As local foodies know and CultureMap has reported, Chris Shepherd has received his fair share of accolades since he opened Underbelly in 2012, including a Food & Wine Best New Chef award in 2013. He is also the first Houston chef in 22 years to win the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southwest in 2014.
In 2019, Robb Report named Shepherd the world’s top chef in their annual Best of the Best report. “I don’t know how to feel about that,” the always delightfully candid chef/restaurateur told CultureMap food editor Eric Sandler. “It’s a little weird.”
The tony title was effusive in its praise of Southern Smoke’s work:
When Hurricane Harvey smashed into Houston in 2017, chef Chris Shepherd’s Southern Smoke Foundation shifted its focus from fundraising for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society to providing immediate relief from the disaster.
People in the food-and-beverage industry—whether they were working directly in bars or restaurants or supplying them as farmers or beer brewers—could apply directly for grants to help in the storm’s aftermath. Funds could make up for lost wages so a rent payment wouldn’t be missed, for example, or to help with a medical bill or go toward repairing damage.
After Harvey passed, Shepherd and team saw another storm hit North Carolina and wildfires engulf California wine country, so they decided to keep their new aid-based model of giving and expand their relief efforts nationwide.
High praise also went to Shepherd’s “star-studded annual barbecue,” the direct aid to workers, and even the free mental-health counseling for food-industry workers in Texas and their families.
“We’re so honored that Robb Report included Southern Smoke in their Best of the Best issue,” Shepherd tells CultureMap. “The recognition is wonderful—it increases our visibility nationally and gives us the ability to reach more people in need.
“Six years ago, I never could have imagined Southern Smoke would reach this point. I also never imagined the devastation that Hurricane Harvey would bring to Houston and the pandemic would bring to our world. Our industry is fragile, and every natural disaster and pandemic shows us just how fragile it is.”
Meanwhile, Southern Smoke’s executive director, Kathryn Lott, is still gushing over her colleague’s big win. “I remember being in Europe when I saw that Chris was declared the Chef of the Year Robb Report’s 2019 Best of the Best issue,” she tells CultureMap.
“I literally leapt to my feet and squealed—so happy for my deserving friend. And I thought 'Oh my God, I wonder how that feels? ‘Do you ever come down from that, or are you just happy for the rest of your life?' We haven’t found out yet, but I can tell you the answer to the first question—it feels just as incredible as I thought it would.
“Our team gives everything they have to this organization, and to see their hard work recognized means more than anything. The Southern Smoke team truly is the Best of the Best.”
Time will tell which of Shepherd’s myriad operations will end up on Robb Report’s future best-of lists. For more on Southern Smoke’s work, visit the official website.
Eric Sandler contributed to this article.