Hotel Chef Marc Cassel  on
Patrick Langlinais

Marc Cassel
Dragonfly at Hotel Zaza
2332 Leonard Street
Dallas, Texas 75201
(800) 597-8399

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Antoinette Bruno: When and why did you start cooking? What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Marc Cassel: I started when I was 32 years old. I always wanted to be a cook but didn’t want to be 40 and in tremendous debt. Then I found an apprentice program where you worked in the morning and went to school in the afternoon.

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Hotel Chef Marc Cassel
Dragonfly | Dallas

A resident of East Dallas since 1989, Marc Cassel embarked on his culinary journey at 32 after receiving his degree from Dallas’ El Centro College, Chef Apprenticeship Program. In 1991 Cassel began his career as an apprentice at the Dallas Country Club.

Cassel worked at landmark restaurants Baby Routh, The Mansion on Turtle Creek, Star Canyon, and Azalea, and credits Stephan Pyles, Kevin Rathbun, and Kent Rathbun with sharpening his time management skills and propelling him on a creative culinary path.

Before showcasing his expertise at Dragonfly, Marc served as the Executive Chef for over eight years at the Deep Ellum neighborhood eatery, The Green Room, gaining a strong following among fellow chefs and food connoisseurs for his famous “Feed Me, Wine Me” format. Nowadays, donning his sparkling cowboy hat, graffitied sneakers, and cargo shorts, Cassel brings a breath of fresh air to traditionally uptight hotel fine dining. At Dragonfly, he transforms the low-brow kitschy foods of the Southwestern American landscape into quirky dishes like shrimp corn dogs and spicy oyster shooters. While Cassel takes the liberty of sprinkling hemp seeds on his pork loin with smoky, smooth mashed potatoes ("because it's fun"), his focus remains on flavor. The career-changer, who didn’t get into the industry until 32, has the high-energy and promise of a chef half his age, but his eclectic, funky dishes are held together with the mature, singular vision of one who’s been in the business far longer.

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Interview Cont'd
AB: Where have you worked professionally as a chef?
MC: I started working at The Dallas Country Club but I knew that making mashed potatoes out of canned potatoes was not what I wanted to do. You need to work in the best place you can to learn and pick the chef’s brain. I worked and learned at The Green Room for about seven years.

AB: Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks? Do you hire chefs with and without a culinary school background?
MC: No, I wouldn't necessarily recommend culinary school but I would recommend an apprentice program. I have hired culinary school graduates, but it really depends on the person and not their formal education background.

AB: Who are some of your mentors? What have you learned from them?
MC: I’ve worked with Kent and Kevin Rathbun, and both taught me a lot. Kevin (now at Rathbun’s in Atlanta) taught me about creativity, and working for Kent (of Abacus in Dallas) I learned about time management.
Stephan Pyles was on his book tour when I was working in Atlanta and invited me back to Dallas to be an Executive Chef at Star Canyon. He trusted me to do a big job, and I didn’t want to let him down. I’ll always appreciate that opportunity he gave me.

AB: In which kitchens have you staged? Which experiences were the most influential?
MC: I haven’t formally staged anywhere, but I try to hang out in different kitchens from time to time to get an idea of what they’re doing there and maybe learn a little.

AB: What question gives you the most insight to a cook when you’re interviewing them for a position in your kitchen? What sort of answer are you looking for?
MC: If anyone says anything about money, the deal is off. I look for somebody that looks me in the eye and shakes my hand. I ask them what their favorite kind of food is and what the most important thing they do before they send food out. The answer I’m looking for is that they taste it.

AB: What advice would you offer young chefs just getting started?
MC: Be willing to tough it out for six to seven years before thinking about being an executive chef. Understand time management. I feel like a good attitude to have is that you are only as good as the last plate you put out.

AB: Which chefs do you consider to be your peers?
MC: Kent Rathbun at Abacus, Doug Brown at Amuse, Colleen O’Hare at 1924 in Lakewood, and David McMillan at 62 Main.

AB: Is there any ingredient that you feel is particularly under appreciated or under utilized?
MC: Beets. All these chefs have crazy beet dishes but they are using beets from cans which sort of defeats the purpose.

AB: What are a few of your favorite flavor combinations?
MC: I like vinegar because it brightens everything up.

AB: What’s your most indispensable kitchen tool?
MC: I really like the Slicky-N sesame seed grinder. It’s a quick way to grind toasted seeds, which really brings out their flavor and aroma.

AB: Describe a culinary technique that you have either created of borrowed and use in an unusual way.
MC: We feed store bought tortillas through a pasta machine with an angel hair attachment. We also fry up fresh roman noodles. We use rough corn flour to thicken soup.

AB: What are your favorite cookbooks?
MC: The Joy of Cooking is a good starting point for everything. I like retro, and this cookbook gets you intent on the recipe you are making.

AB: Where would you like to go for culinary travel?
MC: Japan, to learn more about presentation, and Vietnam and Thailand to learn more Asian technique. On my days off, ethnic food is all I eat.

AB: What are your favorite restaurants-off the beaten path-in your city? What is your favorite dish there? What are your favorite after hour places and bars?
MC: First China BBQ for duck, marinated chicken, and chicken dumpling soup. Pho is my favorite Vietnamese restaurant.

AB: What trends do you see emerging in the restaurant industry now?
MC: I’m not sure where this whole science of food trend is going. I’m not a huge fan of stuff like foams. I advocate a return to comfort foods and classic techniques like braising.

AB: Which person in history would you most like to have dinner with? What would you eat?
MC: I would like to have breakfast with Hunter S. Thomson at four in the afternoon.

AB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
MC: People call my food “collision” because it’s like a train wreck on a plate. I like to do low-country cuisine with a lot of unexpected combinations.

AB: If you weren’t a chef what do you think you’d be doing?
MC: I don’t know. I really can’t imagine not being a chef.

AB: What does success mean for you? What will it look like for you?
MC: In five years I’d like to be in Dallas, at my own restaurant, which I’d want to be really interactive.

AB: How are you involved in your local culinary community?
MC: I buy from the farmer’s market as much as I can.

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   Published: April 2007