Interview with New Orleans Rising Star Hotel Chef Daniel Causgrove

by Lisa Elbert
February 2016

Lisa Elbert: How did you get your start in the industry?
Daniel Causgrove:
It was kind of hilarious. I worked at a Mexican restaurant after college at St. Lawrence University for the summer, and it was a corny fast-casual burrito place in Syracuse. The GM was a woman who had been a waiter at a number of finer establishments in town, and her husband was a chef. He had just gotten a new job, and basically, she decided to quit one month after the chain opened and invited me to come work for her and her husband at Victor's. It was the first time I learned to make mashed potatoes, and I started to have fun with it and started to feel like I could come into my own. I remember when I first made chicken salad for a sandwich. And nobody told me to do it, but I put some Dijon mustard in there and the chef was blown away by how good it was. Maybe I didn’t know it at the time, but it was something I was enjoying and wanted to explore. I wanted to get out of Syracuse, so I went to Vermont to work at a ski resort and snowboard. I worked in their fine dining room under a guy named Quint Smith. He was an amazing dude. He worked at a bunch of places in NYC, went to CIA, and had been a pastry chef in Manhattan. It was the first time I got a taste of what it looked like to be a big time, big city chef. I wanted to learn all the skills he had and that he exposed me to. He wasn’t just a technician, he was also an artist. He really saw it that way, and his food was different from what I had been exposed to at that time, and it inspired me to go further.

LE: Who is your mentor?
DC:
I guess at this point in my career, I would probably say Justin Devillier. In terms of me going from line cook to sous chef to chef, he's the one who's most influenced me because we worked closely together for a long time and a lot of different things happened in terms of him coming to realizing his potential and my potential. He's been a very important element in my career and me becoming a chef on my own.

LE: How are you involved in the local culinary community?
DC:
By doing and participating in lots of charity events. Recently, we hosted a Susan G. Komen Foundation Summer Cure dinner. It was a lot of fun working with great chefs for a good cause. You need to try to be involved helping out people you worked with. You feel momentum building. The Super Bowl into Mardi Gras into Jazz Fest. Everyone gets to share in that crazy experience. You can feel it, we’re all in it together. 

LE: What's the biggest challenge facing your restaurant?
DC:
There are so many moving parts being in a hotel. It’s so personal. People want to feel like they’re at home and going to those great lengths makes our job more difficult. We need to make people happy and cook to people’s preferences. Having so many things going on 24 hours a day, seven days a week, is challenging. Sometimes it can be frustrating, and you feel you’re not accomplishing as much. But it’s a matter of being organized and having enough concentration to not be overwhelmed and distracted. 

LE: What's your five year plan?
DC:
I would like to own my own restaurant. I think I want to see myself established here and restore Grill Room as the place to be—bring it back to that level. I bake a lot of unique breads and have a passion for it, but don’t get to do so at a professional capacity. I’m also interested in wild gardening, the forest and permaculture being integrated with the restaurant: something a person could enjoy functionally and medically, as well as with food. Sepp Holzer’s work comes to mind. 

LE: How long have you been here?
DC:
I’ll have been here two years in September. I wanted to go on to bigger things. I was sous chef at La Petite Grocery and a cook at a small hotel in Syracuse, but there was a learning curve. I’m really proud of what we’ve accomplished in the last year. This hotel kitchen is run old school. We do banquets, room service, two bars, and the Grill Room all out of one kitchen. My menus are all in the bars plus the Grill Room. 

LE: What's the biggest challenge you've ever faced in the restaurant?
DC:
To be honest, the biggest challenge of my life was leaving La Petite Grocery and stepping out on my own. For whatever reason, I took this job as chef of Dijon—a restaurant run by a guy who had never run restaurants before. To boot, before I was chef, the restaurant received an awful review from the paper down here. I don’t know what went on before I was there, but the chef left and I guess I wasn’t aware of the reviews. And I took the chef job there, and I kind of found out that the restaurant wasn’t as financially stable as I thought when I got there. The financial resources were limited and the reputation wasn't good, and the owner was inexperienced and unstable. So, it was a great challenge on a day-to-day basis. There were days where I wasn’t even sure my cooks would get paid, but I was able to overcome that by making good food. I started to get a little attention, and I think it was able to keep the restaurant afloat until another opportunity arose. A lot of people were laughing when I took the job, so I was able to quell that sentiment.