Bear Hugs and a Big Heart

By Layne Lynch / Photography By Jenn Duncan & Julie Soefer | January 06, 2018
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Chris Shepherd in the kitchen

Chris Shepherd Nourishes Our Community in Many Ways

Chris Shepherd is a man in demand. With a full-time job of running two renowned Montrose restaurants—Underbelly and One Fifth Houston—it’s hard to imagine the James Beard Award– winning chef has time for anything else. But when it comes to supporting his community and those he deems “family,” Shepherd has made a second career of lending a helping hand. When he isn’t commanding the ins and outs of his ever-evolving kitchens, the chef invests his hours in supporting those who need it most. This includes planning an annual National MS Society benefit, giving his time to benefit a fellow chef’s charity and finding a way to keep his farmers in business when difficult circumstances arise.

And while Shepherd’s good works undoubtedly add to the fine reputation he has earned in the kitchen, the chef insists it’s a responsibility that comes with the territory of success and influence—helping those who have helped you. “I have a responsibility to take care of [others] because these are the individuals that take care of me, whether that be our staff, our friends, our farmers, our community,” Shepherd says. “When you have been as blessed as I have, you owe it to those around you to share in those blessings.”

In fact, when Antonio Gianola, manager of Houston Wine Merchant, confided in Shepherd years ago that he had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), Shepherd didn’t just offer his trademark bear hugs and words of condolences, he presented Gianola with an opportunity to make a difference in a bold, effective way in the MS community.

Shepherd founded Southern Smoke—a meat-centric event that showcases some of the nation’s most talented chefs and their cuisines—all in honor of his former colleague and long-time friend, Gianola. To date, the event has raised over $500,000 for the National MS Society, and Gianola says he wouldn’t have expected anything less from someone like Shepherd.

Photo 1: Chef Shepherd in the kitchen of London Sizzler
Photo 2: Satsumas fresh from the farm

“The night before I got the actual diagnosis, a chef in the community committed suicide because he had MS,” Gianola says. “I often think that if he and others knew that they weren’t alone and that there is a supportive community out there for them, it would make all the difference in the world. People like Chris create a voice for those who feel alone.”

That is why instead of donating the funds from this year’s Southern Smoke to the National MS Society, Shepherd and his team have decided to redirect the funds to support those in the food and beverage community who have been affected by the devastation of Hurricane Harvey. Gianola says he immediately gave his blessing when Shepherd asked if he could focus on hurricane relief this year—a cause that Gianola says he suspected Shepherd would be immersed in after witnessing the tragic effects of the storm.

Shepherd says the funds raised from 2017’s Southern Smoke will be directed to the Legacy Community Health Foundation, which will in turn donate the funds to those who have a verified need. From now until October 23, 2017, individuals who work in or operate a culinary or beverage business can apply for grants at southernsmoke.org. After the deadline, the Legacy Community Foundation will review all the applications and use their verification and awards committees to determine what individuals need and will receive the raised grants.

“We started getting a lot of outreach from chefs around the country who asked how they could help, and we knew immediately the funds needed to go to food and beverage employees, whether they be cooks or dishwashers or servers or farmers or delivery drivers—anybody in our food chain that has been affected by this storm,” Shepherd says.

“We wanted to make sure that we could take care of them because I can’t give them a ton of money personally, but I sure can help them raise it. Some people didn’t lose anything, but there are a lot of people that lost everything.”

Making a difference in his community is something Shepherd invests himself in tirelessly around the clock, and while he doesn’t discredit those who prefer to write a check and move on with their lives, he says that emotionally investing himself in the causes around him are where he sees instrumental change take hold.

“I can’t tell you how many requests our restaurants get per week to donate to something,” Shepherd says. “And I’m not saying we don’t want to help, but I want to fully understand who we are helping and that isn’t something you do blindly.”

Fresh produce from Knopp Branch Farm arrives at Underbelly.

In fact, every year Shepherd donates a catered dinner for 10 as an auction item for an organization called A Sheltered Life, which raises funds to build orphanages for children around the world, including Colombia, Honduras, Malawi and more. To date, Shepherd’s auction item is the largest drawer of funds to the organization’s yearly fundraiser—at one point drawing in $15,000.

Mike Morrison, one of the four founders of A Sheltered Life, laid the roots for the organization after he took a mission trip to Colombia and witnessed the severe poverty yet sincere gratitude the citizens expressed towards outside aid. Morrison said he met Shepherd over 10 years ago while he was working at Brennan’s and could immediately sense Shepherd wasn’t like anyone else in his efforts to help.

“Chris is passionate about grassroots change and forming personal relationships with those who are trying to better the world around them. We all have the ability to give money, but time and emotion are the hardest things to give,” Morrison says. “Chris gives those freely and I’ve always thought Underbelly was such a testament to Chris’s character. He really is the underbelly of Houston.”

Shepherd says that when Morrison approached him about donating his time to A Sheltered Life he felt a pull to contribute to the cause because of Morrison’s sincere passion for making instrumental change in the world. “For Mike’s charity, raising something like $15,000 for a dinner makes a big difference and that’s why I want to be a part of that,” Shepherd says. “Mike is working to build homes for children, and when he starts talking about [A Sheltered Life] he starts tearing up and you can see how much it means to him. If it’s that emotional to him it’s going to be that emotional for me, too.”

In working with farmers throughout his career, Shepherd has grown particularly close to many of them, including Donna and Ernest Roth, whom Shepherd calls “family.” From the genesis of Urban Harvest Eastside Farmers Market, the Roths, owners of Knopp Branch Farm, have witnessed Shepherd’s evolution, starting as an eager, adventurous chef and evolving into an influential community leader.

“This business can be fickle. One week you might be selling all of your produce at market and then the next week you aren’t selling at all because it rains outside and no one wants to go to market,” Ernest Roth says. “Chris became a safety valve for us because he got to the point of saying, ‘Whatever you don’t sell, bring it to me and I’ll buy it.’ For a farmer who relies on retail sales, that security means everything. I know without Chris, we would have shut down by now.”

Southern Smoke sign, Photo courtesy of Catchlight Photography

“This business can be fickle. One week you might be selling all of your produce at market and then the next week you aren’t selling at all because it rains outside and no one wants to go to market,” Ernest Roth says. “Chris became a safety valve for us because he got to the point of saying, ‘Whatever you don’t sell, bring it to me and I’ll buy it.’ For a farmer who relies on retail sales, that security means everything. I know without Chris, we would have shut down by now.”

And while Shepherd says he believes it’s a responsibility to give back because of his own success, Donna Roth believes it’s in Shepherd’s DNA to be force of change in his community.

“He’s a rare bird. A lot of chefs carry an ego when they get to where Chris is now and they lose sight of their community and become just another chef stereotype,” she says. “Chris embodies integrity and charity in every sense of the word. Whatever level of celebrity he reaches, he ensures that he supports and credits those who helped make it possible for him.”

Article from Edible Houston at http://ediblehouston.ediblecommunities.com/eat/bear-hugs-and-big-heart
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