With the final days of the first iteration of his revolving restaurant experiment One Fifth trickling down, Chef Chris Shepherd is in survival mode. Not surprisingly, the restaurant is completely packed in its final week as Houstonians attempt to get a final taste of One Fifth Steak, which will disappear forever after July 31.
As things wrap up there, Shepherd and his team are also furiously working on what will replace Steak: a French-Italian-Spanish restaurant called Romance Languages. “When we opened One Fifth Steak, we had a couple of months to work through everything,” Shepherd tells Eater. “Now, we’re getting the ideas down on paper, but it’s so busy that it’s hard to actually get in the kitchen and cook.”
Steak received a rave review from Chron critic Alison Cook and ran for a successful six months. Considering the restaurant’s reception from both critics and diners, plenty of people are wondering whether or not it even makes sense to shut down a restaurant that is, by pretty much any metric, killing it. But according to Shepherd, it’s One Fifth’s next iteration that is the true test of the concept’s merit. “This is the turning point” he says. “This one is going to be the challenge in terms of thought process.”
While his chef de cuisine and cooks deal with the final week of One Fifth, Shepherd is intensely studying the cuisines of France, Italy, and Spain to write the Romance Languages menu. Earlier this summer, Shepherd traveled to Italy for some real hands-on research. “I don’t really understand Italian food,” he says. “You have to see the culture and the people, you have to go there and actually have dining experiences and see what the plates look like. We got a full visual of what that culture is, at least in Piedmont and Rome.”
Beyond the cuisines, finding the right ingredients is also proving challenging. Recently, Shepherd posted a photo of two eggs on Facebook, one with a desirably deep yellow yolk that gives pasta carbonara its characteristic hue, and another with a much less vibrant color. According to Shepherd, he’s tried dozens of different eggs, and local egg purveyors continue to come out of the woodwork selling their wares. “I don’t know that we’ve landed on the egg yet,” he says. “There’s a couple of dishes I want to do, but you have to have the right ingredients. If you don’t have those things, you shouldn’t attempt that dish. I don’t want to do something that’s going to sacrifice the integrity of the dish by using lesser ingredients.”
Considering the massive thematic swap, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the menu at One Fifth Romance Languages won’t even closely resemble the one served up at Steak. As successful as it’s been, both Shepherd and Floyd are pretty much done with the concept, ready to move on to the next thing. “It’s like diving out of a plane,” says Floyd. “Once you step out of the door, you’re committed to the journey for good, bad, or worse.”
Shepherd has been largely mum on the details of the menu beyond his search for the perfect carbonara. But construction on the building is set to begin just five days after One Fifth Steak’s closure, on a timeline that Floyd calls “aggressive.” “We’re only doing aesthetic stuff, so we don’t have to deal with the city or get permits,” he says. “The concrete elements in the space, like the bar, the separation between the dining rooms, and mezzanine, are never going to change because they’re the structure of the building. We’re changing aesthetic components with the goal that our guests will recognize that they’re in the same building, but it’s going to be very different.”
The building itself, which once housed the vaunted Mark’s American Cuisine, presents its own challenges, outside of the whole “open a new restaurant every six months” problem. “There is some uniqueness in this location in that it was an existing restaurant and we didn’t modify the kitchen. There’s a lot of things about that kitchen that make it challenging,” says partner Kevin Floyd, who manages operations at the restaurant. “Our chef de cuisine flies a pirate flag in the kitchen because it’s a pirate kitchen — we invaded, and then took it over.”
There’s also the pressing question of whether or not it makes sense to close a restaurant that has been wildly successful, especially in a climate where restaurants are closing on what seems like a daily basis. “I have had a lot of other restaurateurs say to me ‘you’re fucking crazy if you’re going to shut that down,’” says Floyd. “[One Fifth] has been crushing it every month, but I don’t care how popular it was. I want to focus on what’s next. We’re completely abandoning everything that’s been successful and challenging ourselves to do something different.”
No one can say whether or not One Fifth Romance Languages will pack in customers like Steak did, but Shepherd and Floyd both seem willing to take that risk. Diners won’t have to wait too long to make their comparisons — Romance Languages is set to make its debut on September 1.