Photo Courtesy of Food Network
Once again, Slashfood takes the time to catch up with our favorite reality-TV chefs as they're asked to leave the national stage and return to their respective kitchens. As we've done in the past, we try to avoid spoilers, so click through to read our exit interview with the latest exiled 'Next Iron Chef.''
Affectionately dubbed the "linebacker ballerina" on this season's The Next Iron Chef, Houston's Bryan Caswell demonstrated he was more than just another big Texan. Alton Brown and the rest of the judges gave Caswell the moniker because his hulking stature contrasted with the more delicate plates he delivered week after week. Although he didn't win any specific challenges, he did score a win for Houston -- bucking the stereotype that Texans only know BBQ.
Caswell himself is an accomplished chef who's currently involved in three different restaurants: He's the chef-owner of REEF, Texas/Italian fusion spot Stella Sola and Hamburger joint/wine bar Little Bigs. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park, New York, Caswell has studied under Jean-Georges Vongerichten, which led him to cooking stints around the globe, including spots in Hong Kong, Bangkok and the Bahamas.
Slashfood spoke with Caswell about his feelings surrounding the buffet challenge he lost out on, as well as about representing Houston throughout the competition and that tasty sounding tequila BBQ sauce he presented on his final episode.
In the end, you lost a buffet challenge. Are you a fan of the buffet?
You know, I haven't been a fan of buffet since I was living in a small apartment, and you go to a buffet and all you had was fifteen bucks. It was all you can eat and a glass of tea. So, no, I don't do a lot of buffets. Most times, it's an action station or something happening right in front of you -- so I wasn't excited about the buffet.
It has to be different in the way you were thinking about your menu.
There's no doubt. The only thing that can hold up in a buffet and actually do well, is some sort of braise. I wanted something to do with a braise, like the braised pork butt. Three hours is definitely a stretch, especially without a pressure cooker. The thing about a buffet is that whether it's the Lucky Dragon $5.95 all-you-can-eat or it's the Four Seasons, a majority of the food is going to have to sit. No chef wants food to sit for that long and then have to be graded on it. It's definitely a part of American culture, so I can see where they were coming from, but when we rolled into Vegas, that was the last thing on my mind. We'd always wonder what the next challenge was and try to hypothesize and figure it out. Going to Vegas, I'm like "now we're going to get down to some high-end, cool stuff." But that wasn't the case.
This episode we just watched was "Battle Inspiration." Was your regional "inspiration" a smart move? That word can be a bit vague.
A lot of those words aren't crazy-specific. So much of the show is about a story you tell with your food. If you watch the original Iron Chef America, each thing has a story. That's the same thing with a restaurant; people like that story. So, a lot of those [battle] words, I'd try to do my inspiration in what I was going to tell the judges. No one really wants to put something on a plate that doesn't come from themselves. It tastes better if it comes from an Italian guy; eating is not just about your taste buds and your olfactory. It's about where you're at, and there's a mental aspect to it as well. A kind of foreplay that leads up to the bit you're about to take in your mouth. It can lead you to believe you're going to like it or not going to like it before you've put it in your mouth, and the story has a lot to do with that.
That said, the BBQ and Gulf angle --it gave your work an identity compared to everything else the judges were presented with.
One of my main motivations for doing the show, other than being excited to compete, was I'm from the Gulf Coast, I grew up around here, I love it, and I think it gets very little play as a viable culinary resource. I like to show off where I'm from. Houston is an incredibly diverse city; it's become this new Creole city, this new melting pot -- what New York was at one point, what New Orleans or San Francisco was at one point. They're slowing down and Houston is going crazy. You have all of these small cultural pockets, just like you did in Manhattan in the old days. A lot of what I wanted to do was show where I'm from, because I'm really proud of it.
Was the dessert challenge pretty tough for you?
Yeah. I can't believe they didn't show it, but I have big meat hooks, I have big hands. And I kept trying to dip the profiteroles in the caramel to start gluing them together and I burned the sh*t out of every one of the tips of my fingers. I was laughing, but I was burning myself. It was not my best day at all.
One of the sauces that you used had some tequila in it?
That barbecue sauce with tequila and peaches? Yeah.
How much tequila are we talking about?
A finished sauce is probably about a quart and a half, so probably about a cup of tequila. I'm a fan of it. It's more of a mop. Most things in Texas are either a dry rub or a mop, so it's one of those things that while you're smoking or while you're cooking the meat, you mop it, so it heats it up and caramelizes it on the protein and becomes like a sauce on your fingers.
What's good at the moment at REEF?
We're getting a lot of cold-water stuff. Fishing our ass off. We get a lot of wahoo and a lot of deeper water stuff. We've been fortunate in the past three years to procure some great fisherman, who can get from the docks to my restaurant in an hour. So we get about twenty to thirty different types of fish straight out of the Gulf. The amount of wildlife that's still in that body of water...everybody wants to talk about the oil spill, but the health of the fishery is in fantastic shape.