If you've ever been to Underbelly, you've seen the wall adorned with photos of Houston culinary personalities and places. Not everyone in the photos is famous; some of the people pictured own small mom-and-pop restaurants that serve authentic ethnic food. There are farmers and fishermen. These are the people from whom chef Chris Shepherd initially drew his inspiration when opening Underbelly.
Now, three years into the restaurant's success as "the story of Houston food," Shepherd wants to pay tribute to those who have influenced him and add some new photos to his wall in the process. To do so, he's launching the Off the Wall dinner series and inviting his friends and colleagues to cook with him at Underbelly for six special dinner parties.
"I thought, let's do a dinner series where we combine people that normally wouldn't associate, but they have an association without really knowing it," Shepherd says. "Let's bring these guys together, because they've all inspired us so much over the years."
There will be one meal per month beginning in March and going through August. The meals will be $100 each, which includes food and drinks, and the proceeds will benefit the newly-created Underbelly Scholarship at The Art Institute of Houston. Shepherd was inspired to create a scholarship to help culinary students who also work full-time jobs, as he did when he was in school.
"I've been thinking a lot about the culinary school lately and what it took for me to get there," he says. "I decided I want to start a foundation to help pay for a working culinary student. They don't want you to work 40-to-50 hours a week. They want you to focus on school. But how are you supposed to do that when you have to pay for school?"
Shepherd, who received an Associate of Applied Science degree in Culinary Arts from the Art Institute of Houston in 1996, admits he only recently finished paying off his own student loans. He wants to make sure that other students can focus more on great food and less on how to pay for their passion.
"I want to help pay for their school and at the same time build our job force in the city," he says. "It makes sense. It's like we're helping someone who might be an employee down the road."
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In the meantime, Shepherd and his fellow local chefs and cooks will be sharing their experiences with one another at the first of the dinners, to be held on March 23. The participating restaurants and chefs will be London Sizzler, an Indian restaurant in Sharpstown, Richard Knight, formerly of Feast and currently of upcoming Foreign Correspondents, and Antonio Gianola, sommelier and manager of Houston Wine Merchant.
Here's the rest of the schedule and what Shepherd has to say about the invited guests via a press release:
Sunday, April 13: Randy Evans, Mark Holley and Atkinson Farms (on sale March 24) "Mark, Randy and I go way back. Mark was one of my first bosses and became a mentor to both Randy and me when we worked for him. He taught us to support local farmers, and Randy and I have both been working with Mike Atkinson for years. This dinner will be a celebration of old friends and bright futures."
Sunday, May 18, 2014: PJ Stoops and Asia Market (on sale April 14) "Asia Market is one of my favorite Thai restaurants in the city. Before I opened Underbelly, I spent a week in the kitchen learning from the ladies at Asia Market, and I've put so many dishes on the menu inspired by what I learned there. PJ's knowledge of Thai cuisine and his ability to find and teach me about Thai ingredients make him a perfect fit for this dinner. I plan to be a regular at Foreign Correspondents, the Northern Thai restaurant he's opening soon."
Sunday, June 8, 2014: HK Dim Sum, Mala Sichuan and Rice Box Food Truck (on sale May 19) "I love HK Dim Sum. So much. Every time I have dinner there, I go into the kitchen and learn something new. They love to teach me. Mala Sichuan is the most exciting, true to form Sichuan restaurant in the area. Expect only the best from them, because that's all they know. The Rice Box is one of the quintessential food trucks on the Houston streets today. Owner John Peterson, called the Golden Doomba by people who know him, has a vast knowledge of Chinese culture and cuisine.
Sunday, July 13, 2014: Saigon Pagolac and Ryan Pera (on sale June 9) "Ryan knows so much about Vietnamese food--I love eating with him. Saigon Pagolac is one of the most authentic Vietnamese restaurants in Houston. They offer 7 Courses of Beef--you cook it yourself on the table and roll your own spring rolls. Ryan can roll a mean spring roll (and incredible pasta at his new restaurant Coltivare)."
Sunday, August 3, 2014: Gatlin's BBQ, Feges BBQ, Underbelly BBQ (on sale July 14) "Barbecue is a staple in Texas, and Gatlin's BBQ does it right. They have a mean smokehouse, and Mama Gatlin makes the sides with a lot of love. Patrick Feges was one of my cooks at Underbelly, and he is one of the up-and-comers of the Houston barbecue scene. The rest of the kitchen staff at Underbelly will try our hand at barbecue, too--maybe we'll do some Korean barbecue. Or Chinese barbecue. We'll surprise you."
Tickets for the first dinner are on sale now at Underbelly.