What happened at Oxbow 7? The question has been buzzing around Houston’s restaurant community since Friday’s news that Jennifer and Bryan Caswell had been “released” from their contract to manage the food and beverage operations at the Le Meridien hotel.
The revelation came as a huge surprise. Oxbow 7 had received rave reviews from a number of local publications. Many cited the high quality of the food that resulted from Bryan Caswell’s personal connection to the restaurant’s “elevated bayou cuisine” that reflected influences of his lifetime spent living and exploring the Gulf Coast.
Oxbow 7 served as a reminder of the acclaim Caswell earned when he opened Reef in 2007, including a Food & Wine Best New Chef award and James Beard Award nominations. It also seemed poised to change the way Houstonians think about hotel restaurants.
“This town has never really been a hotel restaurant town,” Bryan Caswell tells CultureMap. “Seeing Xochi and having it right down the street and having that location, we loved the location and we loved the building. We were really excited.”
Gary Prosterman, president and CEO of DSG, Inc, the company that owns the hotel, told the Chronicle that the Caswells wanted to focus on rebuilding Reef, which has been closed since suffering extensive water damage during Hurricane Harvey, but the couple disputes that claim.
“No, that’s not why,” Bryan Caswell tells CultureMap. “I mean obviously Reef is our focus. That’s always been our focus. Nothing changed from the beginning. We’re rebuilding it, but it doesn’t keep us from doing that job as well.”
Prosterman also suggested that changes needed to be made to speed up service. Again, Caswell says he was aware that, for example, eggs ordered for room service arrived cold. Having served as the chef at Bank by Jean-Georges at the Hotel Icon prior to Reef, Caswell says he knew that getting all of the pieces of the food and beverage operation to run smoothly would take some time, but things were improving.
“We raised things to them, and they raised things to us,” Caswell says. “Speed of service is always an issue. They raised it, and we make changes.”
Diners aren’t likely to notice any immediate changes to Oxbow 7’s menu, at least in the short term. Chef de cuisine Michael Hoffman, sous chef Sarah Schnitzer, and general manager Lauren Fernandez all remain in place.
So what really happened? DSG declined CultureMap’s request for additional comment, but Caswell notes that when DSG opened another Le Meridien in Tampa, Florida that it split with the restaurant group that operated the hotel’s restaurant within five months of opening. Both parties described that decision as amicable, but this separation clearly isn’t.
In both Tampa and Houston, DSG utilized an affiliated company named Maximum Hospitality to operate the hotel. The Caswells aren’t ready to speak on the record about any conflicts with Maximum, but Jennifer stated plainly that it’s her opinion that DSG is “in breach of the agreement” it signed with them.
Does that mean they’re considering filing a lawsuit?
“We are currently exploring that with our general counsel,” Bryan Caswell says.