Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one year anniversary.
Daniel Asher and Justin Cucci [Photo: Meredith Moran]
A year ago today, chefs Justin Cucci and Daniel Asher introduced Denver to Linger, a mortuary-turned-restaurant in Lower Highlands. Ever since opening day, it's been a complete madhouse. Cucci, who also owns Root Down, describes the opening as getting intimate with somebody for the first time — nerves, excitement and all. Considering the restaurant continues to be one of the toughest reservations in the city, you could say Cucci's "first time" made a damn good impression. Here now, Eater's interview with Cucci and Asher.
Describe opening week at Linger JC: It's always a really exhilarating time because you're entering a really intimate snapshot of restaurant life, watching everything come together. It's sort of like being intimate with somebody for the first time — it's a little nerve-wracking, it's exciting and you're a little bit fearful. DA: Wow... JC: It is though — you're thinking, this is scary, this is exhilarating... I hope I do something right.... I hope I don't fuck it up... DA: I hope I'm better than everyone else? JC: Right! I hope I pleasure her. I'm going to listen to her breathing, her body language — all of that. It's like that on opening night. I would say that's the best way to describe it.
It's been crazy-busy at Linger for a year solid, and it continues to be one of the hardest tables to get in the city. JC: Yea, it's like getting punched in the nuts for a year straight. Root Down got us prepared for it though. Root Down was a much more shocking opening because I just wasn't prepared — at all. We hired 20 people, thinking we'd do about 50 covers a night with three guys in the kitchen — that was embarrassingly underprepared. I think here, we had a much better grip on it, so we were more prepared. I always tell people we're going to fail either way, so let's just fail better. You're gonna fuck shit up, food's not going to be great, service isn't going to be great — but, fail in a good way. The computers are going to crash, and everything is going to go wrong — and it did — but, if you go into it knowing that, then you're much better prepared to make it succeed.
Why do you think you're packed every night? What's the secret? DA: It's a feeling. I think that's what everyone tries to capture in this industry. You walk in, and you want to immerse yourself in it— whatever it is. It's not something you can buy. He [JC] has an awareness of the guest experience that I've never seen, and we're all-inclusive.
This place does seem to attract a variety of people. Have there been any misconceptions? JC: A lot of people come in and see well-dressed, beautiful people and assume that we're another "too-cool-for-school trendy place," or that we're not a place you can bring your kids. I mean, I'm a 43-year-old father who drives a dumb car — I'm not that cool. I think people must think that this is a place owned by mid-thirty dot-com, cocaine-waitress-banging dudes. I think that's peoples' perception, when I'm like the opposite of cool. Our whole thing is about inclusivity — I want there to be 65-year-olds and kids running around. I want it to be a full-on experience for anybody and everybody.
What's been surprisingly successful? What hasn't worked? DA: Our best sellers have been the tacos and sliders, which isn't shocking based on how people dine. On the flip side, we serve a chicken bastilla, which is a Moroccan pigeon pie, and a masala dosa, which is a fermented lentil and rice crepe — people have become obsessed with those, which is great sign, because those two dishes really represent what we do. We seek to create very approachable, farm-to-table street food with the best, most sustainable ingredients we can get our hands on. We want our food to be fun and approachable — that's the goal. JC: A lot of restaurants will put something eccentric on the menu, but it's not approachable, and then you have to take a leap of faith to actually eat it and enjoy it. We definitely serve things that people don't recognize, but they're chosen because I think they're super accessible and straightforward once you get past a funny name or an ingredient you can't pronounce. I'm a pretty pedestrian eater, and the last thing I want is a "chef-driven" menu — I don't care about what the chef wants. How about food that I, as the guest, want? I want chef-driven ingredients and a chef-driven philosophy, but I don't want to eat what the chef wants. When I see "chef-driven," I'm like, great, I don't want to eat this asshole's perception of what he thinks I should eat. I want something completely guest-driven through a chef's eyes. DA: Yea, "chef-driven" is a very ego-driven philosophy. I think Justin's perspective and attention to the guest is what separates Linger. It's not about showcasing anything other than the guest experience — feeling good, and eating food that makes you feel good.
What struggles have you encountered over the last year? JC: We have positive stress. Like, how do we accommodate this many people? Or how do we communicate this experience to so many people? It's the kind of stress that I always prefer. Trying to get people to come in so you can pay the rent is harder to solve. It's all about consistency, execution and connecting. It doesn't matter if the line is around the block, we have to hit the nail on the head. When it's packed in here, it's easy to get frustrated, and sometimes guests come in here after a bad day or whatever, but it's our job to fix that and show them a good experience. It's not an excuse that we're busy. It's definitely a challenge. We've also encountered some challenges with staffing, but that's expected. It's not about a skill level, it's about who's the right fit. We know we're going to hire 100 people, and not all of them will work. But, we're at a point where 90 percent of the people we hire are working out. What would you say, Daniel? DA: Staffing has been a challenge. It's a very demanding environment. You have to be hyper-observant all the time. If someone doesn't feel immediately embraced when they walk in the door, you have to know how to solve that. You have to have the right people in place to handle those moments. We're running a multiple-floor restaurant in a very sexy part of town, with the best view of the city, and that in itself is a remarkable challenge – it's inspired chaos.
Talk about the relationship you have. How long have you been working together now? JC: Well, when we wake up in the morning, I usually hit the snooze, and he says, "Stop, we're going to be late." One of us has coffee duty, and the other empties the kitty litter. DA: Hahaha, oh man, exactly. I came on at Root Down six months after it opened, so about three years ago. My buddy told me it was this jazz-focused food establishment that had layers of flavor, music, scales, telephones on the wall — oh, and that the floor was a basketball court. It sounded like a total disaster. Honestly, with my restaurant background, I was thinking, WHAT? Is this a restaurant art project? And then they opened and I was just like, holy shit, this is amazing. I was completely blown away. I started very slow at Root Down, just a couple days a week, and then it just became an all the time thing. JC: He also came at an interesting time. I had a surgery, and I had some wounds that wouldn't heal. I was in bed for two months. Root Down was full-steam ahead, and I knew this project was coming. I got a skin graft and Daniel told me I needed to approach recovery "holistically." He asked if he could deliver me three raw meals a day, so I agreed. Daniel basically filled in for me at Root while I was away, which was a challenge enough, and then he committed himself to bringing me three meals a day. There was a lot going on with business and myself, and Daniel just inserted himself in the middle of it. I think I got three meals maybe one day, but the intention never wavered. Getting that food was amazing, and he completely opened my eyes to a level of food that I had written off. It was like — no offense to yoga people or raw foodists — but as a cynical, Jewish New Yorker, I was like, can you please keep your distance from me right now? I don't want to punch any hippies out. That was always my response, but somehow Daniel broke through, and I was like, this raw shit is amazing. And that's how raw dinners started at Root Down.
What's next for you? What does Denver need? JC: I don't really think about what Denver needs. I try to create what's not there for me to go and do. It's a simple formula — I just create what I want to find at a restaurant. Whatever I'm going to do next will be that way as well. That's my struggle, because I just take a lot of uncalculated, irresponsible risks. I'm just thrilled to death that it's worked out twice. I'm just amazed.