When it opened last March, Underbelly was one of the most highly anticipated restaurants in Houston. Chef/owner Chris Shepherd earned a Best Restaurant award from the Houston Press in 2010 for his work at Catalan, and Underbelly promised to be an even more complete application of his commitment to local, seasonal cuisine. He also recruited serious talent to work with him, including sous chefs Ryan Lachaine and Lyle Bento.
Once it opened, the raves began to roll in. Even before her four star review, Chronicle critic Alison Cook tabbed it as Houston's sixth best restaurant. Press critic Katharine Shilcutt named the restaurant's Korean Braised Goat and Dumplings as her favorite dish of 2012. Then there's the Food & Wine Best New Chef award for Chris Shepherd and his status as a finalist for a James Beard Award for Best Chef Southwest.
Admittedly, this is a long interview that takes a few twists and turns, but all three are so candid and engaging that it's worth the time.
ES: Were you surprised by the news that you're a finalist for the James Beard Award for Best Chef Southwest?
CS: Yeah. The other night I was standing in Blacksmith ordering a cup of coffee and Ryan called and normally if he's calling that early he's like, "Ah my kids are sick. I'll be there in a little bit." But he's like, "What are you doing? Let's get coffee. Congratulations." And he told me, and I was like, "What?!" It's great. And then you see who else has been nominated for things, the semi-finalists, and it's so good for this city. It's people who really put passion into what they do. [Houstonians are nominated] in multiple categories. I don't know. Has anyone in Houston ever won a Beard?
ES: Robert del Grande did a long time ago.
CS: But to have multiple Beard nominations. You could do a good sweep from this city if it came down to it. In all actuality, it could happen. It's pretty exciting. My mom loved it. I called my mom, and she started crying.
ES: Are you surprised by the amount of national press this restaurant has received? It's a lot.
CS: It is a lot. I think it hit at the right time. Houston was changing and then all of sudden, woah this guy built a restaurant built on the city. I think it was that perfect little storm. Am I surprised by it? Yes. It's amazing. Every time I see something new I'm like, "Jeez. Wow." And it's still humbling. Mom told me a long time ago, she said, "Never read your own press." I tend not to ever read anything. I kind of dibble and dabble on it, but I always pass it by, go back at a later time. Like the Food Arts article that's out, I still haven't read it all the way through. It's weird reading about what you do and it's good that people believe that they can find a light into what you do. If we can show what we see from this city to everybody else, I think it makes this city a little nicer. If someone from Indianapolis is here for a week or whatever, they come here and they try something Korean or something Vietnamese and they pick up the check presenter and then they're like, "I can go here," and they go there, then I think we made a difference.
ES: Do you get people that have seen your suggestions, tried a new restaurant and come back to tell you about their experience?
CS: Yeah, and I get people who tell me of new places that I need to go all the time. That's the big thing. They like to tell me where they like to go and eat. I've got a lot of lunch dates that I've promised people. I've yet to follow through with any of them but one today was like, "Yeah, this place on Wilcrest, you go down and take a left and it's out on the right but I don't have a name of it. We just go there." I'll eat it. I'll go. Just call me. I'll go with any body any time.
ES: What's the one place that you're sort of happiest that you've been able to get people to?
CS: There's two, three maybe that I really like. It's not like I tell people to go there, it's just that they do. London Sizzler, of course, Asia Market and probably HK Dim Sum. Those three places make me really happy, and it's the three places that I continually take people because it's like a consistency thing. I know that if somebody goes there, more than likely they're going to have the same experience that I do just through food. The food is always going to be consistently awesome. I don't ever have to worry about them. It's going to be perfect. I've had some people say they don't care for it. People don't care for this place either. Some people don't like Oxheart, some people don't like this, some people don't like that. Some people don't like Uchi. That's fine. Everyone has their opinion, but I like it and I know if they're going to get what I get, they're going to like it. Or not. They'll branch out and try something new. Are you surprised? Ooo someone is going to interview you now.
ES: A little bit. I think this menu can be kind of challenging. I don't think you make this easy for people. I mean there's a steak on the menu but I know people who don't like this restaurant who haven't found their thing on the menu that keeps them coming back. And I don't have an answer for them when they say that because I've never had a bad meal here.
CS: What I hope for people to do when they come here is just open their mind. You pretty much have to let what you've had at other places go and experience this for what it is. It's a little different of an experience. It's not like everything. I'm ok with that. Maybe it's not your palate. Maybe it's not your style. That's fine. I learned a long time ago that you can't be everything to everybody but you've got to give them the ability and the chance to try it. I think a lot times people come in here and they get a little nervous about something and I always tell people, "It's a vinegar pie. Try it."
There are two things in this world I will never do: I will not get you sick and I'm not going to give you anything I wouldn't give my mother. And if I'm going to give that to my mom, you can pretty much eat it. I can guarantee that. My mom opening night came in and had the boned out pig's head and then rolled, poached, and then sliced with the egg on it. The big torso on the pig's face basically with a soft fried egg on it and my mom's like, "That's the best bacon and eggs I've ever had. I can't believe you got bacon to taste that good." That was a pig's face Ma. That's awesome. And I think that's something that I judge things by. She'll tell me if something sucks. Your closest friends will tell you if it wasn't so good. I learn from those things. If this isn't right you learn because I may think something's awesome. The things that I get most excited about?
ES: Like what?
CS: The popcorn shrimp. That was one of my favorite things ever and I can't wait for that shrimp season to come back again because I'm going to do it. We just toss them in rice flour and fry them and with the idea of popcorn. You clean the corn off of the stalks, make really good corn stock, reduce that down, add the corn to it, puree it and then we add butter buds to it, the stuff that you get at the grocery store. That fake butter popcorn stuff. Put that onto it and it was this beautifully delicious, buttery popcorn sauce. So that's what we serve with the popcorn shrimp. I thought it was brilliant. Delicious. About half the people liked it. But the ones that did like it keep asking me about it. I know at that point it's time to keep doing this.
ES: Do you think that people sometimes don't get that it's playful?
CS: I don't think so. I think people get caught on the name a lot. I get a lot of people that don't get it just because of the name. And then when they come in they're like, "Oh, I get it now." The name, I love it, I would never change it, I would always keep it this way because it was always the dream to have this place called Underbelly. People still think it's a pork restaurant or it's a brisket room. It has something to do with bellies and it's not. A pig only has one belly, two if you split it. You can't really do that much with it.
ES: Has it been hard to keep things in stock in terms of doing your own butchering?
CS: I think it's a good marketing point. We keep everything so fresh that we have to use different cuts for different things. I get a butcher's cut. So there's one steak-type dish, grilled meat on the menu, at all times. We had strips on. I had 24 orders. Done. Then we have to go with something else. We keep a rotation. That's been the unique thing, learning how much flat meat, how much short rib meat, and like flank meat is on a cow and how to utilize all of that. How to utilize a cow perfectly is the hard part. This week we'll go through our second cow. I don't think we've ever done that.
ES: Two cows in a week?
CS: Two whole cows. That's a lot of beef. But it's so clean and so pure. You know, you've had the steak. When you eat it, that's delicious. I still get in awe. I'll look at some of the cuts and look at the cow which doesn't look that great and I'll have someone cut me off a piece and sear it so I can try it and I'm like, "Wow."
ES: Now that you've gone through all four seasons, do you have a favorite of time for meat or produce?
CS: Right now I'm getting tired of beets, I'm getting tired of broccoli and cauliflower. I'm ready to get back to tomatoes and corn, but when tomatoes and corn are here I can't wait for cauliflower season. I can't wait for citrus season to come around. I can't wait for this to come around. I can't pick one that I love more than the other because each is so unique. I think late summer is probably the hardest for us. I'll tell you one that I'm not looking forward to coming back: eggplant. Eggplant has such a long season, it's unreal. Getting rid of eggplant can sometimes be a very big challenge.
ES: Yeah, you were doing curried eggplant for a while.
CS: Uh huh.
ES: You would probably do a riff on London Sizzler like fried eggplant and after that I don't really know what to do.
CS: How much caponata do you want to eat? How much baba ghanoush can you actually consume? That stuff just produces like no other. I am so ready for this to be over with. We get such a glut of it all at one time and that's generally how it works out. Like citrus. All of sudden there's like three or four hundred pounds of lemons, three or four hundred pounds of satsumas and I'm just sitting here looking at them like what are we going to do with all of this.
ES: You make a lot of lemon custard?
CS: No we have a guy that we trade lemons for beer next door. We bring a newspaper bag full of lemons and we buy him a beer or two.
Sous chef Ryan Lachaine walks up.
ES: You can get in on this if you want.
CS: He asked me what my favorite season is.
RL: Right now we have 200 pounds of tomatoes and I'm like what fuck am I going to do with all these tomatoes? Now that we have greens back there I'm so sick of greens. I kind of get stuck like that a little bit.
CS: The girl who handles all of our orders comes on and she sees what farmer comes in with and she's like, "No more greens. No. More. Greens." And it's like ok. We'll go, "Oh that's beautiful. I want that and I want that." And then she's like, "What are you going to do with this?" We have our mama that keeps is in check.
ES: Yeah, what happens when you roll in with a pick up truck full of whatever and you already have a shit load of it?
RL: Some of it's easier. Like stuff that we can pickle because obviously what ever we don't use we can pickle it but things like greens and perishables, you have to start being creative and find out what?.
CS: Like we need to put another salad on.
ES: How much input on the menu do you have day-to-day? Are there dishes that are yours?
RL: I don't think there are dishes that are just mine but there are maybe a couple that you can influence. We're at the mercy of what produce we have. We sit down, me and Chris or me, Chris, and Lyle, and figure out what we're going to do with this.
CS: I'll generally come up with something kind of off the wall and he brings it back into check. I get this look a lot.
RL: I don't know if we're going to do that.
CS: And then there's Lyle who's like, "Yeah, let's do it."
RL: I get out numbered sometimes.
CS: Yeah, if somebody takes the night off, he'll tell Lyle, "Don't agree to everything," because that one doesn't know any better.
ES: I was wondering about keeping everyone happy and engaged.
RL: We're engaged. And we're also fortunate enough to say, "I want to do this," and we don't have to walk them through anything. We can say, "I need this from you now," I need the vinaigrette or I need this and they can do it. Or like Lyle and I don't have to make stuff all the time, we just depend on our line cooks. So we really don't have a bunch of recipe readers back there. It makes it easy for us.
CS: At any time I can tell Lyle, "Hey, this needs to go." We need to move this today and all of us sudden there's an idea for something. Whether it's an, "Oh shit, they just dropped off six cases of broccoli," I'll say that we need to do something with broccoli real quick. It lets people have the creative freedom to be able to these things and it keeps you engaged.
RL: Whereas, a lot of restaurants that we've worked at in the past, this is what you do and this is how you do it. Here's your mise en place every day and drill the same thing out. It gets monotonous and boring. With these guys, we can let them do what they want to a certain extent.
Sous chef Lyle Bento walks over.
ES: Do you have thoughts on this?
LB: I wasn't even here for the question.
ES: You're apart of a team here. It was just you and Josh Martinez at your previous stint on The Modular food truck. Do you feel like you're fulfilled creatively?
LB: I am more creatively fulfilled here than I was on The Modular just because we have everything here. I had 6x6 on The Modular. Now I have these guys to bounce ideas off of. This guy lets me do whatever I want and he lets all of us do whatever we want. It's a blessing to work for him.
CS: Here, I wanted this to be when we opened up kind of a training ground for not just myself but for these guys as well because I think what makes you go work at a restaurant is that you're inspired to do things and you have the ability, not just the inspiration, to be able to manufacture, produce, plate, and sell your thoughts and creations. One of our guys wants to make blood sausage. I was like, "Ok, I'll get you the blood." And then she wants to do this this and this. We put it together to try and then boom.
ES: So you figure at some time he's going to open a restaurant and that's ok?
CS: I hope to God he does. I hope to God I'm a part of it with him. I hope that every one of them does.
LB: That's why Chris put together this team.
CS: We did it together because it was one of the oddest hiring practices we've ever had, but it worked. Maybe that's why people are afraid to come in now. When we did the hiring process, there was Ryan, and then there was Pete (Peter Jahnke) and then there was Lyle. After that, every other person that we talked to, we all talked to at the same time. We went and had a beer. We said, "Why don't you meet us for a beer." And then I would sit and drill that person with questions. Then the next person it would be the same thing. So everybody, not just me or him, had to answer, "Will this person fit into this team?" It has to be a single unit that works together.
RL: As you can see here, these guys aren't going to clock in for another hour. They've all been here for at least an hour. Everyone likes being here. It makes it easier.
ES: You haven't lost that many people in the kitchen right? JD Woodward's moved on?
CS: That's it really. We haven't really brought anyone in so we're looking for one person, and that'll be the first person we hire.
LB: And it's crazy for one year. Usually, the kitchen turns.
CS: There's other places that have been open for a year and the kitchen has turned over three or four people already. And I don't think anyone is really ready to leave. We want to plant stuff. Here's a garden. You can learn so much at this establishment. That's what it was built for.
RL: As long as it falls under the guidelines of what we are. Like Daniel at first was like, "Can we get some foie?" And I'm like, "No." How about truffles. No.
ES: Yeah, do you ever want to put a lobster or salmon on the menu?
CS: No. But there are things that we want to do that we can't do them. It's to the point of, we want shellfish outside of oysters. We want clams and we want some mussels and so I think our next process is to go down to A&M and work with them and get them to figure something out.
CS: I think that's the one thing that we really wish we could have. It's the clams.
LB: We wanted mushrooms. We found a guy that gives us mushrooms.
CS: We tried everything. Man we wanted mushrooms.
RL: We didn't have a mushroom in our sight for like a year.
CS: Almost a year, yeah. And then the guy shows up and I called him and he's foraging oysters for us.
LB: We talked to a couple of our farmers and asked them if they'd start planting mushrooms for us. One lady got really excited about it and she decided to do it.
CS: So how do you think it's going on Eater? (4:21)
ES: It's been bigger than I think I would have guessed. I don't know. It's the national stuff. You've always been kind of a folk hero. I mean you were kind of a folk hero at Catalan. You brought that audience with you but it's the national stuff.
CS: I like the civic treasure.
ES: Thank you.
CS: That was well played. I've only heard that about 500 times now. From him.
RL: We got free hot dogs today. Vienna Sausage sent us free hot dogs.
CS: They sent us a box and I just had a package of hot dogs and two packages of buns, mustard, the neon green relish, some sport peppers and some celery salt. Not a word. Not a letter, just a package. I'm like, "How the hell did this happen." He's like, "You're a civic treasure."
ES: It's at the point where you toss the coin for the Texans game that I feel like you reached a certain level of celebrity.
CS: I tell you, that was one of the highlights for me. It's been a pretty damn good year. TMZ is going to following us around from now on.
CS: How do you feel about the food scene in the city now?
ES: I had a really funny conversation with a guy who was in from out of town. And he's like, if I take Underbelly, Provisions, Oxheart, and Uchi off the table, what's the best restaurant in the city? And he was trying to imply that it was shallow, and I went, I don't know. Hugo's? Indika? Tony's? Triniti, Himalaya, Mala, I mean what do you want. What kind of food do you want? So that's the next step, is to get the word out that it's not four restaurants deep. That it's bigger than that.
CS: Yeah, I agree with that.
ES: I feel really good about the current scene but I have trouble sort of articulating.
CS: I mean can you get a more consistent place than Hugo's? That place has a level of consistency that every one strives for. If I have something three times in six months, it's going to be the same thing every single time. It might have that goofy pyramid rice bowl, but I'm cool with that. But that guy has done such a wonderful thing. Even across the street (El Real Tex-Mex), I like that place.
ES: I feel like one of the only food writers in the city that likes that place.
CS: How can you not like it? What do you expect?
RL: It's fucking Tex-Mex. It's not supposed to change your life. It's good.
CS: The chili con carne that's on the enchiladas is some of the best out there. The taco's not always the greatest, but I think you can say that about Pappasito's or Ninfa's.
ES: I mean how do you feel about the food scene in Houston right now?
CS: I think that pretty much you can take a style of food and there's something that is really good here. Some people are like, "Sushi in Houston, I don't get it." Kata. It's delicious. Uchi? It's delicious. You said the one out on the west side is good too. MF Sushi, but I've heard it's good. I haven't tried it. There are so many restaurants in this city that it's hard to get to all of them. I think you can go down the list and they are outstanding in every field. The burger. Just a simple thing like a burger. Some of the pizza, is?
RL: We're getting there.
LB: As of today, best hot dogs in this city? Underbelly kitchen.
CS: They were delicious. Made out of beef, man. Something about that neon green pickle relish. But I think the food scene in the city is damn good. I think it stands up to a lot.
ES: You don't worry that, in sports we talk about the regression of the mean, if a guy has 13 ½ sacks on year he's going to sink back down to six or seven? Same thing with restaurants. We have a lot of new restaurants in 2012. Do you think we're going to slow down in 2013?
CS: Yeah. I think it's like every two years. Every two years there's a big push. When Catalan opened, we opened at the same time as Reef and then Haven and a bunch of other spots opened, like Philippe and whatever. All of these places. It seems like it goes every other year. I don't know of anyone that has put something together. There's a lot of people coming from out of town.
ES: Does that surprise you that people are coming from out of town to open up restaurants here?
CS: It doesn't surprise me. I think it might be a mistake sometimes. The guy, they're really nice and I think they'll be alright, Bradley Ogden, four concepts? I just opened one. I can't imagine doing four in a year. Four good ones. Because it's like two chicken joints, a pub, a higher end?
ES: Like a good Café Express.
CS: There's a lot of guys coming in and doing stuff. I hope they strike gold but out of all the chefs that didn't kind of work in the city for a long time, to open something up, while I grew up here? That's tough for me. The only one that's pulled it off successfully is Ryan Pera.
ES: Biggest disappointment this year? Anything you thought was going to be really successful that just didn't work? What's the one dish that you thought people were going to love?
CS: I think a lot of times wording has everything to do with it because we could put duck hearts on our menu but if you call if duck offal, done. All of a sudden you're selling twenty a night. I thought I would put it on as Duck Parts and just nothing. Put duck offal and (claps) done.
ES: What's the biggest change between when it opened and now?
RL: What's funny is that we kept the menu from the very first night we opened up. The one that everyone signed that we taped to the pass and then one of the cooks vacuum sealed and lamenated. We pulled it out the other night because the season was exactly the same vegetables as we were dealing with. It was funny because borscht was on there, favas?.
CS: I just think we kind of know what we're doing now. When we opened we were just day to daying it. You get one cow and you don't know how much you're going to sell.
RL: You don't know how much pig you're going to sell or how much produce you're going to use.
CS: We had so much stuff in the walk in when we opened for the first three months.
LB: For the first six or seven weeks it was like me, you, and Peter, seven days a week at least 13 or 14 hours a day just trying to figure out what we were going to do the next day when it was all over.
CS: We'd get here at nine in the morning and leave at one o' clock or two o' clock every night. We would be here at three in the morning butchering. It's crazy man.
And now it's like much more relaxed. I definitely don't have to be here every minute of the day. These guys don't have to be here every minute of the day. So today, I had to go do something, these guys are going to learn about sake for a little bit, I would generally never leave the kitchen without having one of the sous there. These guys are so good I don't have to worry about that.
LB: Opening up with these kids was a blessing because they're so strong.
RL: All we have to do is have a menu for them and say this is what we're going to do and this is what I need from you and we can fucking leave and they can do it.
LB: They're solid.
RL: They know what you want. They can do it.
ES: I can keep pestering you. You were only about three months old when you got called the sixth best restaurant in the city. I thought that was kind of unexpected.
CS: Yeah, it was.
LB: Look who was number one. Oxheart hadn't even been open for?
CS: I was kind of like, well we're not number one so I'm alright with that. Six, we have a lot of room to improve. One, there's only one place to go and that's down.
LB: Pierce Morgan called us the best restaurant in America. He said it was the best meal he's had in America.
CS: He said the two best meals he ever had were cooked by Gordon Ramsay and Marco Pierre White themselves. And he said they just have this way with textures and food and when I bit into it, it evolved and dissipated into your palate. It's this amazing thing. And I'm just sitting there listening to him and I'm like, "All right, cool." He takes a bite and he stops and said, "Now it's happened a third time." It happened to him twice during dinner here and that's why he said this is the best meal he's ever had.
ES: Where do you see this place going? What's next?
LB: I'm just worried about tomorrow. I'm focusing on tomorrow and the next day.
ES: What's the story of Houston food, year two?
LB: Just more progression, you know. Just constantly moving forward. Not planting our feet and just taking this successively. We've gotten through year one, and just try to replicate it again. Try to get better. I keep talking about these kids, but these cooks, there's so much talent and they push each other so much. You can see the competition in the kitchen and it's fun to sit back and watch these guys. They'll try to out plate each other, out cook each other and stuff like that. That's what I think year two, more of that is going to get better and better.
CS: We don't help it any either. Like if someone is off and other person is working their station, we'll take pictures of how they plate it and like, "Yeah, this is what happens on your day off, buddy," and send it to them. You know they're sitting there like, "Fuck, that looks better than mine." Now they have to set their game up. And no one gets mad about it. They all learn from each other and they're asking each other questions and bouncing dishes off of each other. The beauty of this restaurant is this restaurant will inherently never be able to rest on its laurels. We can never just be like, "Ok, it's on the menu. Let it roll. Keep it on there forever." But I think you're right. Hugo's is the face of consistency. This is the face of inconsistency, but not in a bad way.
RL: We've actually had people bitch that they want the pork chop that was on yesterday but we're out of it. Come back next week.
CS: Or, "The oysters are the best dish I've ever had here." Yeah, you should have been here yesterday. We had it yesterday, but not today.
LB: I was up front and some guy asked if we had chicken on the menu tonight and I told the hostess, "No chicken." And the guy was like, "What do you mean you have no chicken? Well any kind of bird?" No, no birds tonight.
CS: Our bird guy hasn't come. He comes later in the week. We get guineas, you know. So it's an evolving, changing thing. So you can never sit back and say it's perfect. Go with it. That will never happen. It can't. Unless we change the entire business model around this restaurant, we can't.
RL: Over the course of this year we've talked to our farmers and they've always asked us what kind of vegetables do you guys want? What do you want us to plant so it's going to be fun to see the stuff we wanted them to plant, come into season and get it.
CS: Or if it even works.
ES: What are you looking forward to?
RL: I'm looking forward to mushrooms. Fava beans should be coming pretty soon. Soybeans.
CS: Soybeans are something that I really want. Because I want to try and make our own soy sauce. And then the question has been asked, can that be done from purple whole peas. Same way you do soy beans, can soy sauce can be made from field peas. Making our own miso.
· Why Underbelly is Essential to Houston [29-95]
· Alison Cook's Top 100: No. 6, Underbelly [29-95]
· 100 Favorite Dishes 2012 [Houston Press]
· All One Year In on Eater Houston
· All Underbelly Coverage on Eater Houston