Sea Student

The grilling months are upon us, but instead of burgers and dogs, try serving up this spicy seafood picnic created by Houston chef Bryan Caswell, whose obsession with the bounty of the deep is, well, deep.
Sea Student
Chef Bryan Caswell
Photograph by Marcus Nilsson

Reading Bryan Caswell’s blog, Whole Fish, is like looking at a diagram of his seafood-besotted brain. Some posts reflect the young Houston chef’s nerdy, academic side: “Golden Tilefish are from the Malacanthidae family.” Others reveal his carnal appetite for marine life: “I am (almost) embarrassed to admit how turned on I was by these little beauties.” (This was regarding baby Gulf Coast squid.) Still others make him seem almost like an action figure, as in this post about reeling in a “big-ass Cobia”: “It was on! A rush of adrenaline blasted through my veins as this 40-plus pound monster manhandled me from port to starboard.”

The snapshots help explain what motivates the 37-year-old, as well as what keeps him grounded during a career that has taken off like a big-ass cobia. In the past three years, he has opened four restaurants, including his flagship, Reef; been chosen as one of the country’s top rising-star chefs by Food & Wine magazine; and made it to the finals of the James Beard national culinary competition. He has also been selected as a contestant in a high-profile Food Network series, the precise name of which I am forbidden to disclose.

I went to see him recently at Reef, a restaurant that, I’m not embarrassed to say, has turned me on since 2007, when I first sampled its crispy-skin snapper with sweet-and-sour chard. From day one, Caswell’s goal at Reef has been to showcase local seafood (the only exotic species served is Scottish salmon). A parallel mission has been to explore the global cuisine of Houston, where he has lived since the age of two. “People ask me what kind of food I do,” he said, “and sometimes I’ll tell them it’s ‘Houston cuisine.’ If I have a North African or a Thai-style dish on my menu, it probably started with something I ate right here in the city.”

What stitches the diverse influences together is a classic culinary education, which began with a diploma from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, and continued with prestigious stops in Barcelona, New York City, Hong Kong, Bangkok, and the Bahamas. In 2004 famed restaurateur Jean-Georges Vongerichten tapped Caswell to open a fine-dining restaurant, named Bank, at the new Hotel Icon, in Houston. Three years later, Caswell and Bank’s general manager, Bill Floyd, left to launch Reef.

Flooded with light through immense plate glass windows and with a wave-textured wall on one side, Reef feels a bit like an aquarium. Caswell has other places to check on (Italian restaurant Stella Sola and two locations of burger joint Little Bigs) and a new concept in the works (“Texan but not steaks”), but this is his home base. “I spend ninety percent of my time at Reef and always will,” he said. His daily drill is tweaking the menu and keeping an eye out for new fish. Since April 20, it has also included monitoring the BP oil spill. “The damage is heartbreaking,” he says, even though the parts of the Gulf that Reef’s fish come from have not been affected so far. He constantly reassures customers that the restaurant’s seafood is safe, and he also feels a strong obligation to support local fisherman and shrimpers: “They need our help more than ever.”

When we asked Caswell to come up with some recipes for a summer seafood cookout, he responded with a collection as international as Houston itself: oysters with a Vietnamese-style dipping sauce, spicy shrimp with a sriracha citrus rémoulade, and smoky redfish with a ginger-spiked slaw. Served together, with an ice-cold Shiner or a bottle of Texas wine, the dishes make a perfect backyard picnic. Even better, the various parts can be interchanged to suit your individual taste. Best of all, they’re easy, so even the cook will have time to enjoy the fun.

Grilled Oysters With Vietnamese-Style Dipping Sauce

18 to 24 large oysters, in their shells

Preheat grill to hot. Rinse unopened shells and shuck the oysters into a colander, reserving the oyster liquor. Return oysters to the deeper shells (discard the shallow ones) and place on a sheet pan. Top each with a dollop (approximately 2 teaspoons) of Lemony Basting Butter and some


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