Chef Chat, Part 2: Chris Shepherd of Underbelly

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There are very few chefs in the United States who can describe what it's like to win a James Beard award. As we discussed yesterday, Chris Shepherd is one of them, but success doesn't seem to have spoiled him yet. Most of the time, he's where he's always been for the last few years: at Underbelly meeting with his staff, cooking in the kitchen, receiving orders from fishmongers and cattle purveyors and minding the pass.

In part two of this Chef Chat, Shepherd talks about how Underbelly came about, why you never see old favorite dishes from Catalan on the menu and the impish side of his best friend and former Haven chef and owner Randy Evans, who is currently consulting for restaurants in both Houston and Galveston.

EOW: I've never seen the pork belly lollipops [a bestseller at Catalan] here at Underbelly.

CS: No. Won't do it. You have to evolve and change. I get that question all the time. I put it on the happy hour menu for a week. I didn't really say anything. I took a picture, and put it on Twitter, just to see it happen. All my old employees came and ate it. That was about it. It made me realize you have to evolve and change all the time, whether it's through business or food or whatever, those things have to happen.

I get asked to do the foie gras bon bons all the time, too. When I opened Underbelly, I said I'd never do any of those dishes here. I just can't, because then I'm resting on my laurels and not pushing harder than we did before. [Those dishes] were successful and delicious and people loved them, but we have to find our next thing and it's that (points at an order of Underbelly Korean Braised Goat & Dumplings). I can't get away from it.

EOW: And it's the only thing that's been on the menu since it opened. CS: That, and the vinegar pie.

EOW: Ah, yes. The vinegar pie. How did Underbelly come about?

CS: Charles [Clark] and Grant [Cooper] were really, really good to me to give me that opportunity. But I felt like there was something else I needed to do. I could have kept working with them. They were awesome. Or, I could try my own thing and see how it worked out.

You always want to hire someone who's going to want your job so they work very hard to do it. Otherwise, why would you hire them? When they go off, that's awesome. It's just like with Lyle leaving right now. I'm excited for him.

Author's note: Underbelly sous chef Lyle Bento is leaving to partner with Charles Bishop (known for Cottonwood and Liberty Station) on a new restaurant called Southern Goods.

EOW: That seems like a point of pride.

CS: These are my kids. It makes me so excited, especially for him. He's such a good kid. Any one of them who go do this it's like, "How can I support you? How can I help?" I try and tell him, "Don't do that," or "Do this in this way," and he's like "Agggh," and I'm like "Okay, you can go do it your way, man. Just do your thing and whatever you need from us we'll be there to support you."

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EOW: That's a success story right there.

CS: It has to be, you know? It just has to go that way because it's like I told him, "Why didn't you tell me right at the beginning?" and he said "Because you'd try and talk me out of it." I said, "I'm not going to talk you out of it." He said, "You seem kind of pissed about it." I said, "I'm not pissed. I don't have kids, but this for me is what I imagine is like the first one saying, 'I'm moving out.' and doesn't want to hear anything about what his or her parents have to say about it. They're going to do it stubborn-headed and that's it."

Lyle's going to do well because he's that kind of person. I just want to be there for him. Whatever he needs.

EOW: How did you meet up with the other folks in the Clumsy Butcher group [who helped open Underbelly]?

CS: We had done dinners together and I was looking for my own spot. We always talked about things and wrote them down on bev naps at Anvil [Bar & Refuge].

They called me one day and said, "Hey, do you want to check out this property with us?" I was like, "Yeah, sure. I'll come by and check it out." It was still Chances at that time and there was this vision they talked about. "It's going to be this split concept. We know you know how to work these kinds of things."

Catalan was big. Brennan's was huge. I understand putting food out in multiple venues and thought processes. It just made sense. I could be a partner in something that could be really cool and they're the greatest. Kevin [Floyd], Bobby [Heugel], Steve [Flippo], Mike [Burnett], everybody--they're all awesome.

EOW: I've never had a perception that you've gotten to do anything other than what you wanted to do.

CS: Anything. It's ridiculous. There's never been a word of, "You have to..." No. None.

EOW: So you have enough rope to hang yourself with. (laughs) CS: (grins) Yeah, for the most part that's true!

EOW: I know you and Randy [Evans] have a lot of funny stories because y'all are so close and used to ride into work at Brennan's together. Any cool story you want to share?

CS: That son of a bitch. So, we would take turns driving and I have high anxiety. I want to be ready. Randy doesn't have that bone in his body. He's just like, "Whatever, I got it."

We lived in Conroe. I'd say, "Okay, I want to leave by 1 o'clock so I can be there at 2."

When he was driving, that son of a bitch would get us there at 2:58. I'm like, "Are you kidding me?? Man..." He's like, "Yeah, I don't get paid until 3, man. I'm not putting my boots on until 3." "You're a dick! You're such a dick!" I'm basically having panic attacks and he's like, "Whatever."

EOW: Mr. Laid Back.

CS: "We've got 500 covers tonight plus parties to do! Dude, come on! I need to get there!" He's like, "I got this. We'll be there when I get there." He's such a dick.

EOW: That's what happens when you're dependent on your friends for your rides.

CS: Oh, man.

EOW: So, we'd better talk about the Beard award. What can you say about that?

CS: It's really good for my staff and the city. It started back with Cas [chef Bryan Caswell, a 2011 nominee for Best Chef: Southwest] bringing that vision back into Houston. For some reason, it just got misplaced for a long time. When Cas started Reef, the eyes started coming back, both with the Food & Wine thing and with the Beard nominations. [Author's note: Bryan Caswell was also named in 2009 as one of Food & Wine magazine's Best New Chefs.] People started looking around and saying, "Hey, man, Hugo [Ortega] is awesome. Hugo should be there, too."

For me, it was really quick. I didn't think that was going to happen this year. And then Justin Yu and all these people. Now, Houston's becoming more and more prevalent in the conversation across the country. The chefs and people of the city are all amazing. Restaurateurs are doing what they want to do now, focusing and specializing and really doing cool things. Houstonians, in general, are really supporting and believing in it. Without their support, we wouldn't have the amount of restaurants that we have in this city.

EOW: My husband and I went to the Beard awards. I remember being in the balcony and they were about to announce the award. I was just like, "Please, I don't care who it is, as long as Houston gets it."

CS: That's exactly how I felt.

EOW: Everyone nominated was really worthy. I'm thrilled you got it. That needed to come home to Houston.

CS: Yeah! It had to. It was our time. If it had gone to Austin, it would be great too, but Austin's already had one a few times. To have Hugo, Justin and myself there, it was huge for the city.

EOW: How did winning change your life?

CS: You know, there's a lot more interview requests and things like that, which is great. It's good for my staff. It's... I don't know. Like, the mayor giving me a key to the city. The Texans giving me my own jersey. It's all the dreams coming true.

But at the end of the day, I just cook food, you know? I'm not saving anybody's life, I'm just cooking food. We're giving souls a place to be happy. The thought process now is we have to push harder and we can't slack. People are coming in to see Underbelly who haven't been before. The ones who have been here before are like, "Yeah, yeah, we already knew. Whatever."

EOW: What is the best thing that a chef can do for his staff?

CS: Support them. Let them use their minds and have creative freedom. Mark Holley did that for me and that was the first time that happened. Now I have to do that for these guys, because that's what they want.

EOW: Underbelly's premise is "The Story of Houston Food." What is that story?

CS: It goes back to all of the cultural diversity that exists in this city, whether it be through being a safe haven for the Vietnamese or being an oil-driven city or being one of the largest ports in the south. Houston hasn't been affected much by economic downturns. We have more people coming. There are all of these groups of people who exist in the city and it was the idea to highlight that. Even for people who live in this city... "How did you learn this? Did you go to Korea?" "No, I just went down to Long Point."

EOW: And you do these things like go stage at Waffle House.

CS: I just went to Mala Sichuan last week.

EOW: Awesome. That places is pretty badass.

CS: Yeah, they're really nice. They were nice to let me back there [in their kitchen]. It was pretty interesting.

EOW: Is there anything else you want readers to know about you or Underbelly?

CS: I think most people think it's really heavy food and it's not. It changes every day. I had a guy come up to me the other day and say, "You know, I was in four months ago with a group and we told our server we were vegetarians. A lot of times, you get laughed at for that. Our waiter was like, 'Okay, cool.' You made a tasting for us of a lot of vegetarian food. I couldn't believe that happened, and then you came out and sat down and talked to us."

It's a personable thing. We are able to work and create with everybody. We can all play in the same sandbox, no matter if you just eat fish or vegetables. We can work with anything and love to do it. It's fun.

People get tied into what the name "Underbelly" is. "Ah, it's all animal-driven because it's underneath the belly!" No, Underbelly is the side of things never seen: the diversity of people who exist in this city who make it so great. When people can understand that, we all win.

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