Let’s get one thing straight: Chef Chris Shepherd doesn’t sleep. How else can we explain the vast sea of his accomplishments, which range from a 2014 James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southwest to a themed restaurant concept that closes each year, only to unveil an entirely new menu and look one month later?
Ask him directly about his seemingly boundless energy, and the most you’ll get is a modest grin—though he does admit to being a “big fan of change.” The simple truth behind his brio is this: Chris Shepherd loves to cook.
I always figured—and I still believe—that if you love what you do, you don’t really work.
-Chef Chris Shepherd
“I cooked as a kid growing up. I cooked with my family. And it’s something that I’ve always truly loved to do,” he explains. As is the case for most, what he loved to do as a child didn’t immediately translate into a career; throughout college, Shepherd found himself searching for the right professional fit to no avail. Many of his friends found their way to business school, but Shepherd made a bolder move.
“I just followed my heart,” he says simply. “I want to cook for a living. That’s what makes me happy. I always figured—and I still believe—that if you love what you do, you don’t really work.”
If you’ve visited Shepherd’s restaurants, that love shines through—everything from the menus to the meals resonates with personality, craft, and a love for the local community. His dedication to community began to flourish about a decade ago with an innovative program through the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau led by Lindsey Brown.
“Houston’s core group of restaurants all came up together,” he explains. “[Lindsey] believed in what we were doing. She got all of us together to do culinary tours to highlight our city—to show people where chefs went, what we did.”
“I realized that it’s not just our restaurants that are making our city special,” says Brown. “It’s the diversity—it’s the fact that there are all of these places that are inspiring our cooking. Visitors were always inspired by these places we visited that general Houstonians didn’t know about.”
The relationship Houston chefs built through collaboration has developed into a lasting community.
“We all support each other,” Shepherd says. “And that’s what’s unique about this city. Yeah, we kind of fight for business, but we all believe in each other.”
It’s not just our restaurants that are making our city special. It’s the diversity.
-Lindsey Brown, Lindsey Brown PR
Shepherd’s love of local extends beyond his support for fellow chefs—it’s there on his menus, too. Shepherd was one of the first chefs in Houston to throw his support behind the farm-to-table movement.
“It’s all about sourcing in life,” he explains. “When I started cooking, there wasn’t the farming aspect. When I saw the produce coming in from big companies, I thought, ‘There have to be farms out here. We just need to look for them.’” So he grabbed his friend Randy Evans, a celebrated chef in his own right, and hit the road.
“Randy and I would just get in the truck and drive around the countryside, talking to farmers. We turned their hothouses into viable businesses. I can buy a tomato from anywhere. But I want your uglies. I want the ones that come from around here and are grown, not put under gas. You get textures and flavors that don’t happen to tomatoes you buy at the store.”
For all the love Shepherd shows Houston, the city has loved him right back.
“Houston has meant everything to me,” he says. “It’s been very giving and accepting. People want to see change and what’s next.”
Houston’s hunger for change is the perfect incubator for a tireless creator like Chris Shepherd. In 2018 alone, he’s debuting a steakhouse called Georgia James and evolving two of his other concepts, all while operating popular hangout Hay Merchant, where he serves elevated bar food alongside a world-class selection of craft beers.
Houston has meant everything to me. It’s been very giving and accepting. People want to see change and what’s next.
-Chef Chris Shepherd
So where, exactly, can you treat yourself to Shepherd’s cooking? See if you can keep up.
Shepherd’s popular Montrose spot One Fifth Romance Languages is open for dinner seven nights a week. It’s dedicated to Italian, Spanish, and French cuisine—but not for long. Shepherd debuts a new concept in the same space every year. Come August, Romance Languages will close for a month and reopen—with a brand new menu. “We’re going into Mediterranean next, because I like the cultures and the food,” Shepherd says. “And we have the same product lines here in Texas. We have the same growing seasons.”
Underbelly, site of his 2014 James Beard Award win, is moving down the street and rebranding as UB Preserv. “It’s my interpretation of how Houston is evolving,” Shepherd says of the transformation. “It’s becoming more global, with flavors and spices and products from around the world.”
Underbelly closed to make way for Georgia James, which will debut towards the end of the year. Meanwhile, Hay Merchant, which shares a building with Georgia James, will remain open and fold a few Underbelly favorites into its new menu. There may be more news on the horizon. With Shepherd, you never know.
By now, it should be clear: Shepherd’s restaurants are essential Houston dining. He’s the city’s busiest chef and its most tireless supporter—if you want to taste what Houston has to offer, this is where you start.
Featured image by Julie Soefer Photography.