When chef Bryan Caswell and his wife Jennifer -- a photographer -- started dating, they quickly discovered that they both had a sweet spot for marine life and the Gulf Coast. After years of talking about doing something to help preserve it, they launched the Southern Salt Foundation in June. Its mission is the “holistic preservation of the Gulf Coast habitats through education, conservation and exploration.”
Bryan, whose restaurants include Reef, Little Bigs, El Real and Jackson Street Barbecue, credits Jennifer with launching the foundation. “I sat there and talked about it all the time, but I got home one day and she said, ‘hey, guess what? Oh, I filed for a 501(c)3.’ She just took it and ran with it,” he said.
To kick off their fundraising, the Caswells hosted a dinner dubbed Salty Supper No.1 at Reef in July, featuring featured food from Caswell, Ryan Lachaine, Rebecca Masson, Edward Lee of 610 Magnolia in Louisville, Kentucky, and Ryan Prewitt of Pêche in New Orleans. No date has been set for Salty Supper No. 2 but it’s expected to take place in October.
We talked to Bryan and Jennifer about the foundation and where they like to eat and drink in Houston.
How did the idea for the foundation originate?
Jennifer: Bryan and I both grew up living very involved with the Gulf. I wanted to be a marine biologist, he used to fish all the time. When we first started dating several years ago, we often talked about ways that we could help and fundraise and give back to the community that we feel has given so much to us, between our travels, our lifestyle as well as our businesses. And when we went to Sea Lab, which is on Dauphin Island, and we saw what they were doing there, we thought we could do something similar here in Galveston that would help to educate the community on the Gulf and preserve the estuaries and the habitats and the wildlife as well.
Bryan: When we first met, the first thing we both found out about each other that we fell in love with this was this. We both were just in love with the Gulf. It was a huge point of relaxation, our center was kinda there.
What types of things you plan to do to support the foundation’s mission?
Jennifer: We’re going to start by, for example like with the dinners, we’re going to give our guests a ballot that’s going to have three different Gulf Coast conservation type organizations and charities that we will let our guests choose from and vote. Whoever gets the most votes, that’s where a portion of the money of that event will go. The other portion is going to be saved because eventually we want to build the education center, that will have an aquarium, an event space and a research center in Galveston. It’s kind of twofold right now. Once we have the education center, all the funding will go to that.
Bryan: It’s a multi-year realization. In the in term we’re fundraising for them but at the same time looking to some of our other foundation partners that we believe are fighting the good fight.
Jennifer: We have a lot of good connections across the South and especially around the Gulf so we’ve been turned on to different organizations. One of the ones that we want to feature for the dinner helps preserve the estuaries of the Delta of the Mississippi River, which feeds into the Gulf and is a really important part of what makes up the Gulf.
Bryan: The erosion levels on the Gulf are astronomical and we’re losing -- I mean everybody knows the story -- we’re losing miles and miles every year of coastland so there’s no doubt that that’s a huge thing. We’re just trying to find the right kind of organizations that also deliver the right amount of percentage to those causes.
Let’s talk about the dinners ...
Bryan: We’re so fortunate that so many people love what we do and have become good friends. The idea is that we’re going to try to pull two [chefs] from outside and two from inside for each dinner. Until we get to a larger type gala or event, we’re probably going to do one a quarter. It’s such a great thing for guys, Ryan Lachaine is going to get to cook with Ryan Prewitt, who’s a two-time James Beard Award winner. That’s a really neat thing to offer guys to be a part of. It’s good for the city, it’s good for the chefs.
What are your favorite places to eat in Houston?
Jennifer: We spend a lot of time at BCN. We really enjoy getting the know the chef there. he’s very sweet and he’s inventive and he does a great job. We go to Pass & Provisions a lot. We are big fans of Seth [Siegel-Gardner] and Terrence [Gallivan]; they’re fantastic and they always have a great wine list and some unusual bourbons that we’ve never heard of and they’re great at exposing us to those.
Bryan: We love Adam over at Pax [Americana].
Jennifer: Adam Dorris is incredibly talented but even more so, his pastry chef has to be the most talented pastry chefs in maybe the South. I’m gluten free so I usually don’t have any kind of dessert and almost all her desserts are gluten-free and they all are amazing. She’s crazy talented.
Bryan: If someone’s never been to Houston, we always take them to The Big Easy. That’s such an incredibly unique spot. We love Bad News Bar for cocktails.
Jennifer: We’re big fans of Izakaya; they have great veggies.
Bryan: For wine, 13 Celsius. It’s hard to beat that place.
Jennifer: We’re out quite a bit.
Aside from Reef, what are other good places to eat Gulf seafood?
Bryan: If you want to step back a bit, the guy, the originator and the guy who I learned a lot from as a young kid because I was real good friends with his son who now runs it, Levi Goode, is Goode Company Seafood. I can remember going there when I was young and it was crawfish season and I was like, ‘why don’t ya’ll have crawfish?’ They go ‘no, we’re not serving it.’ And I go ‘but I don’t understand why aren’t you serving it? Can’t you get it?’ And he goes, ‘yeah, but it’s just not good.’ It was one of the first places I’d ever been to where quality was chosen over a dollar bill. If it’s not right, they’re not putting it on a plate.
Jennifer: They’ve been a huge staple in our community. Huge.
Bryan: And they continue to be. Exclusively, there’s not a lot of places that are just doing what we do. There are many restaurants that serve fish from the Gulf for their fish courses.