Houston has emerged as one of the country's leading culinary destinations, and Underbelly chef/owner Chris Shepherd deserves a significant share of the credit. Not just because he won the city's first James Beard Award for Best Chef Southwest in 22 years, but also because he's been a relentless cheerleader for the city: Making media appearances in print and on screen on behalf of his adopted hometown.
His restaurant also finds itself in a period of transition. Long-time sous chefs Dax McAnear and Lyle Bento have recently departed. A new generation of sous chefs, led by pastry chef Victoria Dearmond, has emerged to help oversee the kitchen and maintain Underbelly's reputation.
While other restaurants might be content to rest on their laurels, Underbelly continues to push forward. Dearmond is spearheading a move to sell Underbelly goods at the weekly Urban Harvest farmers market, and Shepherd rolls out a new bar menu this week that pays homage to some of his favorite dishes from other restaurants. For example, head to Underbelly's wine bar to try a take on Husk chef Sean Brock's Nashville hot fried chicken or deep fried tamales inspired by chef John Currence of City Grocery in Oxford, Miss.
With all these various activities, it seemed like a good time to talk to Shepherd about breaking in the new cooks, life as a celebrity, the arrival of so many out of town chefs into the Houston market and what's next.
How's life in Chris Shepherd's world? Read on.
CultureMap: Chris Shepherd, how’s it going?
Chris Shepherd: Living the dream. It’s a real exciting time for us . . . . Dax left to go be with his family. Lyle is going to open his own restaurant (Southern Goods), which I think is awesome. Absolutely fantastic. I stopped service on Saturday night, just stopped service at exactly 10 o’clock. Dining room’s packed.
“How y’all doing? Everybody shut up.” Made the cooks stop cooking. Then said what I had to say. Every once in awhile there’s someone who comes along in your life who really sticks with you and helps out. You want to help them to succeed. For him to succeed is just like for us to succeed. He’s going to be very bright in his future.
CM: What are the circumstances under which someone leaves with your blessing?
CS: You want to see everybody do their own thing. That’s the eventual goal. Go be a chef somewhere. Go open your own restaurant. That’s what I’d like to see. People leave for certain things. They have to follow their reasons.
Like when Patrick left he wanted to go learn something new. Not even learn something new. I told him you need to go learn how to run a business like that. Killen’s, there’s no better place you’re going to learn. You gotta go.
With Lyle, he told me I’m signing a deal. (I said), “That’s awesome. Whatever we can do. Whatever I can do, just let me know.” That’s what you want to see. You want to see them all succeed and follow their dreams just like I was given the ability to follow mine.
CM: How do you replace two experienced cooks on the line?
CS: It’s like Nebraska football. You always just reload. It’s never rebuilding. Gary (Ly), perfect fit to step up into a sous chef position. He’s been with Lyle since he’s been with us. He understands the mentality and the philosophy. Ben (McCauley), promoted him to kind of a sous chef over special events, which is kind of a task for all of us to figure out: All of the parties, all of the events at the stadium with the Texans games.
Madeline Cabezut came back. She was one of my original crew. She was in Miami at Jose Andres. She called awhile back and was like I want to come home. It’s a perfect time. Come home.
"It’s like Nebraska football. You always just reload. It’s never rebuilding."
Victoria (Dearmond), she’s been with me since day one. She’s the one who puts it all together. She’s my pastry chef, but more than that she just kind of handles everything . . . . Making sure we’re all doing what we’re supposed to do.
It’s kind of like having my grandmother running around. But she’s 23. She doesn’t mind me calling her that. She’s my 23-year old grandmother. She’s kind of like the goat herder, if you will . . . She’s pretty special.
CM: Does a moment of transition like this make it harder for you to travel?
CS: I don’t think so. You think about it for a minute . . . . We’ve got the cooks who’ve been here, and they believe it. When one of my cooks comes up to me and says, “Chef, I want you to know. We’ve got your back. We understand your vision.”
That’s awesome because you know when I’m not here on a Saturday or whatever and they’re going over menus. Somebody will bring something up. How would chef want that to be put on the menu? Is that what he would do? When they actually have that conversation? They’re all thinking the right way. Nobody’s trying to branch out and do something outside of the norm. Let’s stick to the guidelines that have been here. That are instilled for us. It’s a pretty open spectrum of things they can do.
They know what’s supposed to happen, and I’m never gone very long. I check the menus when they go online at five o’clock. I’ll let them know, “Hey, change the wording on this tomorrow or do it like this.” Most of the time I don’t even call, because it’s perfect. They know what’s supposed to happen. Having four sous chefs is pretty awesome.
CM: Is it harder with the Beard? Has it changed anything around here?
CS: No, I don’t think so. It’s just like we have guests who haven’t been here before. Who’ve heard about it or seen it on TV or seen the Art Institute commercial. Now they hear about this place. They come. Now we have to make sure that has happened that we stay on point. You can’t stay on point. It’s always pushing harder and harder every day.
CM: Are you a celebrity? Do you think of yourself as a celebrity? Do you get recognized?
CS: Yes. Grocery stores, everywhere, but, you get your face put all over the place: Art Institute, Texans, it’s always in the paper. People are bound to know who you are, recognize you. I don’t know. It’s weird. Just give everybody their time, talk to them as a friend.
I still think the celebrity thing is weird. Would you call it that?
CM: Would I call you a celebrity? Kinda.
CS: It’s weird, isn’t it? I’m just a cook.
CM: Not anymore.
CS: I still think so . . . . I just want to be a cook. You can definitely ask her (Clumsy Butcher public relations director Lindsey Brown) about this. If I don’t spend enough time here, I get really guilty. I have to be there. These guys need me. Even if it’s a weekend; after two or three days, I’ve got to get back in there. That’s why they work here. They want to work with me. They want me to see what they’re doing. If they have a question, they want me to be able to answer it.
CM: Do you have any advice for the out of town chefs who are opening restaurants in Houston?
CS: Just be there. Learn your people. Learn your customers. Treat your cooks right. Houstonians are people that are comfortable in their own skin. They like the high end, but they like the mid-tiers, too.
"I mean, we’re all from out of town. I’m from Oklahoma, too. I’ve cut my teeth in this city, and most of these guys have. I wish them all luck."
I think the people who are coming in from out of town generally have a hard time of it. If you go back to who’s still here, Ryan Pera. He came in from out of town and worked his way into it: the Four Seasons then 17. It’s been a hard run for people who are from out of town.
I mean, we’re all from out of town. I’m from Oklahoma, too. I’ve cut my teeth in this city, and most of these guys have. I wish them all luck.
CM: What’s next? You could open, like, six Hay Merchants. You must get offers.
CS: Every day. What is it for me? I get offers but I don’t know how soon I want to bust out and go open another place. The ideas are there. The spots haven’t really presented themselves. I’m not going to go into just any place. It’s got to be the right spot. Then, who do I have here that, one, I would want to open something with? It would have been Lyle or Dax.
Now do I do something with Victoria? Do I do something with Gary? Let them spread their wings. Do I open something? Is it Kevin (Floyd) and I and Bobby (Heugel) that we all do together?
I don’t know. I want to make sure that this place stays where it’s at. That it’s consistently good. That we push hard every day. So I don’t know. I figured every one tells me you’ve got to strike while the iron is hot. How’d you let the iron not get hot? You’ve got to keep that thing still going.
Whatever we do, we want to make sure it’s done perfectly, because it has to be. That’s the only way it should be done now. It’s taking the time to find the right spot and eventually seeing what we want to do. I don’t foresee that happening anytime soon.
I want to make sure that this place stays at the level it needs to, and then everything else will present it when it needs to.
Portions of this interview have been edited for length and clarity.