Bryan and Jennifer Caswell serve up Salty Suppers as a gift to the Gulf
Long before Bryan and Jennifer Caswell met and married, each felt a deep and soulful connection to the Texas coast.
As a child, Bryan was a Gulf Coast Tom Sawyer, fishing up and down the bays and bayous, while Jennifer dreamed of studying ocean mammals and swimming with the dolphins.
“This is our true calling,” said Bryan Caswell, a Houston chef, restaurateur and two-time James Beard Award semifinalist.
“Before we found each other, we were two people on the same path,” Bryan Caswell said. “Both of us were smitten with the Gulf before we were smitten with each other.”
An ardent interest in marine biology and a mutual love for the coast drew the couple together. Their third date was a six-hour fishing trip on Bryan Caswell’s boat 75 miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico.
As the co-owners of five popular Houston restaurants, including the much-celebrated Reef, Bryan and Jennifer Caswell recently have launched the Southern Salt Foundation with the sole focus of raising money to protect and preserve the health of the Gulf ecosystem.
Starting a foundation was Jennifer Caswell’s brainchild. She had the idea after the couple visited Dauphin Island in Alabama and toured an interactive nature center that deeply impressed them both.
“This is an educational and research center, which doubles as an event space, so they are able to raise funds and continue to expand their programs,” Jennifer Caswell said.
The principal objective of the Southern Salt Foundation is to build such a community education center in Galveston that would help to establish and encourage conservation efforts, she said.
The plan includes a research center, lecture rooms, a functioning estuary that visitors can walk and learn along its paths and an aquarium that can double as an event space.
The couple hopes to partner with a university to help with funding as well as the development of scientific programs and research.
Jennifer Caswell, a professional photographer familiar with the beauty and importance of wetlands, said she believes if people truly understand the value of the bay, they would protect it.
“I’m a business person at heart, so I want to establish a framework that will make the foundation sustainable just like the estuaries and marine life we are trying to protect,” she said.
Even before their foundation came to fruition, the couple was active in philanthropy. Over the past few years, they’ve raised more than $1 million for charities with other chefs and restaurants in the Houston area.
“We have given parties and galas and dinners, and raised lots of money for wonderful causes, but until now, we weren’t raising money for the cause we cared most about,” Jennifer Caswell said.
That’s the purpose of the Southern Salt Foundation and for the Salty Suppers — intimate gatherings of 60 people and featuring tasting menus developed by celebrity chefs from across the South.
In Salty Supper No. 1, all types of fish topped the menu. It was a great success.
“We pretty much go to galas for a living, so we know what works and what doesn’t,” Jennifer Caswell said. “We want people to come to the Salty Suppers and be excited, entertained and surprised, and to truly understand why we are so passionate about what we are trying to achieve.”
For 2017, the Caswells will be hosts of three Salty Suppers and a large fundraiser. The second Salty Supper will be held on Jan. 8 at Reef, 2600 Travis St., in Houston.
Four celebrity chefs will join Bryan Caswell in the kitchen and each will prepare a course. The chefs are Steven Satterfield of Miller Union in Atlanta, a James Beard semifinalist and a cookbook author; Michael Gulotta of MoPho in New Orleans, named Food and Wine magazine’s Best New Chef 2016; Philip Speer of Bonhomie in Austin, also a James Beard finalist; and Richard Knight, the accomplished chef of Hunky Dory and previously the chef behind the nationally acclaimed Feast.
“These dinners are incredibly intimate,” Jennifer Caswell said. “The chefs mingle with the guests, and there is always a surprise during the intermezzo.”
The Caswell family lives in Houston’s historic Avondale neighborhood, a few miles west of downtown. Their two-story house with its wide front porch is one of the oldest in the city. In their busy, blended family, there are four children, ages 2 to 12, three dogs and four chickens.
“Our family is this crazy, chaotic, beautiful mess,” Bryan Caswell said. “If you read about it, you wouldn’t understand, but if you see it, well, it all makes sense.”
The Caswells are committed to raising children who understand where their food comes from and to appreciate and support the farmers, ranchers and fishermen who provide it.
Visiting the farmers market weekly, the family picks out the fruits and vegetables that will accompany their meals.
“We are doing our absolute best to get our children involved in learning how and where their food comes from and the value of buying locally grown foods,” Jennifer Caswell said. “We don’t just buy a fish and serve it for dinner. We take them fishing. They catch their own fish and when we come home, they learn how to cook the specific fish they caught.”
The restaurant business is time consuming, and the couple works from 50 to 70 hours a week. So, whenever they get a chance to escape, they head for the water. It’s not only their primary philanthropy, it’s their sanctuary.
“When we’re out on the water — that’s the only time I don’t think about work,” Bryan Caswell said. “It’s the only time I am at peace.”
On a typical Galveston outing, the family checks into The Tremont House, a popular hotel in the island’s downtown. Later, they cruise the Intracoastal Waterway on a 30-foot Grady-White, called a 306 Bimini. They take a picnic to have on an island in the intracoastal, which they jokingly call “Jennifer’s Cove.”
These are their happy days.
Working to protect something you love is a gift to yourself and a gift to others, Bryan Caswell said.
“Some people feel the coast should be left completely alone; others feel they should be able to fish as much as they want and develop as much as they can,” he said. “We want people to understand the Gulf as an ecosystem worthy of our protection and a bountiful source of food. We want our children and their children to be able to experience the awe of the natural world the way that we did.”