James Beard Award-winning chef Chris Shepherd has often been touted as a champion of Houston’s food scene, helping to bring more shine to the city and its diverse cuisine. So to many, it was a shock when last July he exited Underbelly Hospitality, the restaurant group he built from the ground up — under publicly unknown terms, aside from a six-month non-compete agreement.
Speculation followed, but investigations into the split that left a group of investors with Shepherd’s restaurants — two of which were named after his own mother — yielded little (on the record, at least). But one thing was for sure, Shepherd was out; his initial statement was gracious, thanking his home of Houston, but revealed little: “Explore your surroundings. Learn about people, where they’re from, and how to dine at the same table. Learn from anyone, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, age, or gender. Understand that everyone has a story to tell. We are always learning. It’s time for me to learn a new chapter.”
Now, the 50-year-old chef and restaurateur finds himself in a new season — one filled with cats, video games, wine, and travel. But hard work, too.
“When I decided to venture out of the restaurants, [my wife] Lindsey looked at me and said take six months, and things will present themselves,” says Shepherd, who is married to former publicist Lindsey Brown, now the executive director of the Southern Smoke Foundation, the non-profit she co-founded with Shepherd. At first, Shepherd was antsy. He says he started looking at buildings. “Maybe I could do this,” he thought, but friends reminded him of the pitfalls of the restaurant industry: “You got out. Why do you want back in?” he recalls a fellow chef asking.
Shepherd took Brown’s advice. For six months, he played hours of video games a day, Brown comically recollects with a tinge of jealousy. He took fishing trips and traveled to see friends. He and Brown got kittens, and he celebrated a milestone birthday year, his 50th. To some, it looked like he was having a midlife crisis, Shepherd says, but the space gave him time to relax and reassess. “I feel about as clear-headed and happy as ever can be. There’s no stress,” Shepherd says. Still, Shepherd looks back on his time in the industry fondly. “Every day is a grind. I love and miss it,” he says.
Binge-ing FX on Hulu hit show The Bear, a story about a fine-dining chef who returns home to Chicago to revive his late brother’s struggling sandwich shop, reminded Shepherd of why he left. “I don’t miss that,” he remembers thinking. But he admits that he still has an emotional — almost romantic — relationship with the restaurant world. It’s boring when everything is running smoothly, he says. The chaos of restaurant life provides a rush of adrenaline, unlike most other lines of work. “When the wheels fall off it, it’s great,” he says with a laugh.
However, Houston hasn’t seen the last of Chris Shepherd yet. “I’m not done saying the things I want to say,” he says.
Shepherd has been keeping busy. He’s been consulting at a winery in California, writing a wine column, and steering Southern Smoke, his nonprofit that has distributed more than $10.7 million directly to people in the food and beverage industry via its Emergency Relief Fund. Most recently, the foundation is assisting in efforts on Maui following the devastating wildfires that killed more than 100 people and left more than 1,000 unaccounted for. Brown reports that the foundation received more than 140 applications from Maui food and beverage workers in need and has so far, distributed $142,000 to 46 workers and counting.
In October, Shepherd and Brown will help raise more money for Southern Smoke with the seventh iteration of the Southern Smoke Festival, a two-day affair featuring more than 60 chefs from around the country.
Also in the works for Shepherd: a leap to the stage and screen. His new weekly TV special Eat Like a Local will air on local news station KPRC 2 on Saturdays in September exploring the local food scene with guest stars like Houston’s James Beard Award-winning chef Benchawan Jabthong Painter and Graham Painter, the owners of Thai restaurant Street to Kitchen; Jacklyn Pham owner of Vietnamese restaurant Saigon Pagolac; and Aaron Bludorn, chef and co-owner of restaurants Bludorn and Navy Blue. The show will also feature trips to Port Bolivar and Crowley, Louisiana, to learn about oyster production and the symbiotic relationship between crawfish production and rice harvesting.
Shepherd’s Table to Stage, an eight-part series of intimate conversations with fellow champions of Houston’s food scene, will also kick off at theater production facility Stages on September 25. Johnny Carrabba — the local legend behind restaurants like the Original Carrabbas and Grace’s, will be Shepherd’s first guest, followed by Lucille’s Chris Williams, Greg Gatlin of Gatlin’s BBQ, Truth BBQ’s Leonard Botello IV, Feges BBQ’s Patrick Feges, Bludorn, Chicago chef Sarah Grueneberg, Momofuku’s David Chang, and food journalist Priya Krishna. Tickets are $150 and will go on sale on September 11, with presale starting on Friday, August 25 online or by phone.
Both series will shed light on the noteworthy stories of Houston’s most talented food and beverage industry denizens.
For Shepherd, these new projects are part of his longtime mission to provide a platform — in this case, a literal stage — for people within the food scene. “I’ve spent my entire culinary career in this city, learning things, asking the questions, ‘Why?’ and this is kind of what this show is,” Shepherd says. “Why does this exist? Why are we cooking these things? I’m asking the questions and learning from the people doing it. It’s about listening and tasting and seeing.”
In the meantime, Shepherd says diners might see him around the city, doing pop-ups to scratch his itch for cooking. But will we ever see Shepherd working in restaurants again? He’s unsure.
“Not right now,” Shepherd says definitively. “It’s a new time in my life.”