Q&A With Chef Fritz Cassel of Gratify American Gastropub

Photo provided by Gratify American Gastropub

The lifespan of a new restaurant can often be predicted by its produce: from the bold and fresh, to the dull and listless, to... well, trash.

Those that withstand the tumultuous first year embark on a new chapter and new challenges but are armed with experience. 

While many venues of downtown West Palm suffer the inevitable fate, Gratify American Gastropub continues to thrive on its little corner of Datura Street.

On the cusp of the one-year anniversary, owner Gene Playter and chef Fritz Cassel focus on the true meaning of gastropub with some additions to their repertoire.

Are these your creations?

Yes, these are my creations. The direction we are going in is comfort food, sort of elevating them a little bit. People come in still thinking that we are just a bar, but the idea of the gastropub is that we are a bar but with really great food, so we are still building that reputation.

Which dish best represents you as a chef?

My favorite new item on the menu is a rib eye au poivre with asaparagus frites. So it's like a play on steak frites. It's a tempura, beer-battered asparagus and a green peppercorn hollandaise. Everyone knows what a rib eye is -- it's my favorite thing in the world, and it's also Gene's [Gratify's owner/operator] favorite thing too, so it works out perfect. I really wanted to put a rib eye on the menu, but I think it's a perfect bistro/gastropub type of dish.

How has West Palm treated you over this past year?

I like West Palm; I've always worked down here. I worked in this building before when I worked for Spoto's. I was the chef of the Oakwood Grill. I worked in this building seven years ago, so it's pretty cool. I like working downtown. I think there's a beginning of a resurgence with the businesses and the restaurants. A decade ago, it was a really nice scene, and then a lot of construction and a lot of other factors were kind of limiting the businesses here. But we feel like we got in on the perfect time -- they redid the park and opened it back up; the new docks on the water. Hopefully it'll be great for everyone.

There is a bit of turnover down here -- were you nervous coming into this area?

I wouldn't say nervous. I think we are confident in what we can do. But you are right, Spoto's was down here for ten years; they were the longest ones to stay down here. When they left, I think a lot of people got nervous... But we were happy to get this spot -- it's a great spot. We are right across from the park, so there's concerts and a lot of fests that go on. I don't think nervousness is really a factor; you don't have time for that. You have to focus on what you have to do.

How different is this from other places you have worked?

I worked in a country club while I was going through culinary school, which is the perfect environment for a culinary student. Working at a country club, you see a wide array of things but I'm a restaurant guy.

Is it intimidating to have guests sit right at the kitchen?

I'm used to it. The first kitchen I worked in was a wide open kitchen. We really pay attention to cleanliness but we are used to it. I think it's a great system to work in an open kitchen. Behind closed doors who know what could happen. It's nice for people to watch and people do sit up there and really get into it, they like to see what you are doing. I think it's cool to have a little give and take with the guests.

Are your craft beers a big draw?

We we do have a lot of craft beers. We actually have done a beer dinner. We did a beer dinner last month. It was a five course deal where we paired stuff with stuff from Stone Brewery. We'd like to do one once a month, do a beer dinner where we get 20-25 people to come in; pair different courses with the different beers. It's kind of a fun thing to do.

How was the reception of the beer dinner?

It was good, we had 18-20 people. We had a good time with one of the representatives from Stone Brewery. She talked about the beer, I talked about the food. I incorporated the beer into single every course.

What do you think you'll change going into your second year?

I think just the education of the staff. Just educating the wait staff being educated about the food and the ingredients we use, which we were before. I think this year we got the ball rolling a little bit, focus on the that more so than opening the place. You know all the challenges of opening that come with opening a new spot. That's what I like to do is educated staff who really love food. Gene knows a lot about food, all my guys are culinary school grads or in culinary school, so everyone has a passion for food and fresh ingredients.

What do you think about culinary schools?

I enjoyed my time there, it's beneficial. I worked for years before I went. You don't have to go but it is hard to get all those experiences that you get packed into that two year period without working in a number of different places. Sometimes it's hard to find that stuff just working. Maybe if you have a job at the Breakers, you can move around and learn all those things that you learn in culinary school. I think it's beneficial, it's a good thing.

What is a techinque you learned in school that you find yourself continously using?

The fundamentals, cooking is about the fundamentals. Being grounded in the techniques is really the key, it's just like keeping your eye on the ball. A lot of people aren't and a lot of people aren't. People that work and cook everyday in professional kitchens are neccesarily grounded in fundamental techniques and those are what make food good. Browning a steak perfectly is where you develop all the flavors, searing the nice brown carmalization on steak; it's just the fundamentals.

What would you like Gratify to be known for?

I'd like to be known for that ribeye, it's really one of my favorite things but really everything. I just like people to know they can come here and get really great food all the time. That's what we are looking for.

What else do you do by hand here?

Well we make everything from scratch. We make the tater tots by hand, toss in a little ham and cheese and roll them out. I like to take a simple approach, just a few ingredients. The tatertot is just a few simple ingredients, russet potatoes, tasso ham, which a creole, spice kind of ham, and cheddar cheese. That's it, three ingredients. Roll it into panko breadcrumbs, well four ingredients. But that's it, we don't even add salt or pepper to it; no egg to bind it. So that's kind of the idea, that we are just taking a few ingredients, keeping them fresh and making something that's delicious.

What's your favorite style of cooking?

I like to cook with fire. I like to use wood, though we don't burn wood here. I like to grill, I like cooking over an open fire, that's really more my style.

Where do you go out to eat?

I eat at home. I cook everything I eat practically. I go a few places. I like Dolce de Palma, the Reef Grill in Juno beach is one of my all time favorite places around here. But I like to go have pizza and hamburger, fried chicken.

Do you incorporate the beers into the regular menu?

Yeah, we are doing a new beer braised pot roast that I'm using Aragant Bastard for. We do a beer batter with the asparagus. We do a baja taco that we use a beer batter mahi for. So I try to incorporate the beers and do specials along the way. We are doing a new roast beef sandwich at lunch using carmalized onions but garlic french fries on top of it and a beer and cheese sauce.

Have you ever smoked out the dining room before?

No, not yet (laughing).

Does going into the second year make you nervous?

We're excited. There's nothing to be nervous about it. We think we can build a really good following. We had a really good summer, if you stay even during the summer down here you are actually doing something really well. We actually had a really good summer.

What's the dynamic between you and Gene like?

We have a really good give and take, as good as a give and take as I've ever had with an owner. Sometimes he'll just throw a food idea out and then I'll run with it and make something happen. A lot of times it'll be my idea and have him try it. So we have a good give and take. We print the menus here, which is nice so if somethings not moving we can change it, change pricing. But it's nice that we have a good working relationship, it's really cool actually. It's nice to have an owner that you can feel equal with, someone to bounce ideas off with, as crazy or silly as they might be.

Any hidden gems in your little black book?

Well, I'm working on some new desserts. We did the entrees last week and we are doing new sandwiches this week. We are doing a take on a Monte Cristo, which will be pretty cool, that I'm making a tomato marmalade for. Next week I'm getting into desserts, so I'm going to play with a few things. I'm going to play with an apple struedel. We're trying to think of old kids stuff, that we had as kids for dessert and make it new. We have a little chocolate, banana, peanut butter, thing we do. So I'll probably make 'smore out of it, serve it with ice cream. I got a couple recipes, like my mom's recipes a couple of dessert things.  

What's the most serious you've ever been hurt?

I used to take the tip of this (index) finger off about every five years. But after three or four times, I think I've learned my lesson. I've never been hurt too bad but you do get a lot of burns. Burns are just something you get used too. You get tough hands working in a kitchen. People are always amazed that I just grab hot plates. To me a plate might not be hot but to someone else it may be on fire. You got to remember to warn people. But we haven't had any big time injuries here but I have witnessed some nasty ones, but not here.


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