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To Market With Underbelly's Chris Shepherd

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The Urban Harvest Farmers' Market on a Saturday morning
The Urban Harvest Farmers' Market on a Saturday morning

Chris Shepherd can't walk more than a few feet at Saturday's Urban Harvest Farmers' Market without giving someone a hug. From vendors to patrons to other chefs to the security guard, everyone who sees Shepherd is getting a bear hug. That's just who he is and how he greets people. Chris Shepherd is also a passionate advocate of buying locally. He left Catalan to establish Underbelly, a restaurant designed to express Shepherd's vision of "The Soul of Houston." That commitment takes him to the market every Saturday to see what's new, what's fresh and what will benefit his restaurant.

Before he begins shopping, Shepherd describes how he first began to source local produce 12 years ago, when he was still working at Brennan's. The Urban Harvest market did not exist back then, and he "had to hit the back roads" to find farmers. He explains that there weren't many farmers who were prepared to sell directly to a restaurant. One of the first that he found was Gunderson Farm, and he continues to patronize them to this day, purchasing squash blossoms and potatoes.

While he says he "doesn't really need anything" today, Shepherd still wanders through to see what's available. Shepherd's first stop is Atkinson Farms. As he approaches their booth, Shepherd says "This is like my second family. We get the majority of our stuff here. Lots of chefs do. They have a bigger spread and they deliver." As for his philosophy when it comes to purchasing produce, Shepherd says "Basically, I just kinda pick up what I want." Shepherd looks at the bins containing various fruits and vegetables and says "This is beautiful, beautiful stuff."

Bobby Atkinson, part of the family that owns the farm, guides Shepherd through what's good today. Shepherd is "getting tired of beets" but buys some anyway because their season ends soon. He quickly gets three cases of corn, a case of jalapenos, basil ("my cooks like the flowers"), and some cabbage for sister restaurant Hay Merchant. Bobby offers melons; he's not sure whether they're called "Israel melons" or some other varietal; Shepherd takes a box, says he'll put them on the menu as "local melons." Then he finishes with three cases of brussels sprouts, a case of banana peppers and their last half box of green tomatoes.

From there it's on to Lightsey Farms for two boxes of peaches, Garden of Eden for long beans and Leon Hatterman's for 15 dozen eggs ("legendary"). From across the market, he sees a vendor he's never seen before, Texas T Kobe. Shepherd spends 10 or so minutes talking with owners Michelle and Gene Terry about their wagyu beef cattle: how they're treated, fed and slaughtered. He promises to call them Monday to discuss both his first purchase and the possibility of a field trip to the ranch for his cooks.

With Shepherd this day is Hay Merchant line cook Cameron McClung, who Shepherd has invited as an educational opportunity. Even before Underbelly opened, Shepherd took the staff to the market to meet his vendors and show them how he purchases produce. He believes it helps the staff explain the food to customers when they know where it comes from. McClung, who only graduated from the Art Institute of Houston last year, gets up early on a Saturday because "each week I learn something new. It's a good opportunity to see where [Shepherd] sources."

Another benefit of these weekly market trips is that Shepherd gets to interact with both his customers and other chefs. Customers appreciate that Shepherd's actually shopping as he says he does. "He's our market celebrity," says Urban Harvest manager Tyler Horne. Today, Shepherd chats with Oxheart chef Justin Yu. First, they discuss Yu's life since his restaurant was named best in Houston by Houston Chronicle critic Alison Cook. Then, Yu asks Shepherd for something only a restaurant that does its own butchering is likely to have - pig heads. As it turns out, Underbelly has three, and Yu makes plans to visit the restaurant to purchase them.

Van Weldon of Wood Duck Farm summarizes how the farmers feel about Shepherd. "Chris is one of the original farm supporters and he was doing it before it was vogue to do it. [I remember] when he was at Brennan's with a ponytail. We've watched Chris evolve."

Shepherd acknowledges his special relationship with his producers, stating that "I'm always fair with them" when it comes to prices. When Rita Anders of Cuts of Color told Shepherd she was thinking about not growing tomatoes because of the hassle, Shepherd offered to purchase her entire crop. Underbelly buys 150lbs of tomatoes a week, and they barely know what to do with them. If some tomatoes start to go soft before the restaurant can use them, $3 per pound heirlooms become ketchup. Better that they get put to use than go to waste. It's all part of Shepherd's commitment to having Underbelly express "The Soul of Houston."


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