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Thursday, June 1, 2023

Chef Cassel: Simplicity in Style

Q&A with Fritz Cassel, Executive Chef at Hullabaloo Restaurant, a trendsetting eatery in the eclectic 500 block of Clematis Street. Cassel has become a notable chef in the Greater West Palm Beach area, and enjoys making everyday dishes really delicious.

For Fritz Cassel, executive chef of Hullabaloo Restaurant –an eclectic restaurant located at 517 Clematis Street in downtown West Palm Beach– the height on a dish is always interesting and he has many creative ways to do it.

Attracted to teaching the fundamental cooking techniques, but not in front of a TV camera, Fritz Cassel doesn’t care what is trending or what the new hot thing is on the street, but he does have an eye on a simple style: take simple ingredients and incorporate them into everyday dishes that are really delicious.

Cassel’s homemade tomato sauce is exceptionally fine. Simple items in the restaurant’s menu such as zucchini pancakes, sweet potato hash and the chicken meatballs have an impeccable taste.

The success of Hullabaloo, one of West Palm Beach’s best Italian gastropubs, has to do with the refreshingly delicious food its executive chef, Fritz Cassel, has put together.

I sat down with Chef Fritz to get to know more of his experience, this trendy restaurant, and his flavorful dishes.

What inspired you to go into a culinary career? I think it was just destiny. I grew up cooking; my family always enjoyed cooking. But I never thought about it as a career until my freshman year in college. I really took to it and decided that it was something I wanted to do.

What did you major in college? I went to Oklahoma State University and majored in Business. In 2000, I moved to West Palm Beach to go to Florida Culinary Institute, which was later bought by Lincoln College and Lincoln Culinary Institute. The program closed a few years ago, but I’m still in touch with some of the guys involved, who would like to resuscitate the culinary program in this area.

Do you think there’s a demand for it? Yes, definitely. And I like teaching people how to cook. I come from a family of teachers, so the idea is attractive.

Have you ever thought of having your own TV show where you could teach a wide audience how to cook? I don’t have any aspirations for a TV show. I’d rather teach people how to cook one-on-one or in a classroom setting.

So, if you were to teach, what would you teach? The fundamentals of cooking are very important. Understanding techniques, such as sautéing, brasing, and boasting, because you know, some people brutalize those techniques! Cooking temperatures, boiling, browning… Cooking is like baseball. You’re not just eyeing the ball, it’s about the full play.

And it’s not all about you, is about the entire team. That’s right! Many cooks want to be celebrity chefs. And I don’t think that’s not a real thing. Some may have been chefs before, but they’re not real chefs anymore. And that’s fine for some people who want to be a “celebrity” chef. But if anyone in my kitchen told me that’s what they wanted to be, they’re out the door. I really don’t want them working for me. It’s not really a glamours thing to be a chef. It’s a lot of work. My daughter thinks she may want to be a chef. She’s 12! That might drive me to have my own place so that she can have her own place to work at. [laughs]

What are some of the places that you’ve worked for locally? I worked at The Breakers’ Seafood Bar for a bit, but I didn’t really care for that environment so I reached out to some people I knew in the industry and they put me in touch with Rodney Mayo. He owns Hullabaloo, Voltaire, Subculture and many more establishments from here to Miami. He was only twenty-four years old when he opened his first restaurant, and since then has been really embedded in the West Palm Beach community, especially in this block. We had a big block party not too long ago.

Did you pitch the idea for Hullabaloo to him? No, the idea for Hullabaloo was already in place, so I came and looked around and really liked what I saw. The general manager and I were the first hires.

What did you like about the Hullabaloo concept? The gastropub environment was exactly what I was looking for, so Hullabaloo struck my interest immediately.

The food at Hullabaloo is wonderful, especially your appetizers such as the brussels sprouts, which typically is not a people’s first choice, especially mine. And yet, people love your recipe! How did you make it your own? I had a dish like that at another place, which is similar to this one. I developed the recipe from them, but we have here a unique technique that we use to make our dish special.

Do you often eat out to research the market? My wife and I don’t often eat out, as we have three young children! So, I don’t do tons of market research, and I don’t pull a lot of inspiration from eating out.

So, where do you pull your inspiration from? As a chef, you work a lot of hours in the kitchen. I usually work 70-hour weeks. There’s not a chef that’s ever had a 40-hour week job. So, when you put that much cooking time, you garner an idea of how ingredients work. You learn to apply certain pressures and heat to foods to produce what you want. I strictly work out of my own head.

So your work is not your entire world… No. When I leave work, I leave work. It used to be that I would work 20 hours a day, always trying to come up with the next big idea. But my kids are my focus now. And although I love what I do, I’ve always said that I’m just compelled to cook. Even if I didn’t do it professionally, I just have to cook!

It’s your passion… If you’re going to work 70 hours per week, you better really want to do it!

What’s your style of cooking? I’m glad you didn’t ask me ‘What’s your specialty?’ as most people ask me. I hate that question. [laughs]

I’m glad I didn’t ask it then… I don’t even think that’s a valid question! I like to cook a lot of things. I like to eat a lot of things, but it takes time as a chef to find your own style. As a young cook, you’re cooking what the chef tells you to cook. So, there’s no thinking. You can’t branch out and do your own thing. You’re a soldier; you’re doing what the chef wants you to do. So, you can’t develop a style that way. Until you get your own kitchen as an executive chef, when you can develop your own dishes, recipes, and style. It took me a while, and in my head I really didn’t know what my style really was. I’m 42 years old now, so I’ve been cooking for twenty-three years.

So when was it that you identified your style? At some point it just sort of clicked. And I had a style. That’s just the combination of years, practice, and grinding it out to what I do now, the gastropub type of style. But really my style is to take simple ingredients and incorporate those into a dish that perhaps has four or five ingredients. I don’t try to convolute the idea or use really avant-garde techniques or ingredients. I just do everyday dishes really delicious.

That sounds like a super, simple idea… It is. Nowadays chefs try to do all these crazy techniques with the molecular gastronomy and molecular myxology, using super high-end ingredients. I’ve never gotten into that.

What is molecular gastronomy? Essentially is food science, where you explore the three components of cooking: social, artistic and technical.

What about the focus on the artistic preparation that most chefs try to convey? Well, that’s a real thing, but it also needs to be edible. I think as long as everything is edible you can make it look really beautiful. The height on a dish is always interesting and there are so many creative ways to do it. As long as everything works together and you can eat it all, I like a crazy presentation.

In your personal life, was there anything else that would have taken you in another career direction? No, all my paychecks have come from cooking.

Was there anyone who influenced you? My mom and dad did—they’re both really great cooks. My dad is a pilot so he’s eaten at the best restaurants all over the world. My mom is a phenomenal cook, so I take a lot of inspiration from her. But my dad technically taught me how to cook early on by making biscuits and gravy, and pies, like apple and cherry pies…lots of pies! He loves to bake. And in all the restaurants that I’ve ever worked for, I’ve always created some baking dishes as well.

So, if you were to have your own restaurant, what would it be? I want to buy a Bar-B-Q restaurant. I have a lot of ideas for one. And I also want to have a pizza place. Just pizza, nothing else. I like the European culinary way of thinking that you specialize in only one thing. In America, we like to offer e.v.e.r.y.t.h.i.n.g… I like the simplicity of doing one thing, but I also like the idea of owning different types of places. But overall, I really want to own a Bar-B-Q restaurant.

Where do you see yourself five years from now, maybe at that Bar-B-Q restaurant? [thinking] Mmmm, maybe. I do see myself working for myself in five years, but who knows?

One last question. When you go home after spending so many hours in the kitchen, do you cook or do you let your wife cook? Sometimes, but my wife often cooks. She’s pretty good!

Do you give her your recipes? [laughs] Umm, no, she doesn’t like my input! I’ve learned when to give my input.

Smart man!

Hullabaloo Restaurant Chef Fritz Cassel likes the simplicity of styles. A Q&A with chef Cassel to insert you in his experience, techniques and inspiration.


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