At first glance, he looks like any tattooed kid you'd see weaving in and out of pedestrian traffic on Figueroa on his skateboard. In reality, he's the maestro of the mushroom, the hangar steak hero and the bone marrow virtuoso of Los Angeles. But Casey Lane's vision goes way beyond the kitchen — he has redefined hotel dining in Los Angeles.
Chef-partner at the Tasting Kitchen, Viale dei Romani, Breva and the Veranda at Hotel Figueroa, as well as Casa Apicii in New York, the 35-year-old Lane has built an empire that started on Abbott Kinney in Venice 10 years ago.
He opened the Basque-inspired Breva in the newly restored Hotel Figueroa in 2018 and followed up with the elegantly casual Viale dei Romani, designed by Parts & Labor, at the Kimpton La Peer Hotel a few months later. He oversees every food aspect at the Kimpton — breakfast, lunch and dinner at Viale, service for the pool, the lobby bar, in-room dining for all 105 rooms, 120-person rooftop dinners, business banquets and breakfast buffets.
"With the new agreements, food & beverage really operates everything but [cleaning] the rooms — the lobby, the lobby bar, the rooftop, the dining, the banqueting," Lane tells L.A. Weekly in the airy blue and gold dining room of Viale dei Romani."
"All the personnel you meet in the hotel work as one team. At the Hotel Figueroa, everybody you encounter is part of the food and beverage team. For developers here, it's become much more of a focus that they've decided to let the F&B operator be the face of the hotel."
Lane's style comes off as super casual and mellow, giving the impression that the kingdom just runs itself. But behind the friendly demeanor is a chef who was trained by the old guard of brutal chefs with a dedicated belief in craft and the old way of doing things as well as the power of anxiety.
"In everyone that I hire or have worked with for a long time, the first thing we weed out are the people who don't have anxiety about execution," Lane says. "When we're looking for people we want to invest our time into, the first thing we look for is if they are generally anxious. Are they nervous? Because if you're not nervous, you're not pushing yourself as hard as you should be.
"I love learning and following the guidelines of what has been taught and passed down through generations," he adds.
When Lane moved to L.A. from Portland, Oregon, at the tender age of 25 with his young sous chef to start the Tasting Kitchen, they wanted to do everything the hardest way possible. They didn't want to buy into molecular gastronomy. They butchered whole animals, did their own curing and baked their own bread. There were no bandsaws in a fancy kitchen; it was a cleaver and a mallet. They created art that was different from the L.A. culinary landscape, and it made a splash.
But Lane wanted more. He started talking to developers with an idea to make their hotels part of the neighborhood instead of a destination outside of the city. That would mean a neighborhood restaurant and, according to Lane, 80 percent of restaurants in the world are neighborhood restaurants.
"My dream restaurant is one of those old-school dining establishments where people aren't going out to dinner, they are dining properly," says Lane, who describes Viale dei Romani as old Beverly Hills meets punk rock.
"It's bucking the trend of what's going on in L.A. right now. L.A. loves simple, chef-driven and edgy. I'm a fan of the old-school tablecloths and presentation. We change the cloth without you ever seeing the table. These practices really inspire me. I adore that old-school Beverly Hills meets old Hollywood, with Lionel Richie eating the veal liver marsala sitting at the next table."
Viale's executive chef, South Bay native Brian Bornemann, has been with Lane since he walked into the back door of the Tasting Kitchen looking for a job making pasta after traveling Europe, and he shares Lane's philosophy.
"I've always loved working with Casey because we both come from the same cooking background, from scratch cooking," Bornemann tells L.A. Weekly while tending to the wood-burning oven overlooking the La Peer patio. "It's by the eyeball, by the ounce, and less about following dedicated recipes."
Bornemann says Lane's style is letting people be the best version of themselves and knowing when not to step on their toes.
"Sure, we all get stressed, it's a part of what we do. It's all about how you hold the stress and are able to communicate effectively through stress, through anger. You've got to be able to keep yourself level. He's always been able to have a level head about him in situations."
"There's definitely different ways to do it," Bornemann says. "Some restaurant groups are very militantly enforcing the same rules every single day. That's just not the way we like to operate. In an environment like this, with the different number of events, banquets and menus that we have — if you expect the ease of repetition, this is not the right job for you. If you enjoy the curve balls, if you enjoy the change, if you enjoy the constant dynamism, that's what makes it fun. Some people don't understand that is the job. It's not the exception, it's the rule."
Just don't break any of the dishes.
Growing up in Texas and surrounded by china cabinets representing years of special family occasions, Lane developed a dish tick that is represented on the tables of all his restaurants. An eclectic mix of Richard Ginori tableware from Italy, no two settings at any table are alike.
Ginori was just as anxious to foster the friendship and wanted a presence in the Beverly Hills area, so they invited Lane to go through their back stock, scoring deals like coffee cups that went for $80 apiece for $1.78 each. For Viale dei Romani alone, Lane bought $250,000 worth of the china, factoring in breakage.
"There are different dishes for certain things," Lane says. "We only pull the ones we want to use at certain times. I love the idea that every time you get your table setting changed, there's something new for your eyes and something new to talk about. And even if you don't talk about it, it's going to have some sort of effect on your memory and experience or maybe even elicit one of your own."
So, what happens when a dish breaks?
"I'm not as angry as I used to be," he says from the inner sanctum of his massive closet filled with one-of-a-kind plates, platters, gravy boats and teapots.
"That was my biggest problem as a young chef. After a decade of it, I was like, I can't just be a dick all the time. It's making my reality something that is always angry. I don't like that.
"So, when someone breaks a plate, there's a quiet moment of us looking at each other. Let's clean it up and move on. Now if it's the second or third time from the same person, you're probably just not respecting our building and will end up with your walking papers."
Lane's love of juxtapositions of ornate and classy against a little bit of punk rock is evident in each of his unique venues and is largely inspired by famed interior architect Martin Brudnizki, who loves to create different moments all over a single room.
"I would sit in his properties and might feel totally different if I was sitting in another corner of the room," Lane says. "It could be a totally different experience if I was in the lounge seating as opposed to this chair, and the table setting is an integral part of that."
Working together with his mentor and partner, Tom Dillon, on the three-year, multimillion-dollar transformation of the historic Hotel Figueroa downtown was the true test for Lane, who was just hitting his stride as a young disrupter of the Los Angeles hotel scene.
"If you're not disrupting things, you're really just following someone else's habits, and that's just not an ambitious endeavor for me," Lane declares.
"I think even with the Tasting Kitchen, when I moved down here from Portland and saw the landscape and what was happening in L.A., I thought, wow, what I do natively is completely going to change how people think about how this should be done.
"I loved the property and the building and the fact that it's an old piece of Los Angeles that was just out of the comfort range on operation. The La Peer is only 105 rooms, and my learning curve on the Figueroa was just a dead sprint and blind faith on how to do it properly."
But even as a younger, cockier upstart, Lane has always been old-school.
"I joke with all the kids these days saying, 'Dude, you're never going to be as good as we are because we're not allowed to manage you the way that we were managed,'?" he says.
"We also didn't have the give-up nature that this quitter generation has. I knew it was going downhill when I went to that pee wee football game where nobody was keeping score. Whether or not it was forced on you, we learned respect. Even now, just in the moment when I cook, I can't stop it from coming out. I'll be expediting from the other side of the line and I can be real patient, but as soon as the quality of my execution is brought down by your mistake, we have a problem. It was part of learning to take something so seriously. It's the idea that either everything matters, or nothing matters."
Bornemann and Lane have designed dishes for the L.A. palate, which is what keeps locals coming back. Many are Italian dishes you would never see in Italy.
"A lot of what we'll do is based on the flavor profiles you see around us every day, like spicy tuna, things with fish sauce, wraps and Mexican food," Bornemann says. "We take the ethos of Italian cooking, which is good ingredients we believe in, and compile them in a foreign way. It doesn't make sense to make Italian food by buying products from Italy and replicating dishes you see there. For me, it's more about making a dish from ingredients we find here."
The Calabrese fried rice is a perfect example. The team used to make the Northern Italian sausage and rice dish risotto de piloto at the Tasting Kitchen. Moving into the Viale space and lighter fare, it didn't seem to be the right fit. They changed it to sautéed rice with a crispy bottom, like a paella. It's still made with their house-made Calabrian sausage with chilies and finished with Roman fish sauce, another Italian ingredient. It's cooked with pork and shrimp stock and finished with crab.
"At the end of the day, it almost eats more like Thai food. You'd never see anything like that in Italy. It's really for the Angeleno palate — it's what people want to eat here," Bornemann says.
At the very seafood-focused Viale, all the oysters, scallops and mussels come from private purveyor Sue Buxton in Stonington, on a remote island off the coast of Maine, within 24 hours of being pulled from the icy waters by a select handful of divers. Scallops don't sit in a warehouse for two weeks; they're shelled on the boat and go out the same day via FedEx to Lane and other customers including Wolfgang Puck, Thomas Keller and Jean Georges. The name of each diver in each boat is on each tin of scallops.
"Casey's team always has so many questions," Buxton tells L.A. Weekly over the phone from a balmy 38-degree Stonington, where her family has lived for six generations.
"We did a Facetime call — one of the first two or three that I've ever done — with the entire staff of Viale and I walked them around my property, showing them my 100-year-old barn where my seafood shop is, and answered all their questions. They'll text me with questions on the difference between diver scallops and day boats, the divers, how many tanks they use, how deep they go, the names of their boats and a lot about sustainability."
Buxton buys the cream of the crop from the local divers every day specifically for each chef at each of the 40 restaurants she serves and considers them all close friends.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
"Casey's very creative. I don't think you can pigeonhole his menu development," she says. "He's forever looking for something different."
And when it comes to looking forward, Lane's next project might just be a small bed-and-breakfast, European-style agricultural tourism space.
"I'd love to do like 45 rooms and control the whole space, from check-in to the food and beverage to the farm," he says. "I'd put it together in a lovely soulful way, something completely tourism- and food-driven. I don't want to travel. Something close to the city, like Ojai, in a beautiful farm community.
"The only thing I really look forward to at this point is eight hours of sleep without anxiety."