by Kristi Willis
Photography by Jenna Noel
Houston Chef Bryan Caswell has lived all over the world—New York, Barcelona, Hong Kong, Bangkok and the Bahamas—but his heart is firmly anchored on the Gulf Coast. And more often than not, when Caswell’s not in one of his restaurants—the widely acclaimed seafood haven Reef, the burger joint Little Bigs or El Real Tex-Mex—he’s gone fishing. This chef is an avid, some might say master, fisherman, often planning his day so that he can fish from one of his boats in Galveston, Matagorda Bay or Surfside Beach before he heads in to prepare for dinner service at Reef in Houston’s Midtown neighborhood.
“I’ll fish on a bridge…I don’t really care,” Caswell says. “I just love to be out there. It’s a sense of freedom that I don’t get anywhere else. I actually turn my phone off, and, not to be too sappy, there’s that one with nature thing that happens. For me, fishing is all I need.”
Caswell even fishes when he travels. On a recent trip to Vietnam organized by Red Boat fish sauce, he explored the cuisine and all that goes into making fish sauce with Chefs Edward Lee, Stuart Brioza and Austin’s own Paul Qui. They fished several times during the trip, including an expedition at night for anchovies.
“Wherever I go, there is usually a fishing trip,” says Caswell. “I can be halfway around the world and worried about the restaurants, but as soon as I get on the boat everything fades away.”
His passion for fishing has translated into unique finds on the menu at Reef. Caswell was one of the first Texas chefs to feature appellation oysters, and he regularly runs specials of less commonly known fish from the Gulf—more than 87 species since opening Reef. “We still have snapper and grouper,” he says, “but we try to serve as much of the other fish as we can to give them a break.”
Introducing unfamiliar items to diners was difficult in the beginning, but the trust Caswell has developed with customers made it possible. “If you give people something that tastes great,” he says, “they’ll be willing to make that choice.”
This fall, Caswell is teaming up with Jim Gossen of Louisiana Foods—a seafood purveyor based in Houston that services restaurants and markets across Texas—to help other chefs become more connected to Gulf seafood. The pair is hosting an outreach program with 10 chefs and 10 fishermen, leaving out the middlemen, to discuss the challenges they face sourcing from the Gulf.
Caswell’s exploration with ingredients extends beyond the shoreline, too, to local produce—some of which he forages himself. “During loquat season,” Caswell says, “I have fifteen to twenty people who will let me come pick [loquats] in their backyards. There’s even a bank next to my parents’ house with a great tree that they never harvest. I just back up my truck and load it up.”
Caswell and his business partner Bill Floyd are definitely making their culinary mark across Houston, most recently with their 3rd Bar Oyster & Eating House in Terminal B at George Bush Intercontinental Airport. But as a rabid Astros fan, Caswell’s favorite project may be his partnership with the Astros and Minute Maid Park, developing the concept for The FiveSeven Grille and opening small versions of Little Bigs and El Real at the park.
“I grew up with the Astros and I’m like a little kid out there,” Caswell says as he beams from ear to ear. “Any job that makes me go to the stadium is pretty cool. The only job I can think of that could be better is if someone paid me to fish.”
Fortunately for Houston diners, Caswell hasn’t found that fishing gig just yet and is still on the lookout for new ways to share great food with people—making each dining spot, even at the airport, a place where customers will want to return.
“At the end of the day I want someone to walk out of the [restaurant] and say, ‘That was a good time,’” Caswell says. “Life’s too short not to have fun.”