It’s An A.D.D., Vegetable-Driven World For Justin Cucci At Linger

Jul 18, 2012 11:01 am

Denver restaurateur is making bold moves

Linger owner Justin Cucci.
Linger owner Justin Cucci.
 
Crispy chicken bun dressed with kimchi and maple syrup.
Crispy chicken bun dressed with kimchi and maple syrup.
 

I was in Denver on a massive restaurant crawl (5 in 5 hours to be exact). One of the stops was at Linger, a very popular restaurant in the Highland neighborhood. During my stop I jumped between a Oaxacan tamale, paper-thin lentil dosa and a crispy chicken bun dressed with kimchi and maple syrup.

This sort of A.D.D. dining is not for everybody. But for me, it was working. I sat down with the restaurant’s owner Justin Cucci for a quick chat.

On your vegetarian-ish menu, you have so many cuisines covered — between Asian, South Asian, African, European and Eurasian. How do you keep it all straight?
It’s a team sport. One of our sous-chefs is really into Asian stuff. Daniel [Asher] and I are more vegetable focused. Just by being vegetarian, sort of, we’re exposed to so many more cultural foods. So you have to eat some Indian food, eat some Turkish food, eat some Moroccan food. I think because Daniel and I have a big vegetarian background, we’re used to crazy flavors.

What’s that background?
Just vegetarian. We’re both wannabe vegetarian.

So it’s vegetable-driven, but not vegetarian?
Exactly.

How often do you switch your menu?
We do it about every 2-3 weeks, but we don’t do it in its entirely. Now we’re at [version] 9.0. We do that many small changes, it’s not like one big change and there’s four per year.

How do you fit into the Denver restaurant scene?
We’re lucky. Denver has definitely taken a liking. I think, as a team sport menu, we’re stronger as a group than one guy. I like to say we’re The Beatles, not Bob Dylan or Bruce Springstein. It’s like four people working together to come up with something that’s way more diverse and unique than just one guy. I think a lot of places are singular chef-driven, but I like to say I’m like a democratic dictator.

Are you Jewish?
I am.

Are you doing any type of Jewish-Ashkenazi cuisine?
No, I wondered if that would culinarily really come across here, and honestly as a Jewish New Yorker, Jewish food is probably the last thing I ate in New York. I ate every type of cuisine other than the 2nd Avenue Deli…

I’ve been a Jewish New Yorker for 10 years. It’s really not what I want. I like the Lebanese and Israeli Jewish cooking.
Right, right. Or Moroccan. Jewish food is not super restaurant-savvy, or super interesting.

Where were you in New York?
I lived in Manhattan for 26 years. My family and I grew up in the Waverly Inn, so I grew up in a restaurant family.

You grew up in the actual building?
No, I lived two blocks from there, but I learned to walk in the Waverly. Ever since I was two years old, for 20 years, that’s where I was there just about every day of the week.

You have a really interesting take on design. I walked to the bathroom and saw an installation with pool balls. What’s the aesthetic that you’re going for?
Opportunistic. It’s really about context and finding the right opportunity. Like where the pool balls are, we had to fill that area and then I happened to have bought a garbage can full of pool balls that had been sitting for about four years in storage. It’s always about trying to find the right thing for the right place.

These tables were all boxcars for the 1940s. Someone knocked on my door one day and said ‘Hey, I’ve got 10,000 square feet of boxcar floor from the ‘40s. So not a lot of people can buy that much of one thing, but people are starting to know that I will buy a bunch of crap, and I’ll put it in storage until the right moment.


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