Creativity is something you're either born with or not; you don't pick the skill up in a textbook. And for chefs, that innate creativity expresses itself on the page – the menu to be exact. But creativity must be reigned in so that imagination doesn't override practicality and good taste. That capacity comes only from experience.
That description depicts chef Danny Cassano to a tee. Not long after graduating from Johnson and Wales, the young chef was hired as executive chef of Sushi Rock. He was only 21. But after just two years, Cassano jumped ship – attracted by the opportunity to work at the highly regarded Blue Point Grille. Hired on as sous chef under executive chef Pete Joyce, Cassano further honed his craft by working with seasonally changing menus that expanded his comfort zone.
"Pete helped me define my style," says Cassano.
Then one night during a random encounter with his former Sushi Rock employer, Cassano was courted back to the trendy eatery. During his second tenure at Sushi Rock, Cassano says, he truly came into his own, charged with the responsibility of authoring the whole "right side of the menu." It was then and there that the chef crafted many fan-favorite dishes like calamari, beef Sushi, and Sea Bass.
Then, in an instant, everything changed. In 2006, a horrific car accident left Cassano for dead. Suffering from a fractured skull and broken neck, Cassano spent the next two years just trying to return to normal. And it wasn't just the physical injuries that wounded the chef; not working day-to-day in the kitchen also began taking its toll.
"I had to get myself back to normal through hard physical rehabilitation," he recalls. He moved to Hawaii to try and find some perspective. "I needed to find myself again and get back to my roots of food." Hawaii was his new home – until a family illness brought him back to Cleveland.
Back in Northeast Ohio, Cassano unpacked his knives at Tremont Taphouse, where he helped that fledgling gastropub get off the ground.
"Danny is extremely passionate about food and came to the table with great ideas," says Tremont Taphouse co-owner Chris Lieb. "He's kinda like a mad scientist."
These days, Cassano is consulting chef at Barrio in Tremont, where he is adding another layer to his complex culinary chronicle. When co-owner Tom Leneghan approached Cassano a year ago to help craft the taqueria-themed menu, he looked forward to the challenge.
"Danny has a proven history of being innovative, and we knew that he would create something special," says Leneghan.
And that's precisely what he's done. Since opening on Cinco De Mayo last year, Barrio's farm-to-table concept has been widely successful. Not slowing down, Cassano recently developed a vegetarian taco menu as well as a taco-themed brunch menu.
There seemed to be only one box left unchecked for Cassano: hanging out his own shingle. And by early fall of this year, that's just what he and partner Brian Devine will do. Fittingly, when Nana's Southside BBQ opens in Tremont, it will be neighbor to the Taphouse. Named after his grandmother, the transformed Rodeo bar will turn out authentic, slow-smoked barbecue and wood-grilled foods.
"My entire life has been building up to this opening," says Cassano.
What's that saying about "What doesn't kill you..."?