This year's Southern Smoke Festival will look very different than the previous five. Instead of a thousand or more people gathering for delicious bites prepared by Chris Shepherd and some of the country's most high-profile chefs, Houstonians can do their part to raise money for the Southern Smoke Foundation through a weekend-long series of food specials and cooking classes that will donate a portion of their proceeds to the organization.
Held Friday, October 2 through Sunday, October 4, the Southern Smoke Festival raises money for the Southern Smoke Foundation. Originally, the Foundation devoted itself to raising money for the National MS Society, but it pivoted after Hurricane Harvey to establish an emergency relief fund for restaurant workers in crisis. To date, the fund has issued over $5 million in grants since 2015, including over $3.2 million to more than 1,700 people nationwide since the start of restaurants shutdowns related to COVID-19.
In addition to those efforts, Southern Smoke partnered with Mental Health America of Greater Houston and the University of Houston Department of Psychology to develop a program that offers free mental healthcare for Texas restaurant workers and their children. With the support of the James Beard Foundation and a group of anonymous donors, Southern Smoke established a $4 relief fund dedicated to workers in Chicago. The CultureMap Tastemaker Awards recognized Shepherd's efforts on behalf of Southern Smoke with its Hero Award.
As Southern Smoke's executive director Kathryn Lott explained in March, people who work in the restaurant industry are particularly susceptible to falling into crisis when their income is disrupted.
“Because of the nature of this business, many people live shift to shift; even paycheck to paycheck is sort of a luxury,” Lott said. “They don’t have two weeks to hold out for another paycheck. Tomorrow’s shift pays for the car note and the next two shifts pay for rent, the next for groceries. That’s sort of how this system works.”
This year's scaled-down event begins at Hay Merchant on Friday, October 2. Shepherd's establishment devoted to comfort food and craft beer will offer a first taste of Horseshoe Pilsner, the Karbach brew created by Shepherd and acclaimed Austin pitmaster Aaron Franklin (Franklin Barbecue) that dedicates a portion of its sales to the Southern Smoke Foundation. Pair the beer with either a smoked turkey Reuben ($16) or a 16-ounce smoked pork shoulder served with ssamjang, Bibb lettuce, potato salad, and more ($30).
On Saturday, October 3, Underbelly Hospitality will feature Southern Smoke-inspired ready-to-eat dishes and meal kits at its weekly stand at the Urban Harvest Farmers Market (8 am - noon). Dishes include pulled pork and pickled onion kolaches, smoked pork enchilada take and bake kits, and beer can chicken kits that include two cans of Horseshoe Pilsner (one to cook with and one to drink).
Over at One Fifth, Shepherd and chef de cuisine Matt Staph will be serving chicken and lamb schwarma plates on the patio. Held from 12 - 4 pm, the event will also feature live music and a draft lemonade special (booze optional but recomended). At Georgia James, customers may purchase a half-smoked brisket for $65 (pre-order required).
On Sunday, October 4, UB Preserv will serve two items inspired by the Golden Arches as parts of its weekly brunch service: a Smoked McRib Pork Bun with pickled onions and coleslaw ($12 for two buns) and a Shamrock Shake (frozen Midori, coconut, and rum with smoked whipped cream, $13).
Finally, Georgia James chef de cuisine Greg Peters will host a virtual cooking class devoted to smoking ribs ($120). Participants will need a grill to participate in the class.