Houston ians adore chef Chris Shepherd . They look forward, say, to dinners at his imaginative steakhouse, Georgia James , where a cast-iron ribeye shares the menu with smoked pork ravioli and Viet-Cajun roasted oysters, and they relish plunking made-in-house pretzels into queso blanco while chilling out at the Hay Merchant. The James Beard Award-winning Shepherd, chef/owner of the city’s small Underbelly Hospitality empire, fiercely loves them back.
Last year, Shepherd, 47, unveiled Cook Like A Local: Flavors That Can Change How You Cook and See the World with cookbook author Kaitlyn Goalen . A love letter to Houston’s immigrant communities, the book—nominated for a 2020 James Beard Foundation Award—delves into the vivid flavors of Vietnamese, Korean, Mexican, and Indian cooking, diverse cuisines that lend Houston its culinary soul and have personally left an imprint on Shepherd’s evolution as a chef.
His roots lie in Nebraska and Oklahoma, but Houston, where Shepherd spent years in kitchens before opening his own restaurant in 2012, the now-shuttered Underbelly, is where his heart is. “I love the people in this city. I love that they are so willing and open to share their world with you. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be,” he says.
A champion of multi-cultural foodways and sustainable ingredients, known for his creative dishes that draw from motley global influences—braised goat and dumplings is likely his most venerated of the bunch—Shepherd is also lauded for his commitment to boosting the hospitality industry.
“I’ve always loved helping people. Being a cook gives you an outlet to provide food and comfort in times of need,” he explains. So, in 2015, when his friend and former sommelier opened up to him about his MS diagnosis and asked for assistance in raising awareness about the disease as well as funds for the MS Society, Shepherd “was all in immediately.” He began planning a chef-fueled fundraiser, and then “every step we took to make that first event happen led us to filing for non-profit status and starting the Southern Smoke Foundation.”
Two years later, however, just a month and a half away from the annual Southern Smoke feast, Hurricane Harvey struck, and Shepherd knew that Southern Smoke’s immediate mission now transcended the MS Society: It had to find a way to support food and beverage workers affected by the hurricane.
In collaboration with Houston’s United Way-affiliated Legacy Community Health agency, an application process was implemented—“we translated the applications into Spanish and Vietnamese and literally took flyers all over town,” Shepherd recalls—committees were established, and $501,000 was dispersed to 139 individuals, leading to the formation of Southern Smoke’s Emergency Relief Fund.
A full-fledged crisis relief organization, Southern Smoke has undoubtedly been hard at work since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, hiring 30 furloughed food and beverage professionals as case workers. As of now, more than 24,000 applications have been received, and $1.4 million granted to 827 people around the country. (In addition to direct donations—which have been significant—the Restaurant Workers Community Foundation is giving Southern Smoke 50% of their donations.)
Shepherd also launched a curbside pick-up menu during the crisis, is now selling comforting bake-and-serve Underbelly Hospitality dinners such as Texas Wagyu-burger helper and bacon sausage, and tater tot casserole in various H-E-B supermarkets, a San Antonio-based grocery chain. ”
It’s truly been a lifeline. H-E-B is offering this to us and the other restaurants and is making no revenue off any of our sales,” Shepherd says. “They all come directly to us. H-E-B is the epitome of a community partner, and I’m so grateful.”
Recently, Shepherd shared a few of his favorite things with Penta .
As soon as it’s safe to travel I want to go to... Montana. We took one of our best vacations there a few years ago. I’m actually booked to cook at the Resort at Paws Up in October, so we’ll see if that still happens. I love that part of the country.
My favorite thing to cook or bake right now is... I’ve been cooking at home a lot more, and I have a goal to make the perfect ribs. I’m really liking the loin backs right now.
What I miss most about pre-pandemic life... I miss the Underbelly Hospitality restaurants. I miss seeing the staff doing their jobs. I miss full dining rooms of happy people. I miss the routine of going to work.
The one thing in my kitchen I can’t live without is... my egg pan. I use it every morning to make breakfast.
My go-to pantry staple is... fish sauce.
If I were to buy a piece of art, it would be by... photographer Julie Soefer. She shoots everything for me, including my cookbook, and is one of my closest friends. She photographed ribbonfish at H Mart on a culinary tour years ago, and I’ve always loved that photo. My fiancée and I just moved into a new house, and Julie had the idea of blowing up the photo as wallpaper and creating a mural in our dining room. It’s bold and fun, and I love it so much.
The best book I’ve read in the last year is... Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking. Chef Michael Solomonov [of Zahav and other Philadelphia restaurants] has been a huge influence on me—personally and professionally—and I’ve spent a lot of time with the book.
A passion of mine that few people know about is... I just bought tricycles—yes, adult tricycles are a thing—during the quarantine, and I have a new passion for riding around the city.
The thing that gets me up in the morning is... my crew. I love seeing their faces in the restaurants every day.
A person who inspired me to do what I do is... this is a strange one, but Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters. They have a song called “Best of You,” and it inspired me to stop working for other people and open my own restaurant, Underbelly. I didn’t want other people to get the best of me. I had the opportunity to meet Dave a few years ago, and I told him that story. I never thought that would happen.
If I could have a drink with anybody, anywhere, it would be... my grandfather passed away when I was 14, and I’d love to have a conversation with him as an adult. I wish I could have a drink with him on his back porch in Oklahoma City after going pheasant hunting.