“Everybody asks me, ‘Why didn’t you stay in New York City? That’s the major leagues for restaurants,” said Kassel. “The reality is, in New York, you’re a small fish in a huge pond. San Diego’s food scene hasn’t quite developed a personality of its own. San Diego is on the cusp of doing something great. For somebody young like myself, to grow with the San Diego food scene was the best option.”
Kassel has gone from the basement to the penthouse in La Jolla’s high-end restaurant industry. He started out as a busboy at Roppongi restaurant when it first opened in 1998. Eight years later, he’s running the day-to-day operations of Fresh, formerly owned by Sami Ladeki, who sold Fresh and the Blackhorse Grille in Del Mar to focus on the expansion of his Sammy’s Woodfired Pizza and Roppongi Restaurant & Sushi Bar restaurants.
Ladeki said Kassel has all the right qualities to make him a successful restaurant entrepreneur.
“He’s an impressive young man, focused, passionate,” said the owner of Ladeki Restaurant Group.
The La Jolla restaurateur said it’s unusual for a person as young as Kassel to be so well steeped in the business.
“His wine knowledge, his dedication, is amazing,” Ladeki said.
Kassel has earned high marks from Ladeki for what he’s done in subtly revamping Fresh’s image.
“He’s already improved Fresh,” Ladeki said. “He’s done the right things. He has a great chef. He’s willing to take risks, opening for breakfast on weekends. This is a very good sign.”
It’s important for a restaurateur, no matter what age, to remain current, as the restaurant industry is prone to shifting trends and rapidly changing tastes.
“Restaurants are like the fashion industry,” said Ladeki. “You have to change with the times. Years ago, you used to wear bell-bottoms. Ties go wider and narrower. Food is like that. It used to be Italian restaurants. Now restaurants are more into Asian. It used to be quiche and crepes. Now it’s all sushi.”
It was Ladeki who advised Kassel to complete a post-graduate degree in hotel and restaurant management, which he did at Ecole Le Roche in Switzerland. After that, Kassel refined his talents at the French Culinary Institute and with the American Sommelier Association.
Most recently, Kassel managed Kittichai in New York, as well as managing such highly regarded Manhattan restaurants as Blue Water Grill, Ocean Grill and Isabella’s.
Fresh was not broken, so Kassel didn’t try to fix it. It did need a tuneup, so he’s been building on the solid foundation laid by Ladeki.
When Kassel took over at Fresh, he brought in Ryan Johnston, formerly executive chef of Blackhorse Grille. The two worked together to tweak the menu.
“The menu is completely different,” said Kassel. “Philosophically, Ryan and I share some common ground: Simple is good. It’s all about the quality. You start out with the most amazing product, and you let it speak for itself.”
One major change at Fresh is that Kassel is broadening the restaurant’s appeal o include diners of all ages.
“Traditionally, Fresh has been very much geared toward an older clientele,” Kassel said. “They are my bread and butter. But what makes La Jolla’s most successful restaurants as successful as they are is people can go out for dinner and they don’t have to get dressed up or spend a lot of money.”
Kassel is striving to make Fresh more elegant casual, a place where people can feel relaxed while dining out.
“It’s just very laid back,” he said.
What Kassel has tried to inject into the restaurant is a new energy, a new edge.
“We bring a little bit of youth, a little bit of buzz,” he said, “create a little bit of a scene.”
Kassel dreamed of being a restaurateur ever since he was a child. His favorite toy as a toddler was a wooden cooking spoon.
“From the moment I was 13,” he said, “I was drawing up restaurant plans.”
It was such a restaurant plan that Kassel presented to Ladeki, which sold him on the idea of his taking over.
“Sami said to me, ‘I have an opportunity for you,’ “said Kassel. He took over the reigns of Fresh two months later.
Fresh is at an ideal spot on Wall Street, but Kassel doesn’t want his restaurant to depend too much on its location.
“I didn’t want to relyon people coming into Fresh for the space,” he said. “I wanted them to come here for the wine, for the food.”
To Fresh’s coastal menu, Kassel has added Spanish, Mediterranean, African and Asian influences. He said he and the reinvigorated Fresh restaurant have been received by La Jollans with open arms. He estimates 95 percent of patrons are pleased with the changes he’s brought.
The biggest challenge for him since taking over has been to achieve the right balance to maintain a profitable, successful restaurant, while offering a top-quality product at fair prices.
“I want people to come here because they know they’re going to get a great product,” Kassel said, “consistently, at unbelievable prices. If I can do that, everything else will fall into place.”