In 1948, a real estate office worker named Al Cassell was disappointed with the lunch options in Los Angeles. That year, he decided to take matters into his own hands. Back before anyone was making fancy burgers, Cassell was grinding his meat by hand every day and making his own mayonnaise. “If Cassell’s has a flaw, it is that the meat is too good, the preparation is too careful.” – Jonathan Gold, 1992.
Now, over 70 years since its opening, this classic LA hamburger stand has grown from a humble lunch counter to an icon in the Los Angeles food scene. We sat down with “burger whisperer” Christian Page (chef and partner at Cassell’s) to talk about classic diners in the modern era.
Tell us how your journey with Cassell’s began.
Christian: We bought Cassell’s 6 years ago because we wanted to take the hamburger stand and revitalize it by turning it into a classic diner. We opened in the Hotel Normandie in Koreatown, but we wanted to keep it true to what Cassell’s used to be, so we still use the original crossfire broiler. We still get chucks and briskets from Colorado, with no hormones, and no antibiotics. We still butcher and grind our meat every day to make our patties – that’s the foundation of the menu. We still make our own mayonnaise using organic eggs – that’s the mother sauce to all the sauces we make.
How did the concept change when Cassell’s opened inside the Hotel Normandie in 2014?
Christian: We added the full service aspect and turned it into an all-day restaurant serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We wanted to provide an American option in Koreatown, with a coffee program and a full bar. We tried to keep everything true to its roots, and just sort of evolve the restaurant into a diner from a hamburger stand.
Did you keep the original burger recipe from 1948?
Christian: Yeah! The original burger recipe is simple and classic. It’s just ground chuck and we mix a little bit of brisket in to keep the fat content high. We cook it on a 500 degree crossfire broiler so you get that crispy crust. We season it with salt and pepper – allegedly they didn’t season with salt and pepper back then, but I don’t know if that’s a real thing or if that’s folklore.
I’ve heard you’re called the “burger whisperer” – how’d you get this nickname?
Christian: Haha, I didn’t make it up, I think I’ve just been cooking a lot of burgers for a long time in LA.
But you serve more than just burgers – you also have house-made pies?
Christian: Yeah, we’re really proud of our in-house pie program, that adds a whole other layer onto the experience. We sell pies by the slice, but we also sell whole pies, which is a great option for holidays, birthdays, and any kind of celebration. You can order a whole pie on Chownow, too. Our most popular flavor is probably our dulce de leche banana cream pie, that’s our biggest seller right there. I think all of our pies are really good, but, for me, the lemon ice box pie is my personal favorite. That’s our take on the Southern classic ice box pie.
David Chang has loudly voiced his love for the patty melt – what makes Cassell’s patty melt so special?
Christian: The patty melt is a classic American staple. When we were R&Ding our patty melts, someone had accidentally put the cheese over the edges. It cooked down onto the grill and got crispy, but we realized it was pretty freaking delicious and gives a nice textural contrast. Who doesn’t like crispy cheese? So, we stuck with it, and apparently David Chang really liked it. I’ll take all the compliments we can get! We work hard every day to try to make nice things.
And it seems like people are pretty responsive! Cassell’s won a lot of awards…
Christian: Yup. Winning the People’s Choice award for LA Magazine was pretty cool. We have a great base of guests that come and support us as we’re expanding and learning how to do that. Hopefully we can keep growing that great base of guests who appreciate classic Americana, and good food made simply.
Speaking of expansion, now you went from one to three restaurants! Are there further plans?
Christian: For sure! But we opened two in rapid succession – LAX opened August 2018 and downtown opened October 2018. We’re still sorting how to run three restaurants at the same time, which is a new thing for me. But I think, so far so good. You have certain challenges with expanding and growing your team and keeping your culture right. But when opportunities come, we’ll get after them!
And do you think the menu will evolve as you grow?
Christian: The menu changes subtly from time to time. We add things and we start making things we once bought. For example, all our breakfast sausages are now made in house. So we keep trying to make as many things that maybe we weren’t making before. Every quarter or so we’ll probably add something new; we’re always trying to slowly evolve. We listen to our guests and try to meet their needs.
LA is a pretty big burger scene – what do you think makes Cassell’s stand out?
Christian: One thing is that we’re a full service diner, so it’s a little different in that sense – it’s not counter service, it’s not fast food. We grind our own meat, we use all the best ingredients. And we try to also have our service be a little bit special too, and have a good atmosphere and good energy when people come in. We try to keep it happy like the old days. We try to have things a little modern, but never too modern.
And your employees sure seem like they love working here.
Christian: We try to keep our employees happy, because then they keep everyone happy. For us, the big thing these days is keeping the full service model and making it work. Our tip model includes the back of house. Everyone splits tips including back of house. Everyone gets paid well. We don’t want to replace people with robots. We want to keep making things by hand, and provide actual service to people. We want to keep that old school and nostalgic feel, and we want you to connect with people when you come in.
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