Caswell at the Bat: Chef Partners with the Astros and Aramark

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Caswell with his mother and father.
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?

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Caswell prepares ceviche, flanked by new catcher Jason Castro on the left and pitcher Mark Melancon on the right.
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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Pork sliders were just one of the dishes Caswell and the Astros' kitchen crew had created for the day.
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.

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Pekon Pi
Pekon Pi

Y'know, Bryan Caswell, maybe he's not an Iron Chef or nothin', but I'll trust him with any fish I got against anybody in America, the guy is just a... mensch.

Albert Nurick
Albert Nurick

I'm cautiously optimistic. Obviously the ballpark won't become REEF, but considering how bad (and overpriced) the food is at Minute Maid now, I expect that even some modest changes would represent significant improvement.


What exactly is there to be only cautiously optimistic about? Why not just excited? Or at least happy?

I'm surprised that you described the current food at Minute Maid as bad. In the last few years, the quality has gone way up, and the new foods available have been pretty impressive. Respectfully, have you ate at Minute Maid recently?

I know it isn't much of a compliment to say "I've had worse," but... I have. A lot worse.

Regarding food price, the cost is what it is. The bigger problem is that Houston's ballpark is in the minority with their ban of food from outside the gates. One of the cooler things about going to some ballparks is being able to bring in and enjoy your own food. It is too bad we don't have the option.

Congrats to the Astros partnering with longtime fan B Caswell! pew pew pew!

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

I'm cautiously optimistic as well. Not about the food/beverage prices going down, however. If we could get someone on that, too...

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