#LuckyriceHouston: Underbelly’s Chef Chris Shepard on Hurricane Harvey

Photo by Catchlight Photography
LUCKYRICE: Can you tell us a little more about Underbelly’s conception as a Creole restaurant? It’s influenced by the burgeoning amount of diversity found in Houston but if you could share with us a bit more about you got into cooking and you see culture and cuisine to be reflective of one another. 
Chef Chris: I opened Underbelly because I was inspired by the diversity of the people who live in Houston. I’m a cook who always wants to understand the story behind a dish—getting a true sense of breaking bread with people. At its roots, Creole cuisine is simply the merging of diverse cultures with local ingredients. And that’s what happens at Underbelly. As I always say, I want to be the gateway to the rest of the food in Houston. If people love a dish or a flavor at Underbelly, I always encourage people to go to the source of his inspiration. I list restaurants, farmers, people and places on his check presenter at Underbelly and I ask my guests to visit at least one of the places on the list before returning to Underbelly.
How was your restaurant affected by Hurricane Harvey and how were you personally affected by Hurricane Harvey?
Underbelly is located in Montrose, which luckily didn’t get long-term flooding. The restaurant itself had minor damage and leaks and remained closed for five days. Me and my business partner, Kevin, opened craft beer bar Hay Merchant using a hybrid menu of both Underbelly and Hay Merchant dishes and ran on a skeleton staff from all three restaurants (Underbelly, Hay Merchant and One Fifth). Several staff members lost a lot, as did a lot of people in the industry, which is why I shifted the beneficiary of my fundraiser/foundation Southern Smoke from the National MS Society to Hurricane Harvey relief.
For the past 2 years you’ve gathered your team to raise money for those with MS through the Southern Smoke Foundation. This year, you’ll instead be switching gears to support those in the restaurant industry. Can you talk more about making that decision?
People in the food and beverage community are always early to respond in any disaster, which is why Southern Smoke focuses on giving back to that community. We’ve seen an outpouring of support from around the country—friends and people we’ve never met are holding benefits and writing checks to Southern Smoke. From Husk in Charleston to Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore to chefs and the wine community in Houston. Thanks to the incredible community, Southern Smoke will be able to make a large impact this year and help get people back on their feet.
It always seems to take things like natural disasters or deaths to make people value community etc. what do you want the rest of the country to know about your experience or for us to realize?
Houstonians have big hearts. They always have.
The Team at Southern Smoke last year
Why is Underbelly such a special place to work?
It’s a true family. Here’s a photo of the entire team at last year’s Southern Smoke, when we raised $281,000 for the MS Society. It was a team effort, and everyone was so proud to be a part of the event, as they’re so proud to come to work every day. It’s a hashtag we use a lot on social media, but it’s real. #UBFamily