Chef Chat, Part 1: Chris Shepherd of Underbelly

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Chris Shepherd won the James Beard award for Best Chef: Southwest earlier this year. He is the first Houston chef to do so since Robert del Grande won in 1992, and has helped thrust our culinary scene into the national spotlight.

Shepherd's story is of a chef who has taken the journeyman's path. He has literally worked his way from dishwasher to owning his own restaurant.

He was born in Nebraska. His family moved to Oklahoma when he was only a year old and he started his culinary journey at a Japanese restaurant in Tulsa. At age 23, he made it to Houston, where he would begin his ascent in earnest.

In this first part of our Chef Chat, we'll learn about the first steps of his path as well as about how he and chef Randy Evans (formerly of Brennan's and Haven) became best friends. We'll also look at how Catalan, the restaurant where he held his first executive chef position, started out as a Spanish concept and somehow evolved into one that showcased Shepherd's comfort food -- and a signature dish that was the product of a happy accident.

Come back tomorrow for Part 2 of our conversation, when Shepherd talks about what it's like to win a Beard award and how Underbelly came to exist.

EOW: You were in Oklahoma until you were 23. Did you go to college there?

CS: No, I did all the dumb things that you're supposed to do as a kid. I didn't pay attention to what I wanted to do, and then decided I'd start cooking.

EOW: Where did you start cooking?

CS: Originally at a place called Fuji [Japanese & Sushi], a sushi bar in Tulsa. I started as a dishwasher. All of my friends worked there, so it was easy to get a job with those guys and go have fun.

One of the tempura guys went off to school, so I got to take his position, use mandolins and learn about Japanese food. I had worked a little over a year and said to my boss, "I want to go work the sushi bar." I was told, "No, that's not going to happen. That's not what people expect when they walk in. They want to see the little short Japanese guy." I was like, "All right, man, your call, whatever."

EOW: You're a big white dude.

CS: Yeah, it doesn't work. Not in Tulsa. I said, "I just want to learn as much as I can here." My boss said, "You've got to go to culinary school." I was like, "Really? What do you mean?" He said, "You need to go to school and learn how to do this. They have those things now." This was when Food Network was just starting.

So I went to culinary school. My parents had moved [to Houston] a couple of years before. I thought, "I can get free rent and learn what I need to learn. I can just get a job and don't have to worry about paying all the bills."

EOW: Do you think your early cooking experience is why you have an affinity for Asian food and cultures?

CS: Nah, I just have an affinity for cultures. I want to learn Salvadorian, Mexican, Thai, Vietnamese...I feel like if I don't learn those cultures, then I am really missing out on life. You'll never understand somebody until you understand how they do things. What's their food like? The easiest way to learn is through food. Once you understand the food, you start to understand the people. When you start to understand the people, you can start to ask the other questions.

EOW: So where did you go?

CS: My first job was highfalutin. I thought I was going to crush it so I got a job at Steak and Ale in the Galleria. That lasted about a week. I realized it wasn't what I was expecting or thinking about. Those kitchen guys are great, but it wasn't for me!

EOW: What disappointed you about it? That it was kind of corporate?

CS: Yeah. People would take on the culinary school students to help with banquets and things like that at Houston Country Club under [chef] Fritz Gitschner. I said, "This guy's a master chef and I want to learn," so I'd go over there every time they needed somebody. I just kept putting my nose in there and asking, "Do you need somebody? Do you need somebody?" and they finally hired me.

I worked there for a while. I was living in Clear Lake so I got a job at Tommy's Patio Cafe. I stayed there for about a year and a half.

EOW: What were you doing over there?

CS: Learning how to cook. Learning the moves. Learning how to sear fish, roast things, prep things. That was about a year, and then I went to Bentwater Country Club. They gave me a sous chef job. Randy Evans and I both had just graduated culinary school.

EOW: Where did you go to culinary school?

CS: The Art Institute [of Houston]. Randy and I sat down next to each other at The Art Institute the first day of school. I had been in Houston for three days. We've been best friends since then.

EOW: Wow, you guys do go back to the beginning!

CS: Yeah, we worked through all the classes, made sure we were in the same groups for lectures and did everything we were supposed to do. I was working [at Bentwater Country Club] and he was working at Brennan's. He'd stop by my apartment and I'd ask, "So, how was your night?" and he'd say, "Man, we got crushed. We did 450 covers and did this and this and this. How was your night?" I'd say, "Well, I put out a taco buffet." It was disheartening.

After a couple of nights of that, he stopped by and I asked, "Okay, when do I get to go [to Brennan's]?" He took me in for my birthday and Mark Holley was there. He fed us. Crushed us. It was one of the most influential dining experiences of my life.

EOW: Was that part of the interview process?

CS: Well, I didn't realize that at the time, but then I got there and Mark had all of the menus laid out and asked, "What are you going to do with your career?" He gave me that speech. "Do you want to work here? Well, come back and let's talk." I started there two weeks later.

EOW: He seems like a good man. I did a Chef Chat with him about a month ago. You can't keep up with him.

CS: He's my mentor. No, he's everywhere. It's hard to stop him. I spent nine years at Brennan's.

EOW: You weren't only in the kitchen at Brennan's. Let's work through the progression.

CS: I started off on hot apps, went to a floating position, then sauté, back line and then they made Randy and I lead cooks together. Then we were sous chefs together. Then, Randy became chef and I was executive sous.

At that point, the wine buyer was leaving. I was doing all the wine purchasing anyway and said, "You know, I have some wine knowledge." I'd taken my first-level exam [the Introductory Exam for Court of Master Sommeliers] just because I wanted to. I understood that the dining experience was a total thing. It wasn't just about food. It included beverage service and all the other things.

When I was in culinary school and still living with my parents, when I got a paycheck, I'd go buy four bottles of Sauvignon Blanc from different regions. The next time, I'd buy four Pinots. I basically spent my paychecks on wine.

EOW: I guess at the time there weren't wine-tasting groups for professionals like there are now.

CS: Well, Martin Korson [the sommelier and dining room manager for Brennan's at that time] was my mentor and would spend a lot of time with me tasting. When he was a wine buyer there, he'd say, "You need to come do this tasting with me." I had people around me who pushed me. I took Martin's position when he left to be a buyer at Central Market.

He said, "You know, you've got to work front-of-the-house, too." I said, "That's fine. I want to learn that, too. If I'm going to own my own restaurant, I don't want to just know the back and have to trust somebody to just do their job. I need to understand it as well." I worked front of the house for two years.

EOW: You're the only chef I know who has left the kitchen to be a somm.

CS: I didn't know I was going to get to go back [to the kitchen]. "Did I make the right choice? Was that smart?"

When I went to front of the house, I gave up learning the food part and immersed myself in wine. Charles [Clark] came to me and said, "We want to open a restaurant." We had gone to culinary school together, too. He said, "You understand front of the house. You understand back of the house. You know what people want, so if you want to be the chef at this new place, we'd love to have you." I said, "We need to talk with [Brennan's general manager and former executive chef] Carl Walker about it, too."

We all sat down and talked about it. Chef said, "You know what? This sounds like it's going to be a good thing for you, Chris. You should do it."

EOW: And that was Catalan, which started as a Spanish restaurant.

CS: That was the idea.

EOW: It seems like it evolved over time to be more about your vision. Your personality started taking over the menu. What do you think about that evolution?

CS: I was given the opportunity to do something really cool. I started realizing that the Spanish aspect was really hard to do because we didn't get those products here. At the time, getting jamón ibérico was just impossible. Now you can. It was just so difficult at the time. Charles took me to Spain and we tried all those things. I couldn't get them here. Spaniards would come in [to Catalan] and say, "This is not Spanish." I'm like, "Well, no shit. I can't get that product. I can do it in that [Spanish] style, but it's going to be with our product."

It evolved from there. I said, "You know what. Let's just do food for everybody. I'm going to cook what I want to eat." We still had classical things on the menu that we did really well, then we added things like the foie gras bon bons and the candied pork belly. They just became staples. Even to this day, I get asked to do them again.

EOW: That reminds me of a cool story. You want to talk about how those pork belly "lollipops" came about?

CS: I burned Randy's grill. I went over for dinner at his house. We were drinking wine and talking. I said, "I'll just put this pork butt on the grill," and then forgot about it. He's like, "Hey, dude, my grill's on fire." I was like "Aw, shit. Sorry, dude." I got outside, open the lid and it's just a big ball of pork flame. "This is dinner. I've got to fix it."

So, I put it in the oven and cooked it really low. My mom made rum sausages for special occasions like Sunday brunch or Super Bowls. It's breakfast sausages cooked in rum and brown sugar. I glazed the pork butt in that and it made it sweet, savory, salty and delicious. It was perfect.

There were big chunks of candied fat and meat that came off of it. It was beautiful. It became a holiday tradition and then someone said, "If you put a stick in it and serve it, you'll make a million dollars." Pork belly wasn't being used much at that point. I thought "I could use it with dish. I'll put a sugar cane skewer in it and make a million dollars."

I still haven't seen that happen, but it became "that dish." Restaurants were going though three or four pork bellies a week. I was going through 24 or 30.

How did Shepherd go from Catalan to co-owning his own restauraunt, Underbelly, which would land him a James Beard award? Come back tomorrow for Part 2 to find out.

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