I don't know if Chef Bryan Caswell can produce tears on demand -- in which case, he's a damn fine actor -- but the burly man standing in front of me Friday afternoon had suspicious signs of moisture in his eyes as he discussed helping the Astros revamp their food offerings at Minute Maid Park.
"I've been crying all day," he admitted, throwing a somewhat sheepish glance at his father. "Pops" Caswell to his left looked on proudly at his son, whom he used to take out of school to catch games during the day. It's a fitting partnership for the chef who's rarely seen without his signature bright-orange ballcap.
In partnership with Aramark and the Astros' executive chef Jason Kohler, Caswell will be consulting on new menus for the FiveSeven Grille and the club levels at the ballpark, as well as bringing two new food stands to the main concourse: a smaller version of Little Bigs on the third base line and a version of the yet-to-be-opened El Real Tex-Mex Cafe on the first base line, both of which fall under the umbrella of PF&B Management, the company he formed with Reef, Little Bigs and Stella Sola co-owner Bill Floyd.
But as I watched Caswell prepare a kinilaw ceviche with sea bream, I had to wonder how this chef -- recognized for using local, Gulf Coast ingredients -- could possibly mesh with an enormously mainstream, processed foods-backed company like Aramark. Would he even be able to bring fish like sea bream into the ballpark's kitchens?
As it turns out, no.
"A lot of the stuff I serve at Reef isn't available on a massive scale," he said, referring to Aramark's limits in terms of the food he'll be able to bring in. But that doesn't mean the food will be low-quality, of course. "There are a lot of concepts to choose from."
As Caswell prepped that ceviche with two new Astros players -- catcher Jason Castro and pitcher Mark Melancon, both of whom looked equally bewildered as they handed bowls to the chef -- owner Drayton McClane looked on happily, wearing a bright-orange hat to match Caswell's. He munched on the same small bites that we were all enjoying: shrimp shooters with a vague hint of horseradish (that I wished wasn't as vague), slow-roasted pork belly with cabbage and plum mustard, pulled pork sliders on fluffy, non-pre-fab buns. It was a refreshing change from your typical ballpark food, to be sure, and all of it with a distinct Texan flair.
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But what was still undetermined was exactly what changes would be made to the menu at the FiveSeven Grille.
Will it be the same sliders and shrimp shooters that were offered to the media this afternoon? Or is this partnership only serving to draw attention away from the team's troubles, such as the fact that the Astros are up on the auction block after a fairly dismal season? And is Caswell perhaps spreading himself too thin, in addition to helming Reef, Little Big's and the new Tex-Mex venture with Bill Floyd and Robb Walsh?
Whatever the answer, it's clear that Caswell is taking the food partnership with his hometown team -- and his trademark orange ballcap -- very seriously: "I never take the hat off," he said. "There's been some lean years before, but I've always been a fan."
Check out more photos (and food) from the press conference in our slideshow.