HOUSTON — It was Chris Shepherd’s day.
Officially, it was Chris Shepherd Southern Smoke Day, as proclaimed by Sylvester Turner, the mayor of Houston, at a presentation inside Mr. Shepherd’s Texas-style gastro pub, the Hay Merchant.
On this sweltering October afternoon, Mr. Shepherd had just presided over Southern Smoke, a charity food festival that doubles as a platform for a message central to the well-known chef and restaurateur’s image: that Houston is America’s most exciting place to eat because it has one of the country’s most diverse populations.
Mr. Shepherd often says that Houston’s immigrant communities — more than a quarter of its residents are foreign-born, according to a 2018 Rice University study — have together created a new “American Creole” cuisine. The food in his recent cookbook reflects this tapestry: a bold-flavored blend of Asian, Tex-Mex, Latin American and barbecue traditions.
“Houston has proved to be the best culinary school I could ever hope to have,” Mr. Shepherd asserts in “Cook Like a Local: Flavors That Can Change How You Cook and See the World,” written with Kaitlyn Goalen and released last September. The book’s recipes — including Vietnamese fajitas, masala chicken wings, field peas baked with molasses and two kinds of soy sauce — were inspired by techniques and ideas he learned from immigrant chefs whom he celebrates as mentors.
At a time when issues of cultural appropriation and representation in the media are stoking heated debates over power inequities in American life, Mr. Shepherd is an unlikely mascot for Houston’s culinary diversity — and not just because he is a white man from Nebraska whose flagship restaurant is a steakhouse.
Mr. Shepherd has built his brand on the notion that the relatively obscure chefs and restaurateurs he reveres deserve a spotlight, which he has been generous in sharing. Yet he’s the one who eventually gets most of the attention.
“I don’t want this to be about me,” he said in an interview.
All the same, “this” invariably is. At the Hay Merchant, the mayor applauded Mr. Shepherd for his charitable work — the Southern Smoke event raised more than $570,000 — and for “drawing attention to the diversity of our city and the culture of our city.”
It’s a compliment Houstonians have heard before. “Every day is Chris Shepherd Day around here,” one onlooker said sardonically after the mayor’s remarks.
Mr. Shepherd, 47, is a conspicuous presence wherever he goes in Houston. He favors one-arm bear hugs, cargo shorts and button-down shirts that hang loosely over a physique that splits the difference between Santa Claus and a defensive lineman. He takes a youthful delight in his success. The house he is remodeling includes a “bourbon wall” and a wine room similar to his steakhouse’s.
But an earnest determination to use his fame to lift Houston also seems to weigh on him. Mr. Shepherd is the most prominent chef to come out of Texas’s most populous city since the heyday of Southwestern cuisine in the 1980s and ’90s. When Mr. Shepherd won the James Beard Foundation award for Best Chef Southwest in 2014, he was the first Houston chef in 22 years to receive the honor.
“It’s a lot for one person to shoulder,” he said.
Mr. Shepherd’s responsibilities have grown more intense as he scrambles to respond to the coronavirus. On Monday, an order was issued limiting all Houston restaurants to pickup, delivery and drive-through service. Mr. Shepherd had already reduced the hours and ramped up the takeout operations at all of his businesses.
He was also forced to cancel Southern Smoke’s spring fund-raiser, scheduled for later this month. The charity’s mission is to provide support to members of Houston’s food and restaurant community, and it had just started to see a rise in applications from people who lost jobs because of the pandemic — a trend unlikely to end soon.
“We’re a crisis relief organization,” said Kathryn Lott, Southern Smoke’s executive director. “And the crisis hasn’t even really hit yet.”
Later this year, the Beard Foundation plans to give its first Best Chef Texas award. It’s the latest sign of what many Texans feel is overdue recognition for restaurants in the second-largest state. Houstonians debate how much credit Mr. Shepherd deserves for the state’s rising status, but they agree that he benefits from it.
“I get the complaint that he takes up too much of the air in the room,” said Alison Cook, the restaurant critic at The Houston Chronicle and a fan of Mr. Shepherd’s. “But I think what it eventually means is that everyone gets more air.”
Mr. Shepherd operates a relatively small and evolving cluster of four restaurants in the fashionable Montrose neighborhood.
He opened three in 2018: Georgia James (the steakhouse), UB Preserv (the clearest representation of the food in his cookbook) and One Fifth Mediterranean (a revolving-themed restaurant that is now called One Fifth Gulf Coast). All then landed in a three-way tie for first place on Texas Monthly’s list of the state’s best new restaurants.
That was also the year Mr. Shepherd closed Underbelly, which may still be his most famous place. He prepared the restaurant’s (and his) best-known dish — a braised goat with dumplings inspired by tteokbokki, a Korean street snack — on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” last December. The dish is based on the same idea as Underbelly itself: that local cooking should be, as Mr. Shepherd put it, “about the people of Houston, not just local ingredients.”
“I didn’t just want to do the goat and dumplings,” he said. “I wanted people to know where that came from, and I wanted people to go there.”
Many of Underbelly’s dishes were made using techniques Mr. Shepherd learned by talking his way into the kitchens of immigrant-run restaurants in Houston. The knowledge came from people like Noi and Lawrence Allen, the former owners of a Thai grocery, and Surekha Patel, the chef of her family’s Indian-British restaurant, London Sizzler.
Mr. Shepherd recalls Ms. Patel’s scolding him during a vindaloo tutorial: “Damn it, Chris, quit cooking like an American!”
This unusual sort of apprenticeship, which began before he opened Underbelly in 2012, is at the root of Mr. Shepherd’s allure. At the same time, it raises a question that confronts many white chefs who work with foreign cuisines: Who deserves the credit for their success?
“Why does the interpreter remain more visible than the source?” Francis Lam, the host of the public-radio show “The Splendid Table,” asked in his remarks before a multicourse lunch Mr. Shepherd prepared in 2014 at the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium in Oxford, Miss. “As we go and enjoy this meal or any other, I’d like to ask: Who do we need to thank for our lunch?”
At Underbelly, Mr. Shepherd tried to answer that question. The menu described Houston’s eclectic food scene as “a story taking shape right before us,” and the check came with a list of restaurants that had inspired him, along with a message urging diners to visit them before returning to Underbelly.
That spirit lives on at UB Preserv, Underbelly’s successor. “We’d love to have you back at UB Preserv,” the menu reads, “but we politely request that you visit one of these folks first.”
“Cook Like a Local” expands on what Mr. Shepherd calls the Underbelly philosophy, by using recipes to showcase, in stories and photo spreads, the Houston people and restaurants who have guided him.
They include Jacklyn Pham, an owner of Saigon Pagolac, one of the first Vietnamese restaurants in the Bellaire neighborhood, and Heesuck Ko, an owner of Kong Ju Rice Bakery, which supplies the rice cakes for the braised goat. Mr. Shepherd regularly mentions those businesses in stories about him and, by extension, Houston.
“It’s like a NASCAR race,” Mr. Shepherd said in October over tamarind Dungeness crabs at Hai Cang, one of his favorite Chinese restaurants. “If a pack can move together, they go a whole hell of a lot faster, but if you break out of the pack, you go straight to the back.”
Two recipes in Mr. Shepherd’s book — for Vietnamese braised turkey necks and Viet-Cajun boiled crayfish — credit Trong Nguyen, a chef and owner of Crawfish & Noodles.
“We got successful in part from Chris,” said Mr. Nguyen, who believes that Mr. Shepherd’s interest helped get his restaurant featured in “Ugly Delicious,” David Chang’s popular Netflix series. “We’re very grateful for what he did for us and for the community.”
Crawfish & Noodles is in Houston’s Chinatown, where restaurateurs have been hit particularly hard by the coronavirus. “They were seeing this a month before any of us” started to experience a downturn in business, Mr. Shepherd said.
Mr. Nguyen echoes other immigrant business owners who say they’ve benefited from Mr. Shepherd’s attention. This aspect of Mr. Shepherd’s work is one of the reasons Mr. Lam said he chose to edit “Cook Like a Local” in his capacity as an editor-at-large at Clarkson Potter.
“Certainly Chris was not the first white chef, or chef trained in European food, to put fish sauce in his food,” said Mr. Lam, who acknowledges that Mr. Shepherd has likely profited more from his lessons than his teachers have received in return. “But it’s still a fair person who takes his position to shine a light on not just these cultures in the abstract, but on these specific people. That’s powerful.”
Some others who have helped make cultural appropriation a mainstream topic in American food media also see Mr. Shepherd as a force for good. The food historian Michael W. Twitty has described the chef’s work as “culinary justice.” Jonny Rhodes, whose Houston restaurant, Indigo, challenges stereotypes about African-American food, called Mr. Shepherd “honorable.”
“The chefs at the top have always been a gateway leading people into a larger conversation about food and culture, and they’ve tended to be white men,” Mr. Lee said. “But that’s a circumstance of history. Let’s be honest.”
Mr. Shepherd traces the origins of the Underbelly philosophy to a series of promotional culinary tours developed in the early 2010s by the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau. He said he suggested to Lindsey Brown, then the bureau’s public relations director and now his fiancée, the idea of using the participating chefs, most of them white, to lead the visits to Houston’s immigrant restaurants.
“Let’s take people to the places they’ve never seen before,” he said.
The tours were a success, particularly with locals, and they inspired Mr. Shepherd, who was the chef at a Spanish restaurant called Catalan, to create Underbelly.
“At Catalan, people would come and say, ‘This reminds me of New York’ or ‘This reminds me of L.A.,’” he recalled. “Nobody ever said, ‘This reminds me of Houston.’ And so I was like, I need to open something that reminds me of Houston.”
Mr. Shepherd’s career up to that point had been in traditional fine dining. Raised in Tulsa, Okla., he went from culinary school in Houston to a job at a Houston country club to Brennan’s of Houston, where he moved from the kitchen to become the sommelier.
Some people in the local restaurant business cite Mr. Shepherd’s shift to the dining room, along with his idiosyncratic self-education, to argue that his cooking ability isn’t equal to his fame. Some grumble that he received an unfair boost from the city government when Ms. Brown worked at the visitors’ bureau. And they see a potential conflict of interest in the fact that she became an investor in Underbelly, along with her ex-husband, and is now Mr. Shepherd’s publicist. (None of these critics would agree to be quoted directly, because they feared alienating the city’s most powerful chef.)
Ms. Brown denied any conflict, and said that if Mr. Shepherd emerged as a star of the tours, it was because he was excited about the work, and good at it. “Some chefs enjoy that type of event more than others,” she said.
There have also been complaints about the workplace atmosphere at Mr. Shepherd’s restaurants. In a 2013 lawsuit contesting her dismissal, a former server at Underbelly said Mr. Shepherd and some employees regularly made “disparaging comments about women and/or remarks laden with sexual innuendo.”
“Although many of these remarks were made in a joking manner and/or were not meant to be taken seriously,” the lawsuit said, “there were times when these remarks crossed the line and were not joking.”
The plaintiff, Rachel Johnston, claimed she had been unfairly fired for being intoxicated at work. In the lawsuit, Ms. Johnston, who declined to comment for this article, denied having consumed alcohol on the day in question, and questioned the premise of being let go for drinking; the kitchen staff, she said, often shotgunned beers during service. Underbelly denied the allegations in court filings, and Ms. Johnston filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit in 2014.
In a recent interview, Mr. Shepherd acknowledged that drinking on the job was prevalent, and unwise, during Underbelly’s early days, but ended after the suit was filed.
He also said he has become a more thoughtful boss. “If I got mad, I yelled,” he said of his younger self. “I’m a cheerleader now.”
Victoria Dearmond, now the pastry director for Mr. Shepherd’s restaurants, was also on Underbelly’s opening staff. She said the description of the restaurant’s drinking culture in the lawsuit rang true to her, but the Shepherd restaurants are a more comfortable place to work today.
“It wasn’t necessarily #MeToo that did it,” Ms. Dearmond said. “I just think it was us growing up.”
Daniela Soto-Innes, the chef at Cosme, an acclaimed Mexican restaurant in New York, remembers Mr. Shepherd as an encouraging mentor. He gave her an early break by hiring her at Underbelly when she was 21.
After a year there, she traveled to Mexico City to work in the kitchen at Cosme’s sister restaurant Pujol. When what was supposed to be a two-day trip turned into two months, Ms. Soto-Innes recalled that Mr. Shepherd told her, “That’s fine, as long as you come back and show us what you’re learning.”
“I mean, nobody tells you that,” she said.
Mr. Shepherd credits Bobby Heugel, a prominent bar owner and restaurateur who was an original partner in Underbelly, for helping to create the restaurant’s ethic, including displaying photos of the people who inspired the food.
Two days after the Southern Smoke event in October, Mr. Shepherd ran into Mr. Heugel at Blacksmith, a coffee shop he co-owns. He introduced Mr. Heugel to a reporter as “the guy who helped start all of this.”
Mr. Heugel said later that he was surprised by the compliment. “He doesn’t usually say that kind of thing around other people,” he said. Mr. Shepherd, he added, seems to have grown into his current role. “He’s matured, and now recognizes his responsibility as a leader of our food scene.”
Before the arrival of the coronavirus, this year was gearing up to be Mr. Shepherd’s busiest yet. In addition to planning his wedding (it is the second marriage for both him and Ms. Brown), he has partnered with a meat producer to make Chris Shepherd’s Pecan Smoked Bacon Sausage, which he hopes eventually to sell at two Georgia James kiosks at NRG Stadium, home of the Houston Texans.
Mr. Shepherd is also culinary director of the Houston Farmers Market, a 17-acre property in the North Heights neighborhood owned by MLB Capital Partners, co-owners of Underbelly Hospitality, Mr. Shepherd’s restaurant company.
Mr. Shepherd led this reporter on a tour of the historic market, where vendors sell produce and crafts. He’s helping to redevelop the property into something like Pike Place Market in Seattle: a culinary attraction with restaurants and stalls selling both grocery items and prepared food.
If the revamped market opens as scheduled early next year, Underbelly Hospitality will operate its own businesses in the roughly 230,000-square-foot space, including at least one of the restaurants tested at One Fifth. The rest of the tenants will be chosen by Mr. Shepherd to ensure they’re representative of Houston’s population.
“I don’t want it to be a place where just the wealthy go,” said Todd Mason, an MLB partner. “Chris and I have talked about ‘How do we introduce the Vietnamese side of it? How do we introduce the other parts of Houston?’”
On Monday, Mr. Mason said the market continued to do brisk business. But Mr. Shepherd’s plans to change the theme of One Fifth Gulf Coast have been shelved until after the health crisis has ended.
Mr. Shepherd stepped away from cooking in his restaurants after closing Underbelly in order to focus on bigger goals. “If I was going to stay behind the pass every day, we wouldn’t even be able to entertain the idea of growth,” he said.
It took time for Mr. Wong to warm to the idea of carrying forward what Mr. Shepherd started at Underbelly. “You’re Mr. Houston,” Mr. Wong recalled telling him. “Why would you hire someone who has never lived here to do this?”
Mr. Wong said the arrangement is working better than he expected. He finds Houston diners “less jaded” than New Yorkers, more open to new experiences. And as a Chinese-American, Mr. Wong says he has freedom to cross-pollinate on his menu — shrimp masala tostadas, wok-fried collard greens — without facing the sensitive questions that follow Mr. Shepherd.
“The difference is in our backgrounds,” Mr. Wong said. “It kind of works for both of us.”
Kitty Bennett contributed research.