In early March Food Republic will be heading to Vietnam with three top American chefs to eat and drink our way around the country. We will visit the magical cao lau well in Hoi An. We’ll hit the Ben Thanh Market to possibly drink some cobra wine, which is most certainly a thing. Joining us: Edward Lee (610 Magnolia in Louisville), Stuart Brioza (State Bird Provisions in San Francisco), Paul Qui (Qui) and Bryan Caswell (Reef in Houston). The trip is being organized by our friends at Red Boat Fish Sauce.
Reef, at its heart, is a Gulf Coast seafood restaurant. “We try really hard do a true market-run seafood restaurant, which means that we sometimes only get 10 pounds of something,” says chef-owner Bryan Caswell from his kitchen phone. What he means is 10 pounds for the entire season. Over the five years it has been open, Reef has served an astonishing 87 different species from the Gulf. “I’m telling you that there is not a fucking soul on the planet who has done that. Not even close!” You can check the menu for evidence.
Caswell grew up in Southern Louisiana and has worked in kitchens located mostly out of the south, having spent several years traveling the world for Jean Georges Vongerichten (New York, Hong Kong, Barcelona, the Bahamas). His international experience has shaped the cooking at Reef, where Mediterranean and Asian flavors have permanent roles. The critics have taken notice. He was named Best New Chef (2009) by Food & Wine and is a frequent James Beard Award nominee. We spoke with him about our trip to Vietnam, which is almost a homecoming for the chef. Unlike most, he’s been slurping bowls of pho since boyhood.
Are you excited about Vietnam?
Oh dude, I can’t even tell you. I can’t wait. I’ve been wanting to go for a long time. I worked for Jean-Georges for seven years and he sent me to Asia for about three and a half months. I spent half the time in Bangkok and half the time in Hong Kong, but I’ve been wanting to get to Vietnam for a long time.
We’re about a month out right now. What’s going through your head?
I think we’re going to be doing some cooking, so I don’t want to disappoint. We’ve been messing around with a lot of different fish sauces. They’ve sent us a bunch of stuff, like that really cool aged stuff from a barrel.
So it’s like you’re in training a little bit?
Yeah, a little bit. I want to make sure that I represent my home state. I think we have the second largest Vietnamese population in the United States — we have a huge Little Vietnam here. They are the majority of our fishermen, crabbers, shrimpers and oystermen all up and down the Gulf Coast. You’ll go into a little fishing town called Rockport and there will be a huge billboard there saying “Home of Dat Nguyen” — who used to play for Texas A&M and then professionally for Dallas as a linebacker. It’s kind of a trip. It’s an old Texas fishing village, but his mom’s got a restaurant there called Hu Dat and there’s Vietnamese everywhere on the Texas coast.
Why do you like Vietnamese food so much?
It’s pure, fresh and clean. With the exception of fish sauce, everything is just what it is: A very simple but dynamic cuisine and it speaks for itself on the plate. You don’t have to manipulate a lot of stuff. Also, being from South Louisiana, the Vietnamese and the Cajun thing is kind of coming together and is present everywhere around town. It’s inundated my life.
John T. Edge wrote a great piece about Vietnamese food in Louisiana that really opened my eyes to Southeast Asian cooking in the South.
It’s funny because I’ve been going to crawfish boils all my life because I was born in Lafayette and all my family is from down there. The best crawfish in town, though, is at Crawfish and Noodles, which is a Vietnamese place.
What do you want to most eat when you’re in Vietnam?
I want to walk around the streets and just eat whatever I see. I remember when I was in Thailand, the thing that blew me away the most were the fresh fruit markets. There were 15 types of fruit that I had never even heard of. I’m sure there are 1,000 things I have never seen. I’m almost 40 now, and in the culinary world, every time you see something you’ve never seen before, that’s like a straight-up hard-on.