By now, most Houstonians have heard of the Southern Smoke Foundation, the non-profit 501(c)(3) which was co-founded by Houston chef and restaurateur Chris Shepherd and fiancee Lindsey Brown in 2015 to raise funds for the Houston Chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society in honor of local sommelier, Antonio Gianola, who is living with M.S.
After the unprecedented flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey in August 2017, the mission expanded to include disaster relief for local food and beverage industry workers who were catastrophically affected by the storm.
To date, more than $1.4 million has been donated, including over $600,000 to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, $500,000 to Hurricane Harvey victims and thousands more to various industry workers, restaurants and growers who have suffered catastrophes whether they be natural disasters, medical or personal.
Sunday was the 5th Annual Southern Smoke Festival which raises money for the foundation and the lineup of award winning chefs could not have been more amazing. Like James Beard award-winning amazing. Many of the chefs participating have won the James Beard award for Best Chef in their region, won or been semi-finalists for other James Beard awards or have garnered equally amazing accolades in their particular field. The roster included chefs from across the nation and one, Matty Matheson, from Canada. Forget the Oscars. This year's Southern Smoke Festival was truly a star-studded event. The Houston Press was invited to check it out and I was the lucky writer to go.
Parking is a bitch in Montrose and Southern Smoke was not the only festival in the area that day. I had to contend with the Greek Festival crowd as well. I drove around California, Commonwealth and Missouri so many times, my eyes were beginning to cross. I finally found an oddly shaped parking spot on Lovett and squeezed my Hyundai in, checking that the cars around me could easily get out and praying that another car didn't block me.
I checked in at the entrance and immediately saw Chris Shepherd doing his thing, mingling with folks. I was given a plastic tumbler, wristband and map. It was early in the event, so the lines were not long and I immediately grabbed an Aperol Spritz from one of the bar tents. It was a perfect light cocktail to begin my tasty tour.
I was right across from Jonny Rhodes, whose restaurant Indigo ranked 8th on Food and Wine's 2019 Best New Restaurants. I got a sample of his collard greens with vegetarian ham, which I was told was made with turnips. It had a slight smoky taste and a kick of vinegar. It wasn't what was listed on the menu for Rhodes, but some of the chefs were cooking multiple dishes and I should have checked back to see what else was going on later. Next to him was Houston's Hugo Ortega, with a sope topped with braised beef cheek. Across the way was Chicago's Sarah Gruenberg, who began her career at Brennan's in Houston and won the James Beard Award: Best Chef Great Lakes in 2017. She had a grilled lamb meatball wrapped in lettuce topped with pickled fresno peppers and pistachios.
My eyes espied an attractive array of sliders at Aaron Bludorn's table. Bludorn's resume includes his role as executive chef at Daniel Boulud's Cafe Boulud in New York City. The crispy pig head sliders were one of the best bites of the day. The meat was perfectly crispy on the outside with just the right amount of breadcrumbs. There was a lot going on in this little slider, including pickled vegetables, capers and celery leaves. It was a wonderful composition. His bio on the Southern Smoke website says that Bludorn plans to open a modern French-American restaurant in Houston in 2020. I am looking forward to it.
I tried to pace myself, which is not an easy thing to do when confronted with a bounty of options. It was also hot. The cold front had not made its way in time for the festival and the preponderance of open flames probably shot the 94 degree temps up a bit. However, there were plenty of water stations, including ice cold coolers of Rambler Sparkling Water out of Austin, and even more importantly, air conditioned toilets.
As a guest, eating and drinking, one can hardly complain about the heat when world renowned chefs and their staff are standing in front of giant pizza ovens, trompo spits and wood-burning grills serving up their delicious food for a great cause. Every single one of these people met attendees with a smile on their glistening faces. The bonhomie was evident as people greeted each other with hugs, pats on the back and laughter. The festival goer at Southern Smoke gets to vicariously be part of the rarified chef world.
I strolled over to the opposite side, skirting the line for Aaron Franklin's brisket and hatch-cotija sausage. It was already very long. Unfortunately, I did not get to try Franklin's Barbecue, which has been named Texas Monthly's Best Barbecue Joint in Texas and Bon Appetit's Best Barbecue Joint in America. Instead, I will have to brave the hours-long lines for the barbecue restaurant next month on a planned trip to Austin.
I headed to Justin Yu's table for his Teddy Cakes with whipped butter and caviar. That was a little flavor bomb, with the sweetness of a coffee cake and the saltiness of the, I am going to say bacon crisp, because I am not quite sure what it was. I couldn't really taste the caviar, but I did taste the butter and that's always good. I regret not going back for another one.
I grabbed another Rambler sparkling water for hydration and rolled from tent to tent. I loved Ashley Christensen's grilled oysters with pimento cheese butter, country ham dust and cornbread crumbs. She was another chef who was smiling and upbeat despite the heat. Martin Stayer stood behind two fountains of smoked gouda cheese, meant for dipping his duck fat hash browns in. As he was shooting a water gun in the air, I considered asking him to give me a few shots to the face.
The Pitmaker crew had a double whammy of a pulled pork taco and a slider. I know it's all about the meat for some, but some of the condiments and toppings were wowing my taste buds, like the slaw and habanero glaze on this slider. Felipe Riccio's blistered pole beans would make any vegetarian feel they weren't missing out on barbecue. They were smoky and charred and the best green beans I have ever eaten. Erin Smith and Patrick Feges had a more complex dish of smoked gochujang chuck eye with vegetable pancake and mustard green kimchi, which was a perfect marriage of his pit mastery and her creativity with vegetables. I overheard her telling someone how she wasn't getting much sleep since she had her baby, so props to this new mom for standing out in the Houston heat and dishing out delicious food for charity.
A few other standout dishes awaited me such as Lyle Bento's Gulf Fish Conserva which was a perfect one-bite sample of what I was told was Gulf Tuna, conserved in its fat and topped with breadcrumbs. The line was beginning to lengthen for Chris Bianco's world-famous pizza so I fell in. Watching him standing in front of this huge pizza oven, I thought about what a massive undertaking this festival is. All in the name of, as the Southern Smoke website says: " Taking Care of Our Own".
Next was Trong Nguyen's Vietnamese fish sauce chicken wings, which were crystallized, sweet and perfectly cooked. I also enjoyed the short rib sandwich from Yehuda Sichel of Philadelphia's Abe Fisher restaurant.
There were several things that I did not get to enjoy due to the fact that I couldn't eat another bite and I felt it wouldn't do the food any justice if I ate it feeling gorged. Watching Chris Cosentino slicing the beautiful, glistening pork for his porchetta panino, I was almost compelled to push the envelope, but he will be opening Rosalie Italian Soul here in Houston any day now, so I will have a chance to try his cuisine. Unfortunately, I also missed out on Matty Matheson's smoked beef shank congee. Since he's from Canada, I probably won't get another chance to try the celebrity chef's food any time soon. Regrets, I have a few.
However, I certainly got my fill of terrific food and happy people.
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