houston's best food festival
Chris Shepherd's star-studded Southern Smoke festival scorches with record $1.6M raised in big return
Chris Shepherd could hardly believe it. Months of planning the 2022 Southern Smoke Festival had come down to one moment — the reveal of the total raised for the Southern Smoke Foundation’s Emergency Relief Fund.
Executive director Kathryn Lott took to the stage and presented the James Beard Award winner with an impressive result: $1,620,000. That’s over a $1 million more than the event raised in 2019, the last time it took place.
"I'm overwhelmed," Shepherd told CultureMap shortly after he stepped off stage. "This is true generosity at its best. This is saving people's lives."
"People might live paycheck to paycheck, but people in hospitality live shift to shift,” Lott added. “We know how vulnerable they are. In disasters, they are the unspoken heroes and they step forward when we need their help. We are their safety net in times of crisis."
The amount raised is appropriately impressive for the festival’s comeback. All that money will allow the foundation to further its goals of helping hospitality workers in crisis. Achieving such a serious and worthy outcome came via chefs from Houston, other parts of Texas, and beyond showing up and showing out with an endless stream of delicious bites along with musical performances and a heavy sprinkling of celebrity pixie dust.
Simply put, Houston has never experienced a food event like the Southern Smoke Festival. It’s something people will be talking about for a long time. Let’s take a look back at the three-day affair by highlighting the famous faces and tastiest treats served during the bash.
Welcome to Houston
The event kicked off Friday night at Hermann Park’s Lott Hall with the H-Town Welcome Wagon. Over 1,000 people sampled bites from a mixture of local favorites and national food stars. Locals included Trong Nguyen of Crawfish & Noodles serving fish sauce chicken wings, Benchawan Painter of Street to Kitchen serving Thai sausage, and Gabriel Medina of Click Virtual Food Hall serving Filipino whole roasted pig. Terrence Gallivan previewed ElRo, his new restaurant opening this year in Midtown, with chicken polpette.
The night also had some major culinary star power. Shepherd teamed up with Top Chef’sGail Simmons to serve a pastrami sandwich with apple slaw — a nod to both her Canadian roots and Jewish heritage — while Mason Hereford, who recently took a turn on Netflix’s revival of Iron Chef, served the signature collard melt from his New Orleans restaurant Turkey & the Wolf. Pastry chef Paola Velez, a co-founder of Bakers Against Racism, ended the night on a sweet note with her tamarind-strawberry Italian rainbow cookies.
Simmons admitted that she was new to Houston and its exploding food scene but “heard rumblings” from New York friends prior to arriving here for last year’s filming of Top Chef. “First of all, obviously, the immigrant story in Houston is fascinating and it's rich and it's diverse and it's not what you think,” the noted writer and TV host told CultureMap. “And yes, there's great barbecue and yes, there's great Tex-Mex. But then there's so, so much more. There's plenty of very fancy, upscale, fine dining in Houston.
“But what I think is the underrated piece of the culinary map — so to speak — is the mom-and-pop stories and the immigrant stories. The Vietnamese and the Thai and the Sri Lankan and the regional Mexican — the stuff that makes up the city and what Underbelly was always about. And so that really clicked for me and I think that's what Houston does best.”
Texas singer-songwriter Robert Ellis, alternative rockers Me Nd Adam, and Houston’s DJ G-Funk also kept the crowd in good spirits, as did generous pours of Texas wines. Joshua Weissman, a Houstonian whose Youtube cooking channel has almost 7 million subscribers, donated $15,000.
Pitmaster Aaron Franklin mingled with the crowd and posed for selfies while taking in Ellis’ set. One of the few chefs to participate in Southern Smoke from the very beginning, he shared why he comes back to Houston every year.
“It hasn't changed much from the Franklin side of things at all,” he said. “We still show up, we still pretty much build a restaurant in a street or on a parking lot, cook overnight, do the thing.”
Between running his nationally prominent, eponymous Austin barbecue destination, as well as contributing to Loro locations in Austin, Dallas, and Houston, Franklin pointed out that donating his time is all about Shepherd — and Shepherd alone.
“You know, it takes a lot of energy to get out to do this stuff, which is why we don't do it,” he noted. “This is the only one that we do — Franklin Barbecue does not do this stuff. It's like we were welding new axles on a trailer just three days ago to get a cooker here. But we do it for Southern Smoke, because Southern Smoke truly matters.”
Still, the night belonged to Bun B. Not only did his Trill Burgers smash burger concept consistently have the night’s longest line, the Houston hip-hop legend took to the stage to perform some of his most memorable hits, including Int’l Players Anthem and Big Pimpin’, which sparked an audience rap-along. The Trill OG didn’t take a second to rest after his set; he made a beeline for his Trill Burgers tent, which was the last to close down. Leading from the front he handed out burgers and posed for photos with fans and his team until night’s end — even with an 8 am meet time for another Trill Burgers pop-up the next day.
“We had a great response to the burger tonight,” he said. “We had a very long line, consistently, consistently throughout the evening. We were able to feed not just the people who came out to support Southern Smoke, but also several chefs and different teams from different vendors around the country. Everybody enjoyed the food. That's really all we want, you know, It's just for people to enjoy the experience.”
Bun also name-checked the Houston chefs who’ve helped his journey from music icon to budding burger magnate and how he hopes to emulate them. “Guys like Chris, Ronnie Killen, Ryan Lachaine — these guys opened their arms up to me. And I just wanna make sure that when we present Trill Burgers to people, that we're doing it in the same way that Ronnie Killen presents brisket, the way Chris presents his Korean goat dish, how Ryan does his pierogi.”
A Chill Saturday
Saturday’s Southern Smoke on Ice had a decidedly more relaxed feel. Held on the lawn of the Houstonian Hotel’s historic Manor House, this intimate party for fewer than 200 attendees featured a lavish spread of cold and raw seafood prepared by some of the South’s top chefs, including Raleigh chefs Ashley Christensen and Cheetie Kumar and Mike Lata and Jason Stanhope from Charleston, North Carolina. Kata Robata’s Manabu Horiuchi, known to friends and customers as Hori-san, led the breakdown of a 200-pound whole tuna, which he used to make his popular Southern Smoke hand roll — a decadent combination of tuna belly, uni, and caviar.
“We’ve tightened up our giving. Tried to focus it on things and people we believe in,” Stanhope told CultureMap. “There’s something about Houston, something about this event. It’s not just small talk. They show up and make a difference.”
“And if you don’t love Chris Shepherd, tell me now, because I want to punch you in the face,” he added with a laugh.
A Deliciously Smoky Sunday
While both Friday and Saturday provided memorable moments, Sunday’s East Downtown Throwdown served as the heart of the festival. More than 2,600 people attended the bash that featured some of the country’s top food stars, plenty of talented locals, and lots of great music.
Attendees lined up for bites from Top Chef stars, including head judge Tom Colicchio’s roasted oysters with “pizza butter”, champion Brooke Williamson’s tacos, champion Stephanie Izard’s grilled chicken wings, and fan favorite cheftestant Karen Akunowicz’s Taleggio-stuffed focaccia. Shepherd’s fellow Beard Award winners earned raves for dishes such as Chicago chef Sarah Grueneberg’s arancini, Boston chef Jamie Bissonnette’s paella, and, of course, Aaron Franklin’s brisket.
"Chefs doing things for the community is a good thing," Colicchio told CultureMap. "Our government doesn't do enough, so we're taking matters into our own hands. And for those in our industry, knowing there is empathy out there helps get you through."
The foundation’s ability to help hospitality workers had a living example on Sunday. Danny Caplinger received $100,000 for treatment of brain injuries suffered during a motorcycle accident. Now on the road to recovery, he made a pizza with Chris Bianco, the Beard award-winning master pizzaiolo who is the subject of a recent episode of Netflix’s Chef Table documentary series.
"It starts with our industry showing up for each other," Bianco said. "We have an amazing industry, and events like this make it clear just how much we need each other." He turned to Caplinger as he pulled their pizza out of the wood-fired oven. "You get the first piece," he said. "It's like a birthday cake. Make a wish!"
Caplinger, wisely, wished for health.
On a lighter note, festival attendees also had the chance to get a first bite of some of this year’s most eagerly anticipated new restaurants. Chefs Aaron Bludorn and Jerrod Zifchak previewed Navy Blue, their Rice Village seafood restaurant, with a grouper sandwich. Top Chef finalist Dawn Burrell’s jerk beef cheeks on crispy roti offered a first bite of Late August, the Afro-Asian restaurant she’s opening at The Ion in Midtown. Food influencer-turned-restauranteur Abbas Dhanani drew steady crowds for sliders from Burger Bodega, his smash burger restaurant that’s very close to opening on Washington Avenue.
That’s not to mention all the barbecue. Truth Barbeque pitmaster-owner Leonard Botello IV collaborated with New York’s Billy Durney on a smoked brisket banh mi, and Pat Martin served smoked chicken wings with white sauce. Other local contributions included smoked lamb neck shawarma by Blood Bros. BBQ; grilled oysters with smoked butter by Gatlin’s BBQ; and smoked pork belly with Korean braised greens and dumplings by Feges BBQ, a clever twist on Shepherd’s signature Korean goat and dumplings.
CultureMap spoke to chefs Kevin Fink and Tavel Bristol-Joseph about the jerk chicken with pineapple glaze they served on behalf of Canje, their smash hit Caribbean restaurant in Austin. The restaurant serves so much chicken that it allowed their supplier to quit their part time jobs and focus on farming full time, Fink said.
“We have a jerk mother, which is essentially aged jerk seasoning we add to the fresh batch,” Bristol-Joseph said about the process, which takes about six months to complete. “Adding that mother to it gives it that soul that sets it apart.”
Attendees had ways to entertain themselves when they weren’t chowing down. Football legends Bo Jackson and Demarcus Ware squared off in a barbecue sauce competition sponsored by Crown Royal. People could also splurge at the auction, which featured memorable experiences such as cooking a brisket with Shepherd and Franklin, making a pizza with Shepherd and Bianco, and a private wine tasting with Shepherd and Houston’s seven master sommeliers. A trip to Burgundy with sommelier Antonio Gianola, the original inspiration for the festival, raised $13,000 for the National MS Society. Sponsors like Yeti, Alaska Seafood, and Lexus all made significant contribution towards ensuring a memorable event.
All that would have been plenty, but live music kept the party going into the evening. Local DJ legend Disko Cowboy and New Orleans soul and pop singer Maggie Belle kicked things off before Texas musician Shakey Graves charmed the crowd ahead of the big reveal.
In the end, it all comes down to Chris Shepherd. His message that the restaurant industry can take care of its own through the Emergency Relief Fund has allowed the foundation to reach a level no one could have imagined when the first Southern Smoke Festival took place in 2015. That message drew chefs from across the country who flew in to do their part for their colleagues.
Houston has dozens of food events every year, but none of them are quite the same as Southern Smoke. Where else can anyone go to get a slice of brisket directly from Aaron Franklin and a oyster from Tom Colicchio along with bites from Top Chef favorites, a who’s-who of Houston chefs, and so much more? For food lovers, that personal interaction — the chance to speak with the chefs and pose for pictures — justifies the considerable expense of attending the event.
The only question is, how will the Southern Smoke team top themselves in 2023? We can’t wait to find out.
Emily Jäschke contributed to this article.