When Chef Chris Shepherd opened One Fifth, his ambitious “five restaurants in five years” project that won Eater Houston’s Restaurant of the Year award in 2017, change was always going to be inevitable.
In July, the restaurant will undergo its third transformation into One Fifth Mediterranean, but that wasn’t the original plan. When the restaurant was announced, Shepherd planned to focus One Fifth’s third iteration on fish, and now he’s moved on to meditating on Mediterranean cuisine. “It was a really easy decision to make, easier than you might imagine,” he says. The new plan all started with a salad: a simple preparation of cauliflower, hummus, beets, and roasted pomegranate that changed everything.
The decision came at a huge time of change for the chef, who is currently planning to shutter Underbelly, the restaurant that earned him a James Beard Award and a place in the national culinary scene, and replace it with a steakhouse called Georgia James. Maybe it was that tumult that left Shepherd a little skeptical that One Fifth Fish could be as successful as its predecessors, especially in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, which has wreaked havoc on the city’s restaurant scene.
“The idea of a fish-only house terrifies me. I get really freaky with seafood anyway,” Shepherd tells Eater. “Once it gets in, it’s got to go out. Trying to anticipate turnover and volume, it just scares me. I love eating fish, I think it’s fantastic, but to run 10 or 12 seafood dishes at the same time freaks me out.” Outside of his concerns about freshness, the chef was also skeptical that he’d be able to obsessively source seafood the way that he relentlessly pursued the perfect farm-sourced egg for carbonara, and that diners would be willing to pay for the perfect piece of Dover sole.
And so, without a whole lot of notice, Shepherd just changed his mind.
Because he’s in the middle of running three restaurants and opening two more, Shepherd couldn’t jet off to the Mediterranean to do the kind of on-the-ground research that he’s used to. Instead, boxes stuffed with cookbooks ordered from Amazon on the cuisines of the region started showing up at his door. For inspiration, he looked to chefs like Michael Solomonov, the mind behind award-winning Israeli restaurant Zahav in Philadelphia, and started digging into the cuisines of Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, and Syria.
“I grew up going to Lebanese steakhouses in Tulsa,” Shepherd says. “As a kid, it was normal to eat tabouli alongside a ribeye, and it wasn’t until later that I realized it was a result of the Lebanese population in Tulsa. Looking back, it was my first time to experience the merging of cultures.”
In a lot of ways, the sudden move made a great deal of sense thanks to the similarities in growing seasons shared by the Mediterranean and Space City. “I can focus again on using our local product,” he says. “I’ve always wanted to figure out eggplant. This gives us a huge avenue for eggplant. I just keep thinking that this just makes sense, that we can do this.”
Besides dreaming of wood-roasted eggplants, Shepherd hasn’t spilled many details on One Fifth Mediterranean just yet, and that’s probably because he hasn’t gotten it all figured out. Romance Languages is set to close its doors on July 31, which means that he’s only got about six months to research, recipe test, and prepare for the restaurant’s next iteration.
This is the first in a series of features highlighting Houston’s 2017 Eater Awards winners. Stay tuned for the next installment in February 2018.