Chef: Oil spill tainted diners' trust in Gulf seafood

April 19, 2011 8:30:31 PM PDT
In the last year, images from the Gulf oil spill have changed the way the world looks at seafood from the Gulf. Despite repeated reassurances that it is safe to eat, there is still concern about contamination, and that has far-reaching consequences.

Award-winning Houston chef Bryan Caswell will serve 500 people Gulf seafood at Houston's Reef restaurant most nights. His dining room is full, but a year out from the BP oil spill, Caswell's nervous about the 500 customers who stayed away.

It may not be so here in Houston, where Caswell gets most fish from Texas waters. But away from the coast, diners are staying away from Gulf seafood.

"I spent three to four weeks on the west coast and everybody just assumes it's a big cesspool of oil. They visualize dolphins and birds pulling themselves out of the oil and that's not true," Caswell said.

More than a chef, Caswell is a believer in everything the Gulf produces. He doesn't talk about Gulf oysters as much as he offers a sermon.

"It tastes like the sea. It tastes like the most beautiful salty, sweet, metallic thing that you can think of -- it's like being in that crystal clear green Gulf water," he said.

His love of the Gulf is clear. His anger is still there.

"For me as a seafood lover and someone who makes his way by using this Gulf seafood, it was devastating," Caswell said.

And his concerns didn't disappear when the oil vanished from the top of the Gulf.

"The thing that scares me the most about the oil situation is the dispersants, and from everybody that I talked to -- from scientists to fisherman ? that's the one thing that sit there and they hold onto," he said.

Government scientists say their tests show no trace of any oil or dispersant in any seafood. They say the dispersant breaks down faster than oil in the water. NOAA says dispersant is simply not a concern, and for now, Caswell says he believes them.

"I eat it," he said.

But if diners don't come back to Gulf seafood, Caswell is nervous those fisherman will simply give up.

"Those guys have had it so hard and some people are just going to go, 'You know what? I'm done,'" Caswell said.

It could be the lasting impact for anyone who loves Gulf seafood even half as much as Caswell.

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