When Chris Shepherd decided to attend culinary school at age 21, he admits it was mostly because he “didn’t want to be in an office or punching numbers.” But his choice of school—Art Institute of Houston—turned out to be fortuitous. He acquired the technique necessary to become a chef, of course, but he got his real schooling from the city itself, which opened his eyes to new cuisines that he’d never experienced back home in Tulsa, OK.
Now, as executive chef and owner of Underbelly, a restaurant in Houston’s funky Montrose neighborhood with barn-like ceilings, chalkboard art, and a back-of-the-house butcher shop, Shepherd cooks food that pays homage to his adopted home—to the vibrant Vietnamese, Hispanic, and Korean communities; to unusual Gulf bycatch; and to the pounds of fresh produce he hauls back from local farmers’ markets.
“I knew I was going to put out the food I wanted to, and hopefully people would like it and understand the vision that something plated nicely goes together so well with something more home-style,” says Shepherd. “But Underbelly has been more than I thought it was going to be. Giving me the place to play with knives, food, and fire—all the things you were told not to do growing up—keeps me young.”
Prior to opening Underbelly in 2012, the James Beard Award-nominated chef was longtime chef and managing partner at Catalan Food and Wine, where he applied his staunch locavorism to a playful interpretation of Spanish street food. He then moved on to the esteemed Brennan’s, where he joined his former classmate Randy Evans—now executive chef and co-owner of Haven—as a line cook, and stayed for nine years, working his way up to executive sous chef and sommelier.
Shepherd’s culinary repertoire is vast, but don’t expect the chef to recycle any of his signature dishes at Underbelly. “I won’t do anything I’ve done at an old restaurant. New place, new theory, new mindset,” he says.
Instead, his ever-changing menu takes cues from both childhood memories (“like a meatball stuffed with cheese as a tribute to my grandmother who made them the size of my head”) and Houston’s robust ethnic enclaves, which inspire dishes such as braised goat with Korean-style rice stick dumplings, fermented red-chile paste, and beer. “Every table gets it, if not two,” he says. “It was something I made at home. We wanted to have 20 items, I only had 19, and I said let’s put it on the menu and we’ll take it off after a week. But that was the dish people locked onto. It’s spicy, texturally pleasing, and culturally correct.”
It’s even a new favorite at Reliant Stadium, where the football-loving chef (who looks like he could have played D1) has two concession stands. “Now there’s basic Korean street food in an NFL stadium,” he laughs.
Shepherd’s cooking reflects a deep love for the diverse foodways of his adopted home. Here, he shares the 10 dishes that have informed his prismatic cooking style and helped make Underbelly one of the country’s most exciting new restaurants.