Tulsa-raised chef Chris Shepherd is a pretty big guy. If he told you that he was an NFL lineman, you’d be inclined to believe him. Truth is, though, that instead of playing alongside gridiron giants, Shepherd feeds them — and everyone else with an appetite for cured meats and Gulf Coast seafood, for that matter — at his award-winning Houston establishment, Underbelly. While cooking for the Houston Texans’ front line isn’t exactly a prerequisite for earning a James Beard Award, it probably didn’t hurt Shepherd either when he was named Best Chef: Southwest by the James Beard Foundation this past May. “They’ll text me and be like, ‘Are you going to be at the restaurant tonight,’” the pigskin-loving chef says about his burly clientele. “I’ll be like, ‘Yep,’ and there they come.” But as we learned during a recent phone conversation, Shepherd speaks on football, fancy awards and Houston’s foodie scene with equal fervor. Huddle up for all the juicy details.
Tell me how your life has changed since being named a James Beard Award winner.
How’s my life changed? Um, it hasn’t changed that much. It’s just busy all the time, which is good. You know, you’re asked to a lot of events and lectures and talks and all of that. But it’s all part of life.
It’s what you signed up for, right?
Yeah. Well, I mean, I don’t think you actually sign up for it. I think it just sort of happens. It’s awesome.
What spawned your career in cooking?
I just grew up and I didn’t really want to do anything else. I just fell in love with it. And it was like, “You know what? This is what I’m going to do.” I didn’t want to sit behind a desk. I didn’t want to sit in an office. None of that appealed to me. I couldn’t imagine doing somebody else’s taxes.
When we think of the traditionally colder months in Houston, what kind of things do you look forward to preparing?
Like for me, you want to do braised meats and you want to do the slow roasted things. But, you can literally wear shorts — I’m actually wearing shorts and flip-flops right now! [Even though it’s winter] you still want to grill outside because it’s stuff that is really easy to do. It might be mild in January but, for the most part, it is really relaxed, nice and not too chilly. I made chili at the house the other day.
I know you’re from Tulsa … well, you were raised in Tulsa.
[Oklahoma] is a pretty state. You know, it was pretty nice to get out of, but it was a pretty state. I mean, after I moved down here, I went to school, went back to Tulsa and was like, “Oh, I’m just going to move back.” Then I was like, “No, I’m not.” They’re changing and they’re growing and that’s good.
Are there any parts of Texas where you’ve been pleasantly surprised with the food?
You can always say Austin and things like that, but you know I never get up north [Texas] as much. The last time I was in Dallas was last year and we went to Babe’s Chicken Dinner House, which is just an amazing place in Roanoke, right outside of Dallas. Stupid, crazy and delicious. You actually stand outside and wait. Then, when you get in, you have your choice of fried chicken or chicken fried steak — that’s it. It’s served family style. All of a sudden, here comes this big salad. And then, say you’re with four people, and two people order fried chicken and two people order chicken fried steak, basically, for every order of chicken fried steak you get a big ol’ piece. And then, if you order the fried chicken, it’s basically a half a bird, so a wing, leg, thigh and breast. It all comes out on a big silver platter, gravy on the side and mashed potatoes, green beans, greens, and then biscuits and sorghum. And it’s just amazingly delicious.
The family-style concept is also something you take pride in at Underbelly. Why is that such an important aspect of your restaurant?
Because we do only whole animal, right? So, by only doing whole animal, we are focusing on things like pot roasts and pork roasts and briskets — big chunks of meat and whole fish. Things that are meant to be shared. Our entire menu is meant to be shared. If you want something big, this is it. So, a slow-roasted piece of meat, eat it on the bone or not on the bone, with a bunch of family-style vegetables. And it’s just like communal eating, and that is very important to me.
It’s hard to talk about winter without mentioning football. I hear you’re a pretty big Texans fan.
Are you friends with Arian Foster or any of the guys away from the field? Do they come by the restaurant?
Yeah, [linebacker Brian] Cushing. Not too many of the offensive guys. I haven’t seen those guys too much. But Brian comes to the restaurant. We cook for [linebacker] Whitney Mercilus. They’re all really nice guys. [Center] Chris Myers is a good fella.
What plans do you have for 2015 with Underbelly? Any changes to anything?
Well, we change the menu every day, so it’s always exciting. And just seeing the produce right now, the vegetables that are coming in are just absolutely gorgeous. I’m focusing my staff on trying to come up with some more vegetable-focused dishes. It’s just really nice, all the different techniques and different styles that we’re getting in right now. It is making it really fun. You know, it’s challenging. Just like I told my staff, “All right, everybody come up with two vegetable-focused dishes and we will narrow it down to four on Friday and put them on the menu.”
That’s got be fun to be able to go into each day with kind of a blank slate.
Yeah, it’s challenging but it’s fun. And I find myself just working and tinkering all the time. Like yesterday, I wanted to grill some things over open coals, so I went out and bought a little Weber and put it out back and started charring stuff and doing different things. Just kind of researching and developing for the menu.
When you step away from your own kitchen, where are some of your favorite restaurants around Houston?
It depends on the place. I really like Coltivare [Pizza & Garden] a lot. We are getting ready to roll out crawfish season, so I’m really excited about eating crawfish. I go to Crawfish & Noodles a lot. Actually, tomorrow night, we should get off pretty early, so I think I’m going to take the whole staff out to London Sizzler and we are going to do a big Indian dinner. So, it will be fun.