Houston’s rock star chef Chris Shepherd wasn’t gunning to write a cookbook. He was already quite busy opening restaurants (see Georgia James, One Fifth Mediterranean, UB Preserv, etc.), winning a James Beard Award for Best Chef Southwest, also winning Chef of the Year honors at the 2018 Tastemaker Awards, and otherwise doing what he does best: cooking. But, that didn’t stop people from asking him when he was going to write one.
“It took four years to do this one,” he tells CultureMap. “But the answer to why we didn’t do one before is because we waited till we had something to tell.”
Connecting through food
Those who’ve followed Shepherd’s career know that once he opened his own place, Underbelly, he made it a mission to uncover flavors from cultures across Houston. Asian and Indian influences made routine appearances in his menu items.
And those are the things readers — and home cooks — will find in Cook Like A Local: Flavors That Can Change the Way You Cook and See the World, due out September 3 from Clarkson Potter. It’s the story, Shepherd says, of how “I progressed as a human and [how] I wanted to understand people and their stories and food.”
Shepherd scoffs at the idea that people might look askance at the flavors profiled in the book — fish sauce, chiles, soy, rice, spices and corn — and his message to that puzzlement is basically that people need to wake up to a new reality.
“Look around,” he says. “You can’t deny that diversity is happening everywhere. And these are the flavors we need to understand because these are America’s flavors now.”
For Shepherd, one of the easiest ways to understand people and their cultures is through food. He’s relentless in his quest to try new things, to figure out how they’re made, to go home and experiment with them and, eventually, put them in his own restaurants. His first experience of India cuisine was at London Sizzler.
“The food was delicious!” he exclaims. “And I got to know Ajay [the son of London Sizzler owners Surekha and Naresh Patel] as we bonded over this food. He introduced me to his mom and dad and they became like family. When I needed to know something about an ingredient, I could go, ‘Hey, Auntie, tell me about this,’” he says referring to Surekha, known popularly by her patrons as Sue. “‘You come down, we’ll have tea,’” he mimics her gently. “That’s what food does.”
Stories like that are woven throughout the book, as Shepherd shares his experiences with the immigrant restaurant families who allowed him into their restaurants, their homes and sometimes even their kitchens, to learn about their cuisine and their lives. Whenever he’s used their flavors and ideas as inspiration, he’s always made it a point to tell his own diners to go check out those restaurants that inspired him. Cook Like A Local introduces readers to these families and their stories.
Shepherd didn’t set out to be an ambassador of trying new flavors, but he’s certainly picked up the mantle. His philosophy is, the worst thing that can happen when you try a new food is that you don’t like it. So what? There’s a whole lot else out there to try.
Shepherd wrote Cook Like A Local with Kaitlyn Goalen, a former writer for Food & Wine magazine and the website Tasting Table, whom he met through agent David Black. The two clicked immediately, simpatico on the way food is a gateway to deeper understanding of the world. Julie Soefer, who for more than a decade has been photographing Houston’s food scene in general and Shepherd’s creations in particular, did the photography. The result is a 288-page tour of Korean, Vietnamese, and Indian flavors that are, more and more, becoming part of mainstream American cuisine.
Shepherd insists the recipes are simple, and that anyone who is comfortable in a home kitchen will be able to re-create them. And that’s exactly what he wants to happen.
“I don’t want coffee table shit,” he says. “I want this in people’s houses, in their hands, messy from use.”
The book, clearly, is personal to the chef, who says that, growing up in Oklahoma, he wasn’t aware fish sauce existed, let alone what to do with it. Ditto Japanese curry paste, which he says now is a staple in both his house and restaurants.
“These are flavors that I love, and I feel like, if I can step out of my comfort zone to try them, you can step out of yours.”
Shepherd says he hopes people will check out all the recipes in the book, but has a few he says are must-makes. There’s the Japchae, a traditional Korean sweet potato noodle dish that regularly turns up on his own dining room table. He included a grill marinated herb chicken recipe that calls for a marinade that combines ingredients such as fish sauce, cilantro, jalapeño, and garlic.
“You throw it on the grill and it is just this super umami bomb,” he says.
He figures the Lamburger Helper — browned lamb in hot sauce, then tossed in pasta and cheese — will also prove popular.
“I want people to understand what they are eating, and to learn to respect people around them,” he says. “And I’d love it if this book made someone say, ‘I’m gonna brine my turkey in fish sauce.’”
Cook Like A Local: Flavors That Can Change the Way You Cook and See the World will sell for $35 and is currently available for pre-order from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other sellers. A complete list of sellers is available here.