Soon after award-winning chef Bryan Caswell and his blogger/photographer wife Jennifer Caswell put the lid on their role as auction chairs of the Catholic Charities "Spirit of Charity" gala in May, the couple took a philanthropic leap that they had been contemplating for three years.
They officially launched Southern Salt Foundation, dedicated to "holistic preservation of the Gulf Coast habitats through education, conservation and exploration." Their first fundraiser — a five chef/five course seafood feast at Reef — is set for July 17.
"The Gulf is the reason that we exist," the Bryan says. "I developed my love for the Gulf long before I ever knew anything. I was like a modern-day Huck Finn on the Gulf Coast." His family had a vacation place near Port Lavaca, where he honed his skills at fishing, crabing, casting, seine fishing, et al.
Bryan allows that their mutual love of the Gulf and fishing is one of many factors that brought him and Jennifer together. (They wed in March of 2014.) In fact, as children both of them dreamed of becoming marine biologists.
"It just seems logical for us that something that gives so much to us that we want to give back," Bryan tells CultureMap. "For us, the giving back, like a lot of other people in this city, the charitable piece of our lives, we couldn't get rid of it even if we wanted to. We feel like this is a natural extension of our business."
Jennifer describes their foundation efforts as, "Payback. This is our way of being marine biologist without really being one."
While the foundation will initially direct its funds to existing programs that take a holistic view of the Gulf's ecosystem such as Sea Turtle Inc. and the state's Rigs to Reefs, the Caswells' long-term goal is to create a three-way scientific center in Galveston in conjunction with Texas A&M Galveston. The project would include a scientific center, an education center and an event space for fundraising.
The upcoming event is the first in a series of chef-driven fundraising dinners for the foundation. Joining Caswell in the kitchen will be three-time James Beard finalist chef Edward Lee of Louisville, Kentucky, and Ryan Prewitt of Pêche in New Orleans. Local chefs adding their unique touches will be Rebecca Masson of Fluff Bake Bar and Ryan Lachaine, former Reef sous chef, soon to open Riel in the former House of Te on Fairview.
Format for all dinners will include two visiting chefs and two local chefs working with Caswell and an intermezzo, as Caswell describes a surprise happening. "Right in the middle of the dinner, something is going to happen, something that will have people talking whether it's someone landing on the front lawn by parachute or someone singing. It's going to be a signature part of the dinners."
The Reef benefit dinner is limited to 50 diners with tickets priced at $200 each, a single VIP table for eight (includes meet-and-greet with the chefs) is priced at $2,000. Reservations can be made here.