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Three Chefs Discuss Southern Smoke Festival's "The Throwdown"

Southern Smoke festival returns this weekend to raise funds for food and beverage workers in need.
Southern Smoke festival returns this weekend to raise funds for food and beverage workers in need. Photo by Daniel Ortiz
If you think about it, it makes sense that the industry which feeds our bodies would also be the one serving a heaping helping of nourishment for the mind and soul. Since its formation, the mission of Southern Smoke Foundation has been the well-being of food service/hospitality industry workers and as the Houston-based organization expands, its dedication to an array of objectives under that umbrella has proven inspirational.

Three chefs participating in this weekend’s Southern Smoke Festival 2023 reflected on the event and how it helps those in the industry. Aaron Bludorn, Mason Hereford and event co-founder Chris Shepherd discussed what makes the festival and the foundation it benefits distinctive.

Shepherd, Houston’s preeminent celebrity chef, said one exciting element of this year’s event is having it at Discovery Green. The popular downtown park will host Saturday’s “The Throwdown” event, which brings dozens of chefs from across the country to cook for fest attendees. Last year, the festival raised $1.62 million for the foundation. Shepherd said holding the event at Discovery Green allows The Throwdown “to have an actual map, a layout that makes sense. Not that we haven’t had that in the past, but it’s always been like ‘Where’s this person at? Oh, over there in the corner, behind those trees over there.’

“This year being at Discovery Green, it just gives us a nice infrastructure with the stage, the music. We’re gonna yacht rock the hell out of it. It’s going to kind of be a yacht rock party this year, I don’t think anyone really knows that yet.

“With all the chefs, we’ve got a bunch of new chefs coming this year, the lineup is just thick, a lot of old friends and a lot of new friends that most people haven’t heard of, a lot of them are like Food & Wine Best New Chefs, having them have the opportunity to come out and do this and kind of see the change, these are all chefs that are wanting to make changes in this industry, doing it for the right reason. It’s very special to me.”

Shepherd and culinary celebrity Gail Simmons at SSF22
Photo by Marco Torres

"I never thought we’d be there, honestly,” Shepherd said of The Throwdown's 2023 site. “I always looked at Discovery Green like that is the golden spot. They came to the festival last year and wanted to meet us afterwards and were like ‘Why aren’t you going to do this at Discovery Green?’ and we said 'Wait, what? Seriously?' So yeah, it’s nice.”

It’s nice because fellow Houstonians recognize the event serves a greater purpose. The foundation’s initiatives include emergency relief to food and beverage industry workers and their families across the country. A newer initiative, Behind You, focuses on providing no-cost mental health counseling to food industry employees.

“When it comes down to hospitality or food and beverage emergency relief, we’re immediate, you know? We can fund somebody, if everything lines up, within 24 hours, which gets them out of crisis immediately. We don’t have a cap, so it can be anywhere from $200 to $100,000, it’s what we’ve done in the past,” Shepherd said. “And then there’s the mental health side and just growing that program so people in our industry have a safe place. There is a need for this and we all need to acknowledge it. Once we can acknowledge that mental health is part of health, we’re good.”

Visiting chef Mason Hereford owns New Orleans standout Turkey and the Wolf, named by Food & Wine and GQ as one of the most important restaurants of the decade and Bon Appetit’s Best New Restaurant in America in 2017. He’s returning to Southern Smoke Festival this year.

“Southern Smoke does amazing things. You can look at what they just did for Hawaii, taking all these service industry people that were in a horrible set of circumstances and providing some version of relief, and it’s industry specific,” Hereford said of the foundation’s work to assist victims of the August wildfires in Hawaii. “I think all the chefs that participate are a group of chefs that are particularly keen on making sure that the people that they work with are having the best possible time they can with their lives and their livelihoods. It’s a great privilege to get to meet in one place and do it all together to raise money for it.”

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Mason Hereford
Photo by Ken Goodman, courtesy of Southern Smoke Foundation
“There’s sort of a tried and true formula for this style of event where people get to meet chefs that they respect or try dishes that they are really interested in eating or whatever it is that they’re looking for, that they get to do with a really large group of chefs and they get to do it knowing that the fun they’re having is also actually really helpful to a greater thing,” he said. “Why not go eat food from chefs all over the country especially when your money is going to help people that they work with when they run into a crisis?”

Hereford also owns the breakfast spot Molly’s Rise and Shine and a new dinner restaurant, Hungry Eyes, which he described as “slightly more refined, we’re calling it luxury drinking food without pretense. It’s like an unstuffy place with ‘80s décor, sort of an ‘80s vibe.” He said he and his crew plan to make a chicken pot pie empanada with tarragon butter milk for fest-goers. Last year, the Turkey and the Wolf tent was one of the fest’s liveliest and friendliest.

“Me and one other person is all it would necessarily require to get the job done but we’re gonna roll with four total. When these trips are less far away we can squeeze a few more people into the budget and we can all party together,” he said. “Other members of our team get to meet more chefs that they’re familiar with through watching them on social media or cookbooks and stuff. One of the incentives to being a manager in a restaurant that travels a lot is getting to meet new people and learn from new chefs and make new relationships.”

Aaron Bludorn is one of Houston’s best-known chefs. His restaurants, Bludorn and Navy Blue, are acclaimed, must-dine locales. He reminded that he’s not only a tastemaker, he’s a taste taker and he dished on which chefs from an all-star roster he’s excited to visit at The Throwdown.

“Jordan Rubin from Maine. I got to know him last year at the festival. He’s such an incredible chef. He’s opened up recently Bar Futo and he has Mr. Tuna in Maine. He’s definitely one of ‘em that I’m so pumped about,” he said. “Also, it’s always good to see Christopher Bianco and all those guys.”

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Aaron Bludorn
Photo courtesy of Southern Smoke Foundation
Bludorn is expanding his reach in Houston, too. Earlier this year, it was reported he’d chosen space in Memorial for his next concept. He gave eager foodies a quick update on that still-unnamed restaurant.

“We’re still looking at Q1 2024. I don’t have anything to announce that hasn’t been announced thus far, although we’re definitely on track. We’re starting the build-out, we have permits in hand, so things are going well,” he said.

Regarding the festival and foundation objectives he and his fellow chefs will promote at The Throwdown, Bludorn said he’s most interested in the mental health aspect.

“Recently, we’ve found that there needs to be a greater emphasis placed on the well-being of the entire industry and the people that work in it. There are long hours, hard work, it’s very physical, it’s very demanding and none of that’s going away,” Bludorn said. “It’s what draws a lot of people to it, but at the end of the day they need to be supported as well and the hard work needs to get people places. And I think the more and more that we center these conversations around how do we make our industry stronger and better, it’s truly pulling us in that direction.

“It means so much,” Bludorn said of being able to participate in the festival. “I’ll start by saying the opportunity not only to give back to our industry but to help propel our industry into the next generation and evolution of it is so meaningful. Pretty much all of us that are there want to see our industry grow and evolve and do it in a way that’s sustainable.”

Tickets remain for the Southern Smoke Festival’s “The Throwdown,” Saturday, October 14 at Discovery Green, 1500 McKinney. The event runs from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. for general admission ($175) and opens an hour earlier for VIPs ($500).
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.