Whole Fish

Gulf Seafood + Southern Food

So, here I am, wine drunk standing at the bottom of a mountain range in Colorado. As I spin around, the sun in my eyes, I bump into some dude, so close, I can tell what he had for supper. “Excuse me, Sir,” I slurred. Everything comes back into focus and I can see again: Holy Shit! It’s Jose (Made in Spain) Andres. Quickly, I right the ship for a proper introduction; he has already begun to embrace me and congratulate me on my Best New Chef Award. I try to recover but the wind’s been knocked out of me and the only thing I can muster is, “Man, I love your stuff, you’re the shit!” Stupid. Oh well, hopefully the language barrier will work in my favor.

Meeting Jose Andres

As I travel, dine, fish, read, watch, purchase, ingest and dream, I find that those truly awe-inspiring, spine-tingling and fresh moments become fewer and harder to come by. But that is what this entire trip was: new. Like Senior year spring break for grown-up foodies. It was just plain cool.

Dana Cowin toasting the Best New Chefs, Class of 2009

(Before I go any further, some of these pictures might seem as if I had my own personal photographer following me around. Well, actually, I did. Thanks to Courtney Caswell, my semi-pro photographer sister. She treated the trip as a job, took it seriously, and I couldn’t be more appreciative. Thanks, Court!)

Courtney Caswell -- Thanks, Sis

When I hit the tarmac in Aspen, it was clear what my favorite thing was going to be -- the weather: clean, crisp, refreshing, like an ice-cold glass of sun tea. Surrounded by those towering mountains makes even the largest seem small. The first night there was very low-key, dinner with friends and gallons of water. Before I left and when I got there, everyone was telling me, “Drink lots of water or you’ll catch the altitude sickness.” I learned quickly: overeating, being over-served and hangovers all can easily be dismissed with a little, “No, I’m fine. Think it might be a little altitude sickness.”

The next day, we hit it hard -- full schedules, full bellies and full glasses. The whole event is highly structured from 9 am until 9 pm; then at10 pm, all hell breaks loose. There were two Grand Tastings each day with seminars and cooking demonstrations in between. I caught Jose Andres’ demo, where he cooked 10 courses using only quality canned ingredients -- white asparagus, white beans, tuna. He was the most entertaining of them all. Then there are the “Industry” seminars; Danny Meyer and Joe Bastianich talking about marrying creativity with commerce; Mario Batali, Drew Nieporent and Paul Kahan speaking about fostering home-grown talent. These were the guys, the icons of my industry. I soaked it up and pined like a 13-year-old girl at a Jonas Brothers concert. In the presence of greats like this, it’s impossible not to geek out.

photo by Allan Zepeda
Bill Floyd, Danny Meyer & Me

Another Grand Tasting and, before you know it, 10 pm rolls around. Private parties start popping up in private homes all around town, each sponsored by different big names and purveyors. The first of the night was Jose Andres (I know, sounds like I was stalking him), in a multi-level home in which each room had a different cooking and cocktail station. Next was Mario Batali, where he was giving away signed orange crocs to anyone interested (I lost out – finding a size 14 is always a problem). When I finally got a chance, I introduced myself to Mario, “Pleasure to meet you, I’m Bryan Caswell, from Houston, Texas.” (This was my standard introduction for the week, gotta represent!) He cocked his head, slicked back his hair and said, “Caswell, Caswell…Reef, right? Ya, man, I just read about you in Saveur. Dig that redfish thing.” Holy shit! Talk about being blown away.

Me & Mario

The next day, I’m back at the Grand Tasting, and I can feel it, I’m starting to hit my stride. It’s mid-day and Dana Cowin, Editor of Food & Wine Magazine, stops and asks me if I would be her video guinea pig. Well, don’t mind if I do. Next thing I know, I’m standing in line behind Tim Love, in between tents, waiting for my turn in front of the camera. Before I know it, I pop out four how-to spots: crispy skin fish; what makes a fish good for the grill; what makes a fish good for the sauté pan; and how to clean a soft-shell crab. All the while, Dana Cowin is standing next to me, out of camera range, coaching me along, giving me pointers. Wow! Super-cool.

My Coach, Dana Cowin

That night was the big publisher’s party on the mountain. We meet at the base, by the Little Nell, and ride the gondola to the top, where David Chang, Jacques Pepin and Mario Batali had just finished playing bacci ball. Outside, it was 40 degrees and the view was spectacular. Inside, the party was jumping -- insane cocktails and whole pig porchetta. The ride back down the mountain was remarkable. Being roped down, cloaked in darkness, with only the far-off lights of Aspen as our compass.

View from the Gondola

From Whole Pig to...


Saturday night was our night to cook, so it was early to rise, and all of the Best New Chefs were banging it out in the kitchen for the dinner that night. Vinny and Jon (from Animal in L.A.) had lost their house-made Kimchi; when the box busted open in transit, and the folks at Fed-Ex smelled the sour waft, they figured it was rotten and trashed it. In the end, they ended up putting together a banging Pork Slider with the pork belly that had made the trip from L.A. in one piece.
a packed walk-in Vinny checking for salt

Paul (the Limey) Liebrandt from Corton in NYC was whipping up Uni (Sea Urchin) ice cream. Naomi Pomeroy from Beast in Portland -- the only girl of the group -- dropped the biggest cojones doing a charcuterie plate with Country Paté , Steak Tartare with quail egg toast and a Foie Gras Bon Bon. My two Southern brethren represented hardcore: Kelly English Iris from Memphis (Restaurant Iris) with Fried Boudin Balls and Linton Hopkins Eugene from Atlanta (Restaurant Eugene) was hitting it hard with Grilled Pimiento Cheese & Bacon Sandwiches. Christopher Kostow (my stud double) of Meadowood in Napa made a super-cool Roasted Corn Custard. Barry Madien of Hungry Mother in Cambridge put up a Smoked Trout Salad, Mark Fuller (Spring Hill in Seattle) made Columbia Sea Scallops and, rounding it out, Nate Appleman from A16 in San Francisco with Meatballs.

Check out Yum Sugar’s post for more details and pictures of the event, food and chefs.

Me, I kept it simple, with Reef’s signature Crab Cocktail shots. My secret weapon in the deal was my service staff, boy can that girl sell!

My Secret Weapon: K-Dog (aka Kennedy Caswell)

Another late night and, once again, I was over-served, damn that bartender. I mean, I was so tore up I actually thought I saw Tom Colicchio and Joe Bastianich downstairs jamming 80’s tunes.

For Real...

So I skipped Sunday morning and opened my eyes after lunch just in time to join my fellow chefs for a white water rafting trip on the Roaring Fork River (Thanks Blazing Adventures!)

Raft Full of Chefs....

New, fresh and different -- every bit of it -- and I have decided that I won’t miss another Food & Wine Classic any time soon. And I suggest the same for any of you who live to eat and drink. Let me know and I’ll meet you there next year.

More Photos:

On top of the mountain with Gail Simmons

First things first, I need a glass

Me and Ming Sai

Me and Reef's Sous Chef, Heather Deason


neverfull said...

thanks for chronicling that amazing event. will you pack me in your suitcase next year? enjoyed your personal account, the photos, and your humor.

congrats again on BNC! AND bryan caswell day on july 21st! houston is so proud of you!

texasdem83 said...

Very cool man. good to see you get your well deserved comeuppance

lesushizombie said...

it's funny i started reading this blog not realizing it was the force behind Reef. so a belated congrats chef! you deserve it! houston deserves it! make that TEXAS deserves it! i've poured through that same issue of food and wine 100 times already. anyhow, from one cook to a chef, congratulations. you and your staff have earned it. also how can i contact you (or your sous) about staging? i live in austin so i'ts not too far away.

Anonymous said...

I gotta quit reading your posts after 10 P.M.

The munchies are killing me.

cb said...

I haven't been to your restaurant since I moved to San Antonio, but it's been fun following your work!

Next time I'm in Houston I'm definitely stopping by again.

Anonymous said...

man im jealous...doing houston right too! thanks guy!

Robes said...

Great to see a fellow St. Thomas Grad succeeding.

Anonymous said...

Everything sounded amazing! Thanks for recounting and posting pics. Love that for someone as accomplished as yourself, that you get "geeked out" meeting other chefs. Attending this event is definitely on my bucket list. Congrats!!


Ashley Lauren said...

A wonderful chronicle of Aspen. Nice post!

Oh Ngo... said...

UMMM..."right the ship" delivers almost as much stunning visual imagery as the actual freaking pictures. fantastic.

Looking forward to living vicariously through you again in June.

Gini said...

Your father must be very proud of you. Please tell him and your mother I said hello...and we'll all get together at your place when I'm back in Houston. Gini Hoskins

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