It’s a day so highly anticipated — and in many circles, dreaded — it’s a wonder that Houston congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee hasn’t declared March 31, 2018 as Underbelly Day.
Lauded chef-owner Chris Shepherd’s signature showcase — which the New York Times dubbed “Houston’s statement restaurant,” and which Shepherd describes as “showing the diversity of our city through food” — is closing.
Underbelly has become one of this city’s most heralded restaurants for its local ingredients, and inspiration taken from Houston's immigrant communities. In 2011, Time Magazine named Underbelly the most anticipated new restaurant in America. In 2013, Underbelly was reviewed by the New York Times; a year later, Shepherd (a food star in his own right) secured the coveted James Beard Award for Best Chef — Southwest.
More recently, in 2016, Shepherd cooked at Jimmy Kimmel's Emmy Awards After Party. Earlier this year, Underbelly and Shepherd were featured on David Chang's Netflix foodie show, Ugly Delicious.
As CultureMap’s Eric Sandler has reported, big things are on the way for Underbelly, and indeed, Shepherd’s entire operation. Underbelly will transform into a new steakhouse called Georgia James (after Shepherd's parents) that takes many of its dishes and inspiration from One Fifth Steak.
Underbelly will evolve into a new restaurant called UB Preserv, and will occupy the space that formerly housed Poscol. Shepherd is reworking One Fifth into a new concept that takes its inspiration from the Mediterranean. UB Preserv, is scheduled to open in mid-April. One Fifth Romance Languages will close on July 31, 2018, and reopen September 1, 2018. Shepherd and his team will essentially open three new restaurants in the span of approximately six months.
CultureMap caught up with Shepherd who, in the midst of an upheaval and transformation of his culinary empire, is at once excited and nostalgic.
CultureMap: Congratulations are in order, but how are you handling the emotions of this change?"
Chris Shepherd: It’s an emotional day — peaks and valleys. One minute you're like, ‘This is awesome!’ The next minute, you’re like, ‘Man...fuck.’ The other night I was standing there, and we had just started service, and I was looking around at all my staff: These people gave their lives, for a long time, for this.
CM: They clearly believe in you.
CS: There’s a belief in that restaurant, and it was there from Day One. There was belief that we could highlight our city, and highlight our friends, and highlight the cultures in this city. When we first opened, we had sous chefs and chefs who just wanted be line cooks — because this place has a meaning. To see that go through this evolution in six years, it’ll take you back a minute.
CM: But you’re looking forward, in this case, to Georgia James.
CS: Yeah, I wanna do a steakhouse that changes the way steaks are looked at — it doesn’t have to be in a broiler — that you can do cast iron. I don’t have a setup if it doesn’t work. I’m not putting a broiler in there to be like, ‘In case we can’t cast-iron sear, let’s throw it in the broiler — that doesn’t work. It’s set up to do it one way, and one way only.’
CM: For a lot of fans and foodies, there’s a big ‘Chris, why now?’ floating around.
CS: Yeah, you know, I had this conversation with everyone, and they said, ‘No, you can’t close Underbelly.’ But I’m not closing, I’m evolving. I look at my staff, and I think, ‘They need more.’ And it’s my responsibility to make sure we can fulfill their lives too. They’ve given their time, their thought, and their effort, and so it’s time to help them grow as well. I don’t want a shit-show, a ‘go-go-go,’ I want something consistent so that my staff can grow, too.
CM: So, looking forward to UB Preserv: You’ve been challenged by your publicist Lindsey Brown to produce Houston's best dumplings. How’s the recipe coming?
CS: The filling is dope as shit — it’s amazing. It‘s just pork and ginger, but it's soft and pillowy. It’s perfect. Sometimes you get a dumpling filling that’s really tough and chewy — the worst dumpling is the chewy skin and the chewy filling. But we have a nice, soft filling. Lindsey wants me to be as good as Lam Zao in New York.
CM: Aside from amazing dumplings, what else can we expect from UB Preserv?
CS: It’s hitting the reset button a little bit. We went with only local produce, and only whole-animal, everything from within 150 miles, but then I open a can of coconut milk and fuck — I feel guilty.
CM: That’s a lot of pressure.
CS: Yeah. So, we’re still gonna focus on our farmers, but I don’t need to get in whole pigs every week — that can’t be our only source of protein. We’re still gonna source responsibly, but it’s gonna have to be more consistent and focused.
CM: There’s a significance to the new name, one that you haven’t really shared.
CS: When we came up with the name ‘Preserv,’ it was preserving the culture and the heritage and where we’ve come from.
CM: And the spelling?
CS: Yeah, I know it’s not spelled right — there’s no ‘e’ at the end. But there’s a reason for that: it’s not finished yet. We’re preserving where we’re at, but we’re not done — we gotta keep going and changing.
CM: You’re essentially opening three new restaurants in one year, which is, um…
CM: How are you doing it?
CS: It’s not gonna be as hard as we think. We’ll spend a couple of months on UB Preserv. With Georgia James, we’re picking up the menu from One Fifth, and dropping that in — little will change with that. And we’re 122 days away from One Fifth reopening, but we’re already talking about things like pita.
CM: What are you and the staff doing for closing night?
CS: Between my sous chefs, and my cooks, and my servers who’ve been there since Day One, and my bartenders, and bussers and dishwashers — it’s gonna be a big hug-fest. There are some things planned. We’re doing our Undies — the Undie Awards. Every year we do these awards, we give our cooks props: best dish, biggest mess.
CM: You’ve got a cookbook coming out too, next spring?
CS: Putting out a cookbook is a lot of work. You have conversations you never thought you’d have. It’s about breaking down walls, learning people and who they are. The closest thing and first thing you can do is find people through food. Then, you can have a conversation, because then, you’re feeding your soul and finding common ground.
CM: Will there be a lot of how-to in the book?
CS: Oh yeah. There’ll be some stuff we’ve never done before. It’s not for a coffee table: it’s to get dirty, and get used. It’s easy to cook out of.
CM: Obviously for now, it’s time to bid farewell to Underbelly. How have the crowds been?
CS: We have people coming in who’ve never eaten here. And then we’ve got people who’ve gotten engaged here. I’m hearing everyone’s story right now. One table told me how they had their first date here, then every anniversary here. That’s what gets me the most: this place has only been open for six years, but it’s become something to so many people.
That’s what we learned: Underbelly isn’t a restaurant, it’s a philosophy; it’s a way of life.