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Interview with Sue and Marc Cassel About Their Storied Culinary Careers and New Spot, 20 Feet Seafood Joint

Marc and Sue Cassel
Marc and Sue Cassel
LDD

Sue and Marc Cassel opened their quaint new spot, 20 Feet Seafood Joint (1160 Peavy Road), just last week. Neighbors of Good 2 Go Tacos and Goodfriend, it's a well-played parlay in East Dallas dining. Sue and Marc have spent time at many notable area restaurants, like Star Canyon, Hotel Zaza and Park and they were part of one the most legendary menus of Deep Ellum, "Feed Me" at The Green Room.

The name of this new spot is an ode to their pups, of whom there are four. So, when all feet are on deck at the Cassel household, the sum total is 20. "It's a family name," explained Sue with a smile. Pictures of the dogs can be found on the napkin holders at each table.

Here's our chat about their new restaurant, Eric Clapton and good times in Deep Ellum.

Why a seafood spot? Sue: We were in New York doing a Beard dinner and we went to a place for lunch around there called the Pearl Oyster Bar. It was a tiny little shotgun restaurant, like so many other places around there, and in the back was a six-burner stove and two people working there. And that was the first time Marc and I were like, "We could do this." The menu was tiny -- mussels, lobster rolls and a couple of salads. But, small.

I assume the food was good? Sue: It was awesome. When Marc and I were at the Green Room, it was just he and I on the line a lot, and one person back in the pantry in this tiny kitchen. We put out a lot of food. So, we just thought we could really do that.

So, is simplicity something you're going for here? The menu is fairly small. Marc: Yes, no pretense. I think that's what made the Green Room so popular too. You didn't have to sit up straight. There were people with full-sleeved tattoos sitting next to blue hairs. That's one of the things we looking for here. Just honest food and a good meal.

Marc, are you originally from Plano? Marc: Me? No, I went to Plano High. My dad was in the Navy, so I was born in Hawaii before it was a state and we moved to Plano from New Zealand.

That had to be a fun transition. One of the most beautiful places in the world to the flat fields of Plano. Were your parents thrilled with that? Marc: Well, my mom is from New Zealand. It was crazy. [He just smiles.]

That's kind of a raw deal, Marc. So, let's chat about the Green Room. It was a transformative spot for the Dallas dining scene. Marc: Well, we both went to El Centro, and around that time a lot of really talented people were in the program. And, it's not so much that a torch was passed, but there was some talent. Clark McDaniel, Jamie Samford and a host of other people all started working then. We all learned sort of at the same time.

How did The Green Room first come up with the idea for the Feed Me/Wine Me? Marc: It was already there when I arrived. It was a serendipitous thing. Some guy just came in one night and said, "Feed me." So, the chef at the time would do it on a limited basis, like the whole table got the same thing. But, we expounded on that. One person could get it and others could order off the menu. Ideally, everyone at the table would get a different thing and sort of pass all the food around.

It seems to have really changed the way people interacted with chefs locally. Marc: We made the tasting menu more approachable.

Maybe that's it. Just changing the name from "tasting menu" to "Feed Me." It sounds so less pretentious and more adventurous. Marc: Yeah, other people were doing tasting menus, but this is how we got people to try whole fish, head-on shrimp, quail, and rabbit -- stuff they normally wouldn't have tried. It was only one course, so there wasn't a lot of risk. People normally would have never ordered it, but they loved it.

 

Interview with Sue and Marc Cassel About Their Storied Culinary Careers and New Spot, 20 Feet Seafood Joint

In an interview a few years ago when you were at Hotal Zaza, you said that a goal was to have your own place in Dallas. Is this it? Marc: [Looks at Sue] It is for me. I think fine-dining is great and you certainly learn a lot, but I wouldn't want to be responsible for keeping a fine-dining place running.

And you get to play your own play list too. (A crazy song is on.) What's on the play list? Marc: Must haves? I guess I would go with Soul Coughing, Doughty, The Pixies. What was great about working in Deep Ellum though was seeing all the shows at Trees. Sue: Even in the early days the Dark Room had music.

That was an epic time for Deep Ellum. Marc: The whole idea of the Green Room initially was to support the bands, to be their actual green room. So, we were always meeting bands and it was great. Sue: So we got to meet and feed a lot of musicians.

Who sticks out? Marc: Eric Clapton...

What did he order? Marc: We had a chicken dish called "the yard bird" and he ordered it, which was ideal because he was in a band called the Yardbirds.

When you got that ticket did you scream, "Of course!" Marc: Yeah, I said, "He gets it!" Sue: Also Todd Rundgren ate there once and he hung out with us for a while. Marc: The Breeders. And they wanted to take Sue back with them on the bus.

 

Who are some of your favorite local chefs now? Marc: I've always admired David [Uygur] at Lucia. And I've always really liked Teich [Tei-An] as an operator. Stephan [Pyles]. I owe my career to Stephan.

What was the most important thing you learned from Pyles? Marc: How not to freak out. It was a challenge to work in his restaurants; it was always so busy, and dishes were not built for speed. And you just had to be able to keep your shit together. Everybody that left Star Canyon was never afraid ever again because there was nothing scarier than what we already did in terms of volume and expectations. It was great though, he made us all better cooks.

I asked Jeanna [Johnson at Good 2 Go Taco and Acme F&B, who worked with Pyles too] that same question and her answer was, "charisma and working the dining room." Marc: He's the king of that. Here I run food out to tables. I've never liked doing that before, but I love it here.

Has the Dallas dining scene changed in the past 10 years? Marc: It has and I think the Food Network is responsible for people being smarter. There are really no rabbits in hats anymore because everything is on TV.

Has that helped or hurt? Marc: It's like iTunes. There's lots of good and obviously some bad. You can find out about anything and learn how to make anything, whereas before you had to be a chef.

Before you couldn't hide in the walk-in and Google crème fraiche? Marc: Exactly. You just have to know where to find stuff now. You don't have to remember all these recipes in your head.

What about diners being more aware about what chefs do, building recipes. Don't they appreciate better food more now because of things like the Food Network? Marc: I think so. And I think they can tell the difference between food made with consideration and stuff that's just dumped out of a freezer. Not across the board though. There's probably 70 percent of diners who think Chili's is a big night out.

We talked about how diners have changed over the past decade, but how have you changed? Marc: My knees hurt.

Any rules in your kitchen? Sue: Be respectful. He tells everyone back there to respect everybody. We respect everyone back there. Marc: Every job back there is just as important as the other. We've seen a lot of people be really disrespectful to their staff, and I've never gotten it. You don't get anything back from that, except you get to swing your [off the record]. Eventually, we encourage people to come up with things. At the Green Room people would come up with salads and it'd be "Bob's salad." Other than that, it's just standard culinary professionalism.

So, what do you think about beets? Marc: Beets are great. I think most people have grown up with awful canned beets. A roasted beet? Yumm. Really good.


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