes. Grind the cooled, toasted oats in a food processor until they reach the consistency of whole-wheat flour, about 3 minutes. Whisk together the toasted oat flour, all-purpose flour, brown sugar, ground ginger, cinnamon, baking powder, salt, and baking soda in a medium bowl. Whisk the eggs and melted butter together in another bowl, and then add the buttermilk and vanilla.
  • Add the wet ingredients to the dry and stir until combined. Do not over mix. Rest the batter for 5 minutes. Cook in a waffle iron until golden brown. Serve with a dollop of yogurt, rehydrated cherries, and maple syrup.