To the rest of the nation, the face of Houston’s seafood restaurants may well be Bryan Caswell’s. He’s competed on Iron Chef, and been nominated twice for the James Beard Award for Best Southwest Chef. His restaurant Reef, named the No. 1 seafood restaurant in the U.S. by Bon Appétit magazine, serves 93 different species of Gulf seafood, with the nimble Caswell changing his menu daily, based upon that morning selection from among his preferred purveyors. When I ask him what “sustainable seafood” means to him, he answers quickly.
“It’s personal,” he says. “I grew up fishing the Texas coast with my dad. I want these fisheries to be here for my children and grandchildren.”
Caswell’s perspective is a unique one, as a native Houstonian with an insider’s view of both the recreational and commercial sides of the fishery. He first became active in the Youth Coastal Conservation Association as a child and is a lifelong recreational angler, running his Grady White 306 Bimini offshore boat and his Parker Big Bay inshore boat out of Freeport as often as his hectic schedule allows. “I can launch at dawn, fish and get back before the restaurant opens,” he says with his characteristic impish grin. Through Reef—along with his and partner Bill Floyd’s other restaurants Little Bigs, El Real and Jackson Street BBQ—he also interfaces with the commercial fishery on a daily basis.
In 2013, Caswell served as a moderator in a meeting between a dozen prominent chefs and commercial fisherman sponsored by the Gulf of Mexico Foundation to facilitate better communication between chefs and fishermen.
“As chefs, we let the commercial fishermen know that we would have no problem paying more for seafood, if we knew it was the seafood we wanted, and the quality we demand,” he says. “We also want to see bycatch better utilized, and better efforts made to protect the environment. We want our bays and our fisheries to be healthy—sustainably so— for generations to come.”
After all, Caswell has an angler-in-training. His youngest child, nearly year-old Jennings, is already a seasoned salt, having made his inaugural offshore voyage at the ripe old age of 6 months.