Instead of overseeing the company’s four restaurants — Underbelly Burger, GJ Tavern, Wild Oats, and Georgia James — the James Beard Award winner will focus on the Southern Smoke Foundation, the non-profit he co-founded with his wife Lindsey Brown that provides emergency relief funds to restaurant workers in crisis situations. Going forward, Underbelly Hospitality will be led by Shepherd’s business partner, real estate developer Todd Mason of MLB Capital Partners, operations director Nina Quincy, and culinary director Nick Fine. CultureMap content partner ABC13 was first to report on Shepherd's departure.
“We’ve done a lot in 10 years,” Shepherd said in a statement. “It’s time for me to focus on smaller projects and dedicate more time to Southern Smoke. Underbelly Hospitality is in great hands with MLB Capital Partners and the team we have assembled over the last five years. They have provided tremendous support and have been instrumental in Underbelly Hospitality’s success.”
The past year has been a turbulent time for Underbelly Hospitality. It has opened three new restaurants in GJ Tavern, Wild Oats, and Underbelly Burger. In addition, it relocated its flagship steakhouse Georgia James twice: first, to a temporary home in the former One Fifth space and last month to its permanent home in the Regent Square mixed-use development. Finally, the company left its original home at 1100 Westheimer and closed UB Preserv, an intimate restaurant that continued Underbelly’s original mission to “tell the story of Houston food” by taking inspiration from the city’s immigrant cooking traditions.
Rumors of Shepherd’s departure have quietly circulated among restaurant industry insiders in recent days. Still, Mason wants to put to rest any speculation about strife between the partners.
“There is no rift between me and Chris. Nobody’s done anything wrong,” Mason tells CultureMap. “He and I are still friends. My sense is the last two-and-a-half years of Covid and all the things we’ve had to do to keep this company alive and keep these employees employed — to keep the system running — it was hard on everybody: mentally, physically, and financially.
“Chris is proud of what we did, but he wants to focus on Southern Smoke and keep things simple. It’s a little bit of the team is ready to run. They’re ready to grow the business, but he doesn’t want to go on that ride.”
In terms of Underbelly Hospitality, the company will move forward with its current restaurants operating under their current chefs and general managers. Plans are still on track to open Pastore, an Italian restaurant, next to Georgia James in the Regent Square mixed-use development. Construction is expected to begin soon with an eye toward an early 2023 opening.
Mason acknowledges that his long term plans for Underbelly Hospitality are to replicate the company’s existing concepts in new locations. In particular, he sees potential in growing both Georgia James, the luxurious steakhouse known for its Texas beef and cast-iron steaks, and Wild Oats, a Texas comfort food restaurant that opened earlier this year at the Houston Farmers Market.
“I think all of them have the pros and cons for being able to replicate them,” Mason says. “I think we want to have them all running for a little bit.”
Meanwhile, Shepherd will lead Southern Smoke as it hosts its first in-person Southern Smoke Festival since 2019. The three-day fundraiser will see more than 60 local, regional, and national chefs serve food at a series of events. Participants include James Beard Award winners such as Aaron Franklin, Chris Bianco, and Ashley Christensen as well as Top Chef personalities including Tom Colicchio, Gail Simmons, Brooke Williamson, Karen Akunowicz, Stephanie Izard, and Houston’s own Dawn Burrell.
“Southern Smoke is on a path that myself, Lindsey and the whole team are very proud of, and it’s time to push that even further,” Shepherd said. “We are about to hit $10 million in grants, and we’re expanding the free mental health initiatives into five states within the next few months — we plan to be in all 50 by 2028.”
The chef concluded his statement with a message for all the diners who’ve supported him and his team for years.
“As I always say, Underbelly is no longer a restaurant — it’s a way of life. Explore your surroundings,” he said.
“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.”