Chris Shepherd is leaving Underbelly Hospitality.
The James Beard Award-winning chef announced his departure Wednesday in a written statement, saying that he was exiting the restaurant group that he founded and co-owned to “focus on smaller projects” and dedicate more time to his locally-based nonprofit, Southern Smoke Foundation. “I’ve put my heart and soul into these restaurants, and I’m so proud of what we’ve accomplished,” said Shepherd, who opened his first restaurant, Underbelly, to rave reviews in 2012, which later became the namesake for the hospitality group. He ensured residents, though, that he’ll continue to reside in the Houston area. “I’m not going anywhere,” he wrote.
Shepherd said he and his wife Lindsey Brown, owner of the company Lindsey Brown Public Relations, will work to further build Southern Smoke, which has raised around $10 million in grants to aid those within the food and beverage business, including farmers, winemakers, distillers, and restaurant and bar workers. Moving forward, the nonprofit will work to expand free mental health initiatives to five states within the next month, with the goal of providing aid in all 50 states by 2028, he said, and will host its Southern Smoke Festival, its three-day culinary charity event, this October.
Underbelly Hospitality’s portfolio — which now includes the Blacksmith coffee shop, Georgia James Tavern, and the recently reopened Georgia James steakhouse — will now be in the hands of local private investment company MLB Capital Partners, which invests in the Houston Farmers Market, where Underbelly’s other establishments Wild Oats and Underbelly Burger are located. The partnership between MLB and Underbelly began in 2017, when Underbelly Hospitality’s staff worked as food consultants for the investment company’s redevelopment plan for Houston Farmers Market — ultimately resulting in the MLB acquiring 50 percent interest in Underbelly, according to a release.
“Chris is an incredible talent. We are grateful for his immense contributions to both Underbelly and the industry as a whole,” said MLB’s managing partner Todd Mason in a statement. “Our talented team will continue to deliver Underbelly’s signature fare with unmatched technique and hospitality. Our focus has been and will continue to be the delivery of thoughtful food and beverage experiences.”
The departure follows shifts and closures within the restaurant group over the past year, plus recent weeks of rumblings about Shepherd’s impending departure from the restaurant group that he led and helped create — with no confirmation until now. It seems that Shepherd, who has been nominated for a Beard Award four times and won his first in 2014 for the “Best Chef Southwest” category, is confident in the legacy he’s left behind. He thanked his staff and Houstonians for their support.
“As I always say, Underbelly is no longer a restaurant — it’s a way of life,” he said, but he added: “it’s time for me to learn a new chapter.”