Chris Shepherd is one of Houston’s most ambitious chefs. In 2012, he opened Underbelly, which highlights Houston’s diversity with cuisines pulled from its various cultures, and in January, he launched One Fifth, a restaurant that closes each year to reemerge with a totally new concept and cuisine. This year, it was a steakhouse. Soon, the theme will change to “romance languages,” and in its third year, One Fifth will take on seafood.
Shepherd sat down with hosts Helen Rosner and Greg Morabito on this week’s episode of the Upsell for a conversation that touched on everything from cooking across cultures to the benefits of a good pedicure. Here are five things to know about this Houston name to know:
1. He’s passionate about Houston, and believes the rest of the world could learn a thing or two from his home city.
“I think that Houston is a breeding ground for understanding people, and, I think that Houston has done it so well that there’s no lines to cross,” says Shepard, who was inspired to open Underbelly after acting as a culinary ambassador of sorts for Houston’s Convention and Visitors Bureau. At Underbelly, the chef draws from Houston’s immigrant communities, and the food may skew Vietnamese, Indian, Korean, or Mexican at any given time. “I feel like I live in a place without boundaries, and I’m honored to be able to cook that way,” Shepherd adds.
2. He’s really into seafood right now.
The third incarnation of One Fifth will focus on fish, Shepherd says, but this summer he’ll be scaling down the meat offerings at Underbelly, known for its in-house butcher shop’s use of the whole steer. “I believe that when you’ve got an itch, you scratch it,” he said of his eagerness to serve seafood. The chef, an avid carnivore, is particularly enthused about the seafood tower at One Fifth, which is comprised of three vertical tiers: oysters, lobster salad, shrimp cocktail, and uni panna cotta. Houston is, after all, on the coast. “We have so much fish that comes in and out of our waters, it's unreal,” Shepherd says.
3. Shepherd gets regular pedicures — and encourages fellow chefs to do the same.
The chef has been getting monthly pedicures for the past eight years. “My toes are always deep steel blue,” he says. “I’m a huge Texans fan.” And when another chef comes to town to visit, Shepherd takes them along with him, because as he points out, pedicures, for chefs, are practical. “I’m on my feet, 16, 17 hours a day, you gotta take care of that,” he explains.
4. He operates a mini meal kit service for Texans linebacker Whitney Mercilus.
He works with Mercilus’s nutritionist to create vacuum-sealed meals for the athlete that are optimized for peak performance. Shortly after this collaboration began, Mercilus’s teammates — each with their own nutritionist and nutritional needs — also began requesting meals from Underbelly. “I never want to do that again,” Shepherd says of the brief period of time in which he created custom meal plans for multiple football players. Now, he just cooks for Mercilus, who is also a friend and partner in One Fifth.
5. The chef’s worst kitchen injury is distressingly grisly.
Shepherd tells Rosner and Morabito that while breaking down a pig during a wine dinner, he “split [his] artery in half.” He describes the scene: “One clean swipe right into it, quick in and out and it was like a sprinkler system.” The Underbelly general manager called an ambulance, because he didn’t want to get his car bloody, and Shepherd managed to make it to the hospital without ever disturbing dinner service.
Hear the complete interview with Chris Shepherd as he chats with Rosner and Morabito about what he has in store for One Fifth and why it’s a “beautiful time for restaurants” in Houston. Subscribe to the Eater Upsell on iTunes, or listen on Soundcloud. You can also get the entire archive of episodes right here on Eater.