This is Antoine Skrzypek, the owner of Cassava House. Growing up in Paris, Antoine says that there was always something going on in his kitchen at home and he always loved to cook. As a young boy, he would frequently bounce back and forth between helping his mother in the kitchen and helping his father outside (repairing things around the house or gardening) until one of them got fed up with him and would send him back to the other. Although he never went to culinary school, Antoine says he was lucky enough to be taught next to the greatest chef in the world- his mother. A small Spanish woman who grew up near Madrid, his mother didn’t have any formal culinary training either but rather learned how to cook out of necessity, as she was the youngest in her family and was expected to help her mother in the kitchen. However, her skills paid off when she moved to Paris and began cooking professionally as a chef in people’s homes and catering dinner parties. Antoine would spend his days watching her cook and learning from her as she created meals for their family and entertained friends who were constantly coming over to eat her amazing food. Despite his passion for food, Antoine never sought it as a career because he didn’t have an official culinary background. In France there was a certain expectation about how a chef should be qualified in order to work in a restaurant, so he was hesitant to take that step into the industry. Instead he stuck to more practical occupations with the thought that he could one day pursue it. In 2017, Antoine opened Cassava House and was finally able to realize the dream he had always had for himself- providing joy to others with the food that he grew up eating.
Antoine’s first job was repairing computers. His father was a builder so Antoine had gotten very good at using his hands and was interested in the mechanical part of the tech industry that had just started developing at that time. He went back to school for two years to learn the trade and ended up getting a great opportunity to be a part of the first company in Paris to work for Apple. However, after two or three years, Apple had come up with technology that made repairing computers unnecessary. Antoine got frustrated and unhappy working with electronic equipment and decided to leave the company, jumping briefly into a role at a restaurant in Paris before deciding to join his friend on a trip to New York. After working in a position that wasn’t fulfilling for him, he says he wanted to do some exploring and see what other opportunities were out there. So he packed his bags and bought a ticket to New York, telling his parents, “If I stay, I stay. If not, I’ll come back.” However, it didn’t take him too long to find an apartment, find a job and get going. He stayed in New York for a year, then spent a few months in Miami working at a restaurant before moving to Seattle for six months and then finally settling back in New York. Living in New York, he noticed that between his roommates and friends, there was always someone who needed something fixed or something built that he was willing and able to help with. It went from Antoine building a loft bed to putting tiles in a bathroom and continued growing. Little by little he started taking on larger projects until he needed to hire someone to help him and then another person and then another. Eventually he started running his own interior renovation business but his passion for food never went away. He would work a whole day and then come home and put himself in front of the stove for an hour and half to make a meal for his family. He found himself cooking for his team and catering dinners for friends but still, the renovation business was working for him so he continued to stick with it.
About thirteen years ago, Antoine stumbled upon bubble tea in Chinatown and got really interested in how he could create a clean, natural version of the jelly and fake syrup that other places were using. Unfortunately he soon realized that he wouldn’t be able to make a satisfactory product because the natural juices didn’t blend well and it would be too expensive to make his own, so he gave up the idea. But, having come up with Cassava House for this concept (bubble tea is made out of cassava), he decided to keep the business name just in case he had a chance to revisit it in the future. That chance came four years ago when he realized that he didn’t want to be a contractor anymore. He was no longer interested in his work or motivated by it. He wasn’t happy waking up to do renovation anymore but what did make him happy was cooking. He decided that after so many years being passionate about food, he had to give himself the chance to run his own food business. So he got a business partner to take over the renovation business and he took the next two years to look for a spot for his restaurant, renovate it and prepare a menu. By this point, he had given up on the bubble tea idea because he realized that it wasn’t as healthy or clean as a normal juice. So he started creating a menu for fresh-pressed juices, smoothies, breakfast items, sandwiches and salad that was influenced by the food that he grew up eating and focused on healthy, clean ingredients. For Antoine, it was key that they make everything they could in house- their salad dressings, their condiments, their soups- so that he knew exactly what was going into the food and to keep things from getting overprocessed with unnatural additives. He wanted to keep everything as healthy as possible so he made sure that he could be in control of the items on his menu.
Antoine believes that their focus on healthy ingredients combined with their unique flavors and their ability to appeal to plant-based, vegetarian and meat-heavy customers is what sets Cassava House apart from other restaurants. They have an extensive vegan menu and all of their sandwiches can be transformed to satisfy a vegan diet. Antoine says that this wasn’t a specific choice that they made or something that they thought needed to be done to meet a demand in the market, it was just natural for him because he grew up with that kind of cooking. They didn’t eat meat every day at the table in his house, his mother came up with her own ways to incorporate protein without meat, so it was normal for him to have that reflected in his menu. And it felt right that he use some of his mother’s recipes throughout the menu as well. Which is why the way they do things at Cassava House is really unlike the way it’s done anywhere else. A lot of their flavors are different because they combine ingredients that customers wouldn’t necessarily expect to go together. It creates an entire experience around the food because it causes customers to think through their palate and try to pick out the flavors that they’re tasting. Antoine says that watching customers try the food and seeing the surprise on their face when they taste something unexpected is the most rewarding part of the business for him. Those reactions have made him realize that the food is different but also brings people joy because it’s something new that they’ve never tried before. There’s a double reaction where they’re satisfied but also surprised by the flavors in a great, fun way and hearing compliments from customers on top of that is even more rewarding. Hearing people say that it’s “original”, “great”, “unexpected”, “unique” and seeing them react to the recipes that seem so normal to him will never get old for him. He created the menu items to be food that you want to sit down, savor and enjoy. He doesn’t just want to feed people, he wants them to be happy with what they eat and taste the difference of food that satisfies your palate.
Since the business started two years ago, the menu has definitely expanded. Antoine says that he has an endless list of sandwiches that he’s always working on and he pays a lot of attention to feedback from customers to see what items they like or don’t like so they can adapt the menu accordingly. As a business owner, the brainstorming of recipes and the introduction of new menu items keeps him motivated to continue exciting his customers with the unexpected. Right now he’s working with their chef, Laura, who’s vegan, to start exploring more vegan protein options and work towards creating sandwiches around them. But staying on top of what customers may and may not like is difficult, especially when you’re trying to create items that people can eat every day. You don’t want to introduce a new item that isn’t up to par with your current offerings and lose potential future customers. Which is why Antoine focuses on keeping everything very consistent so that customers can come into the restaurant multiple days in a row and always have their food taste the exact same. Antoine admits that the food consistency is challenging but after so many years, dealing with these issues doesn’t bother him because he’s finally in an industry that he’s passionate about.
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