Southern Smoke Festival, a two-day philanthropic food-and-drink-focused affair helmed by Houston’s James Beard Award-winning chef Chris Shepherd, returned for its seventh year this past weekend, drawing in nearly 4,000 attendees and 60 chefs to Downtown’s Discovery Green.
The event raised a total of $1.8 million in proceeds, which go to the festival’s anchoring nonprofit, the Southern Smoke Foundation. Founded in 2015, the foundation issues grants and organizes programming focused on emergency relief and mental health assistance for food and beverage workers around the U.S.
In a statement, Shepherd said that this year’s efforts left him speechless, and on stage Saturday, he was visibly moved to tears. “The Houston community brings so much passion and energy to the festival, and having industry friends come from across the country to lend their talents and bring awareness to the cause makes such a meaningful impact on the Foundation, our team, and our mission,” Shepherd said.
The Southern Smoke Festival commenced on Friday, October 13, with its Respect The Rosé gala at the Four Seasons Hotel in Houston. The Monte Carlo-themed event, which featured a three-course meal prepared by various chefs and an auction of rare, vintage bottles of wine and Champagne, raised $263,000 from a total of 320 guests. The festival’s seen-and-be-seen, block party-esque event — the food and drink-fueled Throwdown — followed on Saturday, welcoming in first at 3 p.m. VIP attendees who had paid $500 per ticket. Meanwhile, hundreds of attendees who had paid for general admission could be seen in a massive line that wound around the park as they waited for entrance.
The event proved to be a hit, drawing in 3,500 guests to Downtown’s Discovery Green, where they mingled with dozens of star chefs from around the country who offered unlimited bite-sized creations and enjoyed live music, yacht rock-themed DJ sets, and giveaways throughout the night.
In true Southern Smoke fashion, chefs from around the country and barbecue connoisseurs were on site. James Beard-award winner Chris Bianco of Phoneix’s Pizzeria Bianco returned for another year, dishing out pizza cooked on-site. Austin pitmaster Aaron Franklin of Franklin BBQ was front-and-center in his tent, slicing and serving brisket for his foldable brisket and coleslaw half-sandwiches. Quy Hoang of Blood Bros. BBQ managed the pits as teammates dished out bites of roti canai stuffed with goat. Pitmaster Greg Gatlin, who this time represented his restaurant Gatlins & Feathers, dished out a delectable gumbo boudin with bits of okra.
Other Houston chefs made a great showing, with award winners like Aaron Bludorn of Bludorn, Benchawan Jabthong Painter of Street to Kitchen, and Emmanuel Chavez of Tatemo serving special bites. Local smash burger sensations Burger Bodega and Trill Burgers and Viet-Cajun mainstay Crawfish and Noodles were also in attendance, both offering sliders, while Jason Ryzcek of Little’s Oyster Bar, Pappas Restaurant’s newest establishment, tapped into his seafood roots, crafting crab and foie gras boudin balls with honey hot sauce.
Manabu “Chef Hori” Horiuchi of Kata Robata and his team offered dessert, with shaved ice topped with strawberry sauce. Washington, D.C. also had a sweet showing with Paola Velez, the founder of Bakers Against Racism, serving tart-sized tamarind pecan molasses pana cotta, while chef Angel Barreto of Korean restaurant Anju offered bowls of refreshing melon soft serve over mochi, corn flakes, diced strawberries, and red beans.
Though entertainment and food were obviously at the forefront, the mission remained clear throughout the night with Shepherd and other chefs making announcements. Shepherd launched the festival eight years ago with his wife and Southern Smoke co-founder Lindsey Brown as a way to help his friend and former sommelier Antonio Gianola after he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. “It very quickly became clear how much support our friends throughout the food and beverage industry need support, whether it’s through health crises, personal catastrophes, natural disasters, or any number of other issues that prevent hourly workers from making the money they need to pay their rent and bills, support their families, and otherwise survive,” Brown said in a statement.
The first year, Southern Smoke raised $180,000, an amount that has multiplied each year since, allowing the festival to distribute more than $11 million to food and beverage industry workers around the country who have endured or experienced natural disasters, medical emergencies, accidents, or other unforeseen events. Most recently, the foundation gave $258,000 to 118 Maui residents following the devastating wildfires that left nearly 100 dead and at least 31 missing on the Hawaiian island, according to Brown.
In addition to providing grants and funds to assist in the case of large-scale disasters, Southern Smoke also assists employees through its Behind You mental health program, which offers no-cost mental health counseling for those in the industry through universities in California, Illinois, Louisiana, New York, and Texas. The program has provided 3,600 free mental health sessions since 2020.