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Best New Chefs 2009: Bryan Caswell

Bryan Caswell

Reef, Houston


Born: Lafayette, LA; 1973.

Education: The Culinary Institute of America; Hyde Park, NY.

Experience: Via Veneto, Barcelona; Union Pacific and Jean Georges, New York City; Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong; Icon, Houston.

We loved: Crispy-skinned snapper with sweet and sour chard and tomato brown butter; grilled amberjack with plantain and long bean sauté.

How he got to work at Via Veneto:
“The first day of cooking school, they tell you that you can do an externship anywhere, as long as the school approves it. I decided I was going overseas and wrote a letter to every approved place in their language—Swedish, German, Italian. Out of 20 letters, Via Veneto was the only one that called me back.”

How he got into cooking:
“I went to college as a civil engineering major. The whole time, I was working as a dishwasher, a bartender, a manager. I decided I would go to CIA to learn to run a restaurant. But something stuck. For the first time, I got good grades—my dad still has them on display in his office. And being from the south, I grew up cooking. We’d use whatever excuse we could to have a party and cook.”

Biggest influence:
Jean-Georges Vongerichten.

Memorable cooking experience:
“When I was in Spain, they had fiesta in August, and I went to the mountains with friends. Someone’s relative killed a lamb, someone got honey from his grandmother, we picked fennel and thyme, and we made a big dinner of garlic-honey roasted lamb with fennel and wine from a local bodega. It was the first time everything I ate originated within a five-mile radius. My grandmother had a farm in East Texas and raised a lot of animals, but she still got bacon from a package, tomatoes from a can. In Spain, I’m talking everything was local, from top to bottom. Even the serving dishes were made locally.”

Equipment obsession:
His custom-made griddle, which simulates a $15,000 Spanish plancha but costs a lot less. “It’s 48 inches long, with two small ovens underneath, and it gets crazy hot. We don’t sauté anything. We start food on the griddle and finish it in a slow oven. It’s great: I don’t have to have a guy washing 9,000 sauté pans.”

Favorite childhood dish:
His grandmother Bertie Bea Caswell’s collard greens. “She had a Community Coffee can of bacon fat on the stove. She’d get a pan ripping hot and braise sautéed collard greens. We have them on the menu now.”

Favorite kitchen tool:
A cake tester. “We use cake testers like no one’s business. We use them to test fish and meat by testing how hot it is inside; that’s what I did in Spain, where there were no thermometers. You can use it for vegetables, too, by checking the resistance.”

Fantasy splurge:
Eating around Lima. “I want to check out that city’s crazy South American-Japanese deal. I’ve heard there’s more variety of fish per square inch off the coast of Lima than anywhere else in the world.“

After-hours snack:
Carnitas at La Tapatia Taqueria. “It’s across the street from my first apartment and the King Cole liquor store. I had it all right there.”

About his second restaurant:
Little Bigs, a burger joint with really good wine and beer in Houston. “We make four things: burgers, a chicken sandwich, French fries and cheese-filled fried cremini mushrooms—it’s a crispy mushroom bomb. We make our own rolls and use only rib-eye scraps for the burgers.”

What his next restaurant would be:
A 2,000-square-foot oyster bar with only Texas oysters. “People are starting to grow them now, so you can source them from this river, from that bay.”

Why he doesn’t have a wine cellar:
“I like good wines that I can drink now. I keep trying to build a cellar, but I drink the wines too fast.”

Favorite thing about Houston:
The diversity of the culture and the landscape. “I can go hunting with my dog, The Dude, or fishing on my boat in the morning and be at work in the afternoon. I can drive to Mexico in five hours; I can drive to New Orleans in five hours, too.”

Advice to future cooks:
Work in a Waffle House. “Many don’t have tickets—everything is verbal—so you learn to hold your orders in your head. You’re cooking by yourself, so there’s no one to save you, and it’s an open kitchen. My sous chef worked in a Waffle House, and she’s the fastest line cook I’ve ever seen. I wish I’d done it—I’d be a better cook.”

Favorite cookbook:
Sex, Death and Oysters by Robb Walsh. “I’ve been eating oysters since I was six, and I know the oysters from all over both coasts. So if I can learn something about oysters, that’s pretty amazing.”

Reef, 2600 Travis St., Houston; 713-526-8282.

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