3/29/2013 2:50 P.M. ET
Chef Caswell part of Minute Maid Park evolution
By Ben DuBose / Special to MLB.com
HOUSTON -- The logo and colors are brand new. So is the league (American League), the manager (Bo Porter) and many of the players.
With 2013 marking the start of a new era for Astros fans, it seems only fitting for the Minute Maid Park experience to evolve as well. Bryan Caswell, a longtime Houstonian and celebrity chef, began working with the team in 2011 and is unveiling several new culinary options this season for fans visiting the ballpark.
"I like to think I'm part of the team and trying to make the whole experience better," said Caswell, revered by local foodies for his work at several popular Houston restaurants and easily identified by the orange Astros cap he often wears in the kitchen.
Of course, the Minute Maid Park eating scene is quite different than dining at one of Caswell's fine restaurants such as REEF, his renowned seafood hub located two miles away in bustling Midtown.
Fortunately, Caswell understands the unique ballpark's needs quite well. He grew up in Houston as a diehard baseball fan and attended many games, giving him some perspective into the target audience.
"We're not just taking things we've done at other restaurants and plugging in," Caswell said. "We're developing things just for the baseball audience. You have to be careful with ballpark things. You can't get too fancy sitting in the bleachers. It has to be fun and lighthearted."
One noteworthy addition this year is the "Caz GrandSlam." Nicknamed for Caswell, the burger is designed after a product sold at Caswell's Montrose-area TexMex eatery El Real. It's a half-pound beef burger with refried beans, corn chips, caramelized onions, avocado, poblano peppers, cheese and bacon, served on a toasted challah bun.
"I've always been a put-chips-on-my-sandwich kind of guy," said Caswell. "It's ridiculous fun."
Another popular new item is "The Freddy Fender," which includes chorizo wrapped in a crispy paprika corn tortilla with tequila-braised onions, cojita cheese, cilantro sour cream sauce and pico de gallo.
"It's deep-fried and has a crispy crunch," Caswell said.
On the lighter side, Caswell is introducing the "Dancing Chicken," a grilled chicken breast topped with cream cheese, a sliced green apple, smoked bacon and jalapeno pepper jelly.
Those and other Caswell concoctions can be found in the club level as well as the main concourse. El Real and Little Bigs, one of Caswell's Houston restaurants specializing in sliders, each have their own stands. Caswell, whose official title with the Astros is consultant chef, also works on occasion with the FiveSeven Grille restaurant inside Minute Maid Park on specialized items.
"This is all just great for me, being a baseball fan," said Caswell. "I've spent a lot of my life in stadiums, trying to figure out what's new, what's fresh and what we can push forward and raise the level and try to help the whole ballclub."
Caswell, who often travels internationally and has appeared on Food Network and Bravo programming, says he tries to incorporate diverse ideas from his travels into his offerings. One brand-new concept for Minute Maid Park is a sushi station, which will open on the club level.
"It'll be kind of like going to Chipotle and being able to say you want this and that," Caswell said.
But for the most part, Caswell's input on ballpark cuisine comes back to simplicity.
"More than any other sport, the type of food for going to baseball games are ingrained in our historical psyches," Caswell said. "The song you sing talks about cracker jacks and hot dogs. You're there for at least three hours, and [the food] is just so much a part of the pastime."
Moreover, the ideal ballpark fare "almost has to be eaten with one hand".
"What if you're eating it and someone hits a home run?" Caswell said. "It's not like some other sports, to where you can maybe sit down or miss some of it. It has to be conducive to the game itself."
Caswell understands the needs of the fan quite well. That's largely because he is one, starting with the Mike Scott and Nolan Ryan-led Houston teams of the early 1980s and continuing through the era of Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell in the '90s and 2000s.
"1986 was one of the greatest years of my life," said Caswell, referring to the Astros' National League West-winning season. "I went to two NL [Championship Series] games, including the 16-inning Game 6 against the Mets that ended [the series]. I wish we had won it, but I wouldn't trade that experience for anything."
His luck turned around 19 years later when he attended the 18-inning marathon between the Astros and Braves in the 2005 NL Division Series. This time, the Biggio-led Astros won the game and series, sparking a run that concluded in the first World Series berth in club history.
"1986 was my favorite year, but Craig Biggio is my favorite player," said Caswell. "The fact that he didn't make it into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot is ridiculous. I love the guy."
In recent years, the on-field product has struggled, but Caswell is excited about being part of the franchise's revival.
"I couldn't be happier with the moves they're making," said Caswell. "They're building from the ground up. I'd rather build it up correctly than just go sign a bunch of older players just to spend money.
"And aside from the team, the things they're doing like revamping the Diamond Club and redoing the uniforms -- people don't do that if they're planning on sitting on a team. This franchise is going places."
When the Astros get there, Caswell hopes they remember his work.
"I think I can make a pretty good case for me being able to get a [championship] ring when that happens," Caswell quipped.
The Astros winning a championship would be a dream come true for Caswell. Though he completed a six-month externship in Spain and also worked in New York, Hong Kong, Bangkok and the Bahamas, Caswell's primary objective from his world travels was always to eventually return to and improve his hometown. These days, he's accomplishing just that, while simultaneously helping out his favorite baseball team.
"For me, to be able to get to the level I am and represent Houston, is probably the pinnacle of my existence," Caswell said. "This town; I'm from here and I love it.
"And I love this team with all my heart and soul."
Ben DuBose is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.