For a city that sits so near to the coast, Houston is often criticized for lacking in contemporary seafood establishments. Famed chefs like Bryan Caswell of Reef have attempted to bring more Gulf-friendly cuisine to the city, but it's Jean-Philippe Gaston that's turning meat-and-potatoes purists into raw gourmands.
The young chef de cuisine of Cove opened the 35-seat raw seafood bar inside of Haven, one of Houston's most respected Southern/Gulf Coast-inspired restaurants. He crafts an international menu of raw seafood, cold shellfish, and the occasional raw "land food."
Before Cove, he says, the majority of raw menus in Houston were limited to familiar, basic staples like sashimi, ceviche, and the ever-popular sushi. Gaston has taken the raw concept a step further in Houston and created an extensive menu of international ceviches, crudos, tartares, tatakis, tiraditos, and more.
The chef talked with me about the genesis of Cove, why Texas raw bars are so few and far between, and how he is utilizing unique ingredients like lionfish to creative never-before-seen Houston dishes.
Layne Lynch: I'm already familiar with your work at Haven, but take me through the genesis of Cove, your new raw bar inside of Haven.
Jean-Philippe Gaston: When we first talked about doing Cove, I started thinking about all the places I've traveled to and worked in the world, and I realized there are a lot of regions that have amazing raw food. There are many places like Thailand and Latin America that showcase proteins in their purest form, and I realized we could do something like that through Cove. I'll admit, a lot of people were skeptical about us putting an international raw bar inside of a Southern restaurant like Haven, but we made it work and it's turned out well. It's actually worked to our advantage because Haven customers are being exposed to Cove dishes they might never have been willing to even try.
LL: I read in the Houston Press that you consider Cove one of Houston's first raw bars. Why is that?
JPG: I come from a background where there is a lot of raw food preparation. This project is something I've wanted to do for several years, especially in a city like Houston. We're the fourth largest city in the nation and we're coastal. The fact that there are hardly any raw bars to speak of here absolutely astounds me. And the few that have opened are very limited in their menu with options like oysters and cooked shellfish.
A lot of chefs in town have tried to open a raw bar, but it hasn't gone well. Bryan Caswell of Reef has been saying he wants to open one for a long time now. It upsets me because you go to places like New York City and see raw bars on almost every corner.
With my background, I wanted to show people that raw bars aren't only about ceviches and sashimis. There are places all over the world like Hawaii and Thailand that are dedicated to showcasing these amazing proteins. With Cove, I decided to get greedy and show everything you can do raw, like cheeses, meats, seafood, and shellfish, with different preparation styles and methods from all over the world. There are no starches. No fillers. It's straight proteins that are made in a very delicate, clean way.
LL: I saw that you're working with lionfish for an upcoming Haven dinner. Why are you featuring that fish specifically?
JPG: I understand it's an invasive species. Ever since we got involved with the people that sell us the lionfish, we've been using it regularly on the Cove menu. It's not a cheap fish and it's pretty mild in taste, but it's something we all need to put an effort into featuring more on our menus.
In two years, our Gulf will be overtaken by this invasive species if we don't do something about it. With the lionfish dinner, we're attempting to showcase what you can do with it using local, Southern flavors from Haven as well as international, raw flavors from Cove. It's a style of cooking we want to continue to do in the future.
LL: What are the flavor profiles of lionfish?
JPG: It's a mild-tasting fish, kind of like snapper. It feeds on algae and other small fish as well. Lionfish lives on reef, so it doesn't have much protein going into it. The texture of the meat is in between flounder and snapper, but it blends very well with any kind of flavor. It doesn't have any fishy or oily flesh and it's very easy to combine with different international flavors. At this dinner, for instance, we're preparing it with Mexican, Israeli, and Thai flavors.
LL: Why do you think Texas has so few raw bars?
JPG: When we opened Cove, I was worried it was going to scare off Haven customers. I didn't want people to think it was too foreign or weird. It's also very expensive to get the kind of quality ingredients you need to run a great raw bar program.
I hate to bring it up, but there is also this conception that Texans don't want to eat raw food. However, I think people are beginning to become more open to the idea of eating this kind of food, and I hope with more education that Houston diners will be more willing to try these dishes and not be so scared. I've had some people mention the oil spill in the Gulf and ask why in the world we're making raw fish right now, and I have to emphasize that our proteins don't necessarily come from the Gulf and that the fish from the Gulf aren't necessarily bad either.
People need to be reassured and educated about the quality of raw food available to us, and I think people like Bryan Caswell are trying to bring that change to the table in Houston. If that happens, I wouldn't be surprised if we don't see raw bars popping up