Bryan Caswell

F&W Star Chef

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RESTAURANTS: Reef, Little Bigs, El Real Tex-Mex Café, Third Bar (Houston, TX)

EXPERIENCE: Union Pacific and Jean-Georges (New York); Dune Restaurant, The Bahamas; Bank at Hotel Icon (Houston, TX); Restaurante Via Veneto (Barcelona, Spain)

EDUCATION: Culinary Institute of America

Who taught you how to cook? What is the most important thing you learned from him or her?
My grandmothers. They were both from Louisiana and they were both amazing cooks.

My paternal grandmother didn’t use recipes and did everything by touch. When I wanted to learn to make dumplings, she said, “start with a bucket of flour and pour it on the table.” She kept all her notes in a canning recipe book.

My maternal grandmother was adamant about recipes. She had a card catalogue of recipes. I learned from both the happy medium between following standards and doing things off the cuff.

What's a dish that defines your cooking style?
Red fish on the half shell. Red fish has a tough, heavy-duty scale structure. You take it off the bone but leave the skin and scales on it. You put the scale side on the grill. It burns on the bottom, but the scales are so thick they insulate the meat. It’s a cool technique that smokes, grills and steams. You put sliced lemons in the fish, and it’s incredibly moist. I was hesitant to put it on the menu because my grandfather taught it to me, and it’s not fancy, but it’s part of who I am.

What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself?
The first dish I ever made was eggs over easy with sausage and bacon. I grew up with this amazing six-burner, two-oven stove with a griddle. It’s always been a force in my life. All we do is sit around and try to make an excuse to have a party.

Who is your food mentor? What is the most important thing you learned from him?
Without a doubt, it’s Jean-Georges. I worked for him for seven years and what he taught me was how to cook with acidity. He also taught me balance: on the plate, in your life, in your wardrobe. The guy does not freak out or loose his cool, and he’s still so excited about everything he does.

Favorite cookbook of all time.
Who’s Your Mama, Are You Catholic and Can You Cook a Roux? by Marcelle Bienvenu

What's the most important skill you need to be a great cook?
Learning to cook with all of your senses, not just your eyes. Hearing the difference when things go from sautéing to sweating, for example. It goes back to balance too. The use of acidity is probably the most important thing in cooking. It makes dishes come alive.

Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?
I wish I could cook in a wok better. I never really got the hang of it. I wish I could make it look cool.

What is the best bang-for-the-buck ingredient and how would you use it?
I think that thyme is vastly underutilized. I love it for steeping, for flavoring sweets and savory, and for pairing with mint. Thyme in cocktails is excellent. It’s the original ingredient in Listerine because it’s an antiseptic.

What is your current food obsession?
I have several: In the summer, my obsession is crab. I can’t get enough of it. I also recently built a cinder block pit and have been doing whole hogs every chance I get. It’s a nine-hour deal.

Name three restaurants you are dying to go to in the next year and why?
Anything in Lima, Peru. That’s my next destination.

I want to go to Westbridge in Boston. Matt Gaudet is a good buddy from when we used to cook together at Jean-Georges. I’m dying to go eat there.

Paul Qui’s place Qui in Austin. He’s Cambodian and we just spent two weeks in Vietnam together in February. I’m curious to see how that trip influenced his cuisine. And it’s his first place that’s all his own.

Best bang-for-the-buck food trip—where would you go and why?
There’s no doubt: Houston, Texas. There’s nothing that touches the diversity of our mom and pop restaurants. You’ve never seen anything like our Chinatown. You see walls of live fish and crab and crustaceans, and it’s very inexpensive.

What is the most cherished souvenir you've brought back from a trip?
I brought back a massive clay two-foot-tall mortar and pestle from Hong Kong. I had to haul it through customs. It’s so big it scares me to move. I keep my spare change in it.

What do you consider your other talents besides cooking?
I’m a fairly good carpenter. I’m currently renovating a 1911 Craftsman home. It’s my third time renovating a home. I’m an amazing fisherman. I don’t brag about my cooking, but I do brag about that.

If you could invent a restaurant for your next (imaginary) project, what would it be?
I like the idea of a live fish and crustacean restaurant. If you had a live wall of fish, you could sustain the diversity of your menu. You’d kill it and clean it so it’s perfectly done. The restaurant would be in Houston. We’ve served 87 species out of the Gulf since we opened. It’s what I’m most proud of.

If you were going to take Mario Batali out to eat, where would it be?
I’d take Mario Batali to Houston’s Chinatown and on a fishing trip. Mario can at least keep up with me drinking and he’s a fun-loving guy.

What ingredient will people be talking about in five years?
Sustainably grown aquaculture. I think shrimp and cobia will be the most prominent. We are currently starting the chef and fishermen outreach program where we are trying to put to use the shrimper bycatch. Currently only 15 percent of shrimpers’ catch is shrimp, and everything else dies. The only thing worse than shrimping for the environment is farm-raised shrimping. We have to figure out a way to grow things in the massive ocean.

What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up? What is your favorite snack?
Pickles are my favorite snack. We make more than 30 different kinds at the restaurant and seven kinds are in my fridge right now.

My favorite snack is the chips and salsa from my restaurant.

Best new store-bought ingredient/product, and why?
Louisiana Ghost Pepper Caviar. It’s got a little bite to it. Caviar snobs will turn their noses as it, but I think it’s great and it sells really well.

Three people to follow on Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook.
John T. Edge, @johntedge

Robb Walsh, @robbwalsh

Kat Kinsman @kittenwithawhip

Do you have any food superstitions or pre- or post- shift rituals?
These are more deep beliefs than superstitions, but I believe in eating only live crab and live oysters. Also: Never, ever, ever does tomato belong in gumbo. I got kicked out of a class at CIA arguing with a chef about that.

My pre-shift ritual is getting everything completely organized in my station.