Chef Russell LaCasce

Chef Russell LaCasce

Hotel Valley Ho – 6850 E. Main St., Scottsdale •

As an executive chef, Russell LaCasce was taught two rules for a successful kitchen. One, put out great food every time. Two, take care of your team. His career spans over 20 years, with the last four and a half spent at Zuzu at Hotel Valley Ho, where he keeps the history of the hotel alive while making the restaurant his own.

Tell us about your beginnings in the restaurant industry. 

I started at a very young age – I was one of those kids who wanted to make money. I was 14, and I washed dishes at a seafood restaurant where I grew up, in Charleston, North Carolina, on the beach. I immediately loved the camaraderie of the kitchen, the rough and tumble. The guys were so cool,

and it was just a fun thing at the time.

I worked off and on in kitchens throughout high school and worked in hotels from age 19-23 in Park City, Utah. I did every job – valet, bellman, in-room dining, running food, anything. It propelled my career professionally because now I understand everything about front of house operations in a restaurant.

When did you move to Phoenix?

2005 is when I had an epiphany that I didn’t want to be in the front of house anymore. I’ve always loved the food, that was always more attractive to me. As a career, I could grow more as a chef than a server, so I decided to go to culinary school. I reached out to a friend that lived here, and within a month, I was enrolled at Arizona Culinary.

Have you always worked in resort dining?

I did work for a few independent places in high school. When I went to culinary school, I told myself I would train and go hard. I got lucky because I started at the Royal Palms right out of culinary school. I worked at Sanctuary on Camelback after that. I never really got into the corporate side. In resort dining, I have tons of support; there’s a lot of benefits. Plus, I get to be creative!

Where did the love for cooking come from?

My dad was a home taught cook – he wasn’t cooking any classically-trained stuff, but he really loved cooking. Our house was up on stilts, so we would go out in the backyard or under the house and have oyster bakes, or he’d be cooking chili. Food was always a big thing at our house. That’s where the spark of “I really like food” came from. Him being a home taught cook – at the impressionable age where your dad is your hero – it was just something that resonated with me.

What does it mean to be an executive chef?

When you’re a cook, you’re focused on your station and learning your craft. Then you get into a sous chef position, and it’s all about managing and operating and setting orders and scheduling. You work years in that position, and you almost start not to cook as much.

As an executive chef, you really have to make time for cooking because you could almost go a whole day without breaking your knives out. It’s stressful because the food has my name on it, so you want things to go well.

I learned when working with Beau [MacMillan of Sanctuary on Camelback] and with other chefs that when I would present a new idea, and they would tear it apart, they were setting a tone of “you better toughen up” because your emotions are going into the food and on the plate. You have to be able to handle it. It’s different, but the accolade that comes with being an executive chef is awesome. It makes you feel good to know that your hard work is paying off.

Tell us about Hotel Valley Ho. Who is Zuzu?

The hotel has been in Scottsdale since the 50s. Nowadays, it still has the same vibe, but we’ve updated it to “2021 Scottsdale” while still paying homage to the original hotel. The owners have done an amazing job keeping this place historical and true to the original building.

Rosie Bennett Lyon’s name might sound familiar. Her husband, Rusty, worked with his father’s realty firm, Russ Lyon Realty. In 1946, Rusty established Westcor Development – they’re both still around today! Rosie was the grandmother of the owners. Her nickname was Zuzu – that is what her grandchildren called her. The family would go to Zuzu’s house for dinner. So the idea for the restaurant was family-driven because that’s what you do with family, right? You eat.

In 2018, we renovated the dining area. We added a chef’s station/raw bar, a 700-bottle wine room, redid the tables, flooring, lighting, sound system and put up a new sign. One of the issues we were having is that people didn’t know where the restaurant was – there was no signage, people didn’t know what it was. We set up an Instagram account just for Zuzu and let people know, ‘hey, there’s a cool food scene here on top of being a cool hotel.’

What is the show stopper shake?

One of the first people I hired was pastry chef Audrey Enriquez, who worked with me at Sanctuary. I knew pastries were going to be a big part of the food here, so she and I sat in the lounge and threw ideas around and she mentioned “freak shakes” (a milkshake topped with various sweets). I loved the idea, but how do we make it ours, you know?

Well, it really took off. The most popular one was a unicorn-themed shake with a candy “horn” coming out of the top…we went out into the dining room, and there were like 50 kids ready to order them. We change the flavor each month – the latest has a Nutella-stuffed doughnut in it!

And the short stopper shakes?

When the pandemic hit, and everything was to-go, I told my team that we needed to figure out a way to transport the show stopper – because it’s huge and there’s a lot of stuff on it. So we made smaller versions with not quite as much stuff blowing out the top. Coming up is a banana one, peaches and cream and a s’more one. Those change every three months.

What has been the most challenging part of your culinary career?

The first couple of months I worked at T. Cooks [at the Royal Palms] were hard. I was at the fireplace station, had to build a massive fire, spit chickens every day, paellas, a lot of prep – it was very intense, but also really awesome. You’re cooking around a bunch of amazing guys, and you want to keep up.

Once, we were cooking a steamship beef round, which is around 75 pounds, and we didn’t have the right oven; there’s a bone sticking out – we had to wedge the round in there. We were pulling it out of the oven, and it was so heavy and hot, and the other person with me was struggling to get it on the table – he was shaking. It was more funny than anything. If you enjoy food and you love cooking – you’ll love the industry.

What is one thing you must always have in your kitchen?

Good salt and olive oil. I make sure everyone has those at their stations. Almost every dish has a little olive oil and sea salt, and maybe some black pepper, on it.

What is your go-to comfort meal?

When I was a young cook, I would never order chicken from a restaurant. Now, I find myself wanting to eat more chicken. Something about cooking the chicken right and getting the skin super crispy, or a good sauce, good veggies; that’s one of my favorite things. As I’ve gotten older, I appreciate a chef that puts the time into a good chicken dish.

 I like doing stuff with the smoker where you start it in the morning and have to baby the fire all day or “watch” a brisket, you know? When I’m not at the restaurant, cooking is entirely different.

What do you do when you’re not working?

I’m hanging with my two and four-year-old boys and with my wife. Keeping up with the house, get a vacation in. Oh, and golfing, when I can. I got my four-year-old into hockey, so I put on my skates for the first time in 20 years – that was interesting.

Do you have a mantra?

I have a couple, but for intense moments in the kitchen, “shut your mouth and open your eyes.” Make sure to focus, listen and pay attention to what’s going on. Or “get fired up, guys,” like – it’s game time, let’s get amped! I’m pretty even-keeled; I’m not going to throw a pan at you. At one point in my career, I realized that culture in a kitchen is so important. I want my cooks to know that I support them. I’m here for them.