Chris Shepherd’s First Cookbook Brings the Unique Wonder of Houston Food Home

This Top Chef Wants to Share the Love With the World

BY // 04.28.19
photography Julie Soefer

Chris Shepherd may be an Oklahoma native, but he’s a Houston chef in every sense. Perhaps more than any other prolific chef in Space City, Shepherd keenly knows what it means to ingrain yourself in the city’s culture — or, should we say, cultures.

From the erstwhile, eclectic Underbelly to its thriving progeny UB Preserv, there’s evidence of Shepherd’s prodigious ethnic pantry-diving all over.

And soon, you can find it all in one place. Shepherd’s debut cookbook, a true locovore love letter, is coming out just after Labor Day.

You can pre-order Cook Like a Local now to receive it on its September 3rd release date. The book is  a collaboration between Shepherd, author/cook Kaitlyn Goalen and longtime Underbelly Hospitality photographer Julie Soefer.

The 100-plus-page written distillation of Shepherd’s philosophy is chock-a-block full of recipes, broken into six chapters of Houston’s ethnic cuisine staples. It charts Shepherd’s culinary course from Tulsa to Brennan’s and beyond, and gives insights into some of the city’s top chefs, from Sue Patel of London Sizzler to Cori Xiong and Heng Chen of Mala Sichuan.

It’s a compelling mix, a guide to the history with a focus on a half-dozen central ingredients — fish sauce, chiles, soy, rice, spices, corn — and personal anecdotes.

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Korean braised goat and dumplings, japchae, Japanese curry and scrambled eggs and rice, yaka mein, green papaya salad, even nachos — all the dishes are there.

And each is carefully presented, meant to be low-maintenance and simple.

“It is a cookbook, but it’s a learning thing. I think a lot of times when you read through a cookbook, you don’t really read the text. You just look at the pictures. But this is definitely one of those books you want to get in and read,” Shepherd tells PaperCity.

He sits in one of Georgia James’ private dining rooms on a sunny Thursday afternoon. The steakhouse, fresh off a glowing review from GQ magazine, has not opened for the night yet.

Out in the main area, it’s all kitchen prep, and it’s a boisterous boardroom for Southern Smoke fall festival planning.

Chat of the book is absorbing, and it’s easy to forget that during the four — yes, four — years Shepherd’s spent working on it, he’s also been running the rave-worthy steakhouse, UB Preserv and One Fifth empire.

Not to mention spending days at a time working elbow-to-elbow with the chefs of Houston’s premier, authentic Vietnamese, Japanese and Thai restaurants to fully absorb the process and ethos.

“The book is really telling you about life and understanding what the recipes are about. It really tells the story of who we are, through food. I just hope people can learn from it,” Shepherd says.

Not just who Shepherd is — who every community in Houston is. “Learn from the hands that showed us the world,” he says.

And Shepherd has this intimate access to all of these diverse culinary backgrounds thanks to his insatiable curiosity, respect and admiration of them.

He’s a steadfast advocate who never appropriates, always giving credit where credit is due and encouraging diners at his restaurants to try Crawfish & Noodles, Kong Ju Rice Bakery, Huynh and Saigon Pagolac for themselves.

UB Preserv even gives diners other Houston restaurant recommendations when presenting the check. “We want to be the gateway drug,” Shepherd says.

“I will go into a restaurant and order way more than I’m supposed to over and over again,” Shepherd says. “And eventually someone comes over and are like ‘Damn, what do you do?’ Then they sit down. And all of a sudden, you make a friend. And all of a sudden, they become part of your family and you become part of their family as well.

“In the book, I teach people what I’ve learned from them, but I also show them. It has these people and these places, they’re in there.”

Shepherd believes this kind of exploration comes second-nature to Houstonians in a way it doesn’t to denizens of other cities.

“Houstonians know this,” he says. “We live this everyday. We understand that when we talk about eating local, it’s not just about the product. It’s about people, it’s about understanding what’s around you and learning from them as well. That’s kind of what we’ve based our lives on here.

“Will people in Madison, Wisconsin, feel that? Minneapolis? San Francisco? Whatever city it might be?”

Houston Proud and a World View

Chris Shepherd was careful, conscientious to make sure this was a book that shares Houston’s values, but isn’t wholly Houston-centric, that it’ll have wide-ranging appeal.

The very title of the book was guided gingerly by that concern. For a time, there was thought of including the word Underbelly in it, or maybe using it in the subhead.

“But we didn’t. We didn’t want it to be a restaurant book. We don’t want this to be a Houston book,” Shepherd says.

So he didn’t title the book based on his first instinct, but those words made their way to the tippy-top of the very first page: “Houston tastes like fish sauce.”

cook like a local chris shepherd cookbook japchae (Photo by Julie Soefer)
You’ll find all the Underbelly favorites. (Photo by Julie Soefer)

Shepherd recognizes that embracing these cuisines may not be an easy thing for the novice. It’s typical to be tentative and timid when dipping your toe in. But he recommends eschewing the wading in and doing a deep dive, maybe a cannonball while you’re at it.

“Will it be a little awkward and uncomfortable at first? Yeah. But don’t be afraid to go in and try it. Support it,” Shepherd says. He’s willing to admit it’s been a journey for him, too, starting out with that very fish sauce.

“There’s a very strong conversation about how I did not like fish sauce. I hated it. I thought it was disgusting. But one time, it just clicked,” Shepherd says, snapping his fingers.

“I ate something that it was on and I was like, ‘What is this?’ ‘Fish sauce.’ I was like, ‘That stuff that smells like shit? Hell, I don’t want that.’ But it was so delicious.

“Fish sauce is the easiest underlier. It adds umami to everything — you don’t even know it’s there half the time. It isn’t prevalent. Citrus, chiles, herbs bring so much more over fish sauce. Fish sauce just gives it that life underneath.”

Shepherd learned a lot about himself through writing this book, he says — from the reflective and contemplative to the more literal.

“I learned that sitting back and doing a tasting of soy sauce and backing that up with a tasting of fish sauce is not a good idea,” he laughs. “You feel sodium rip through your veins.”

As much as Shepherd learned, he taught. The book features an anecdote about Shepherd asking Manabu “Hori” Horiuchi of Kata Robata to do something unthinkable to his treasured sushi rice.

“There was this series of dinners at Kata, and Underbelly was their big one. I had double-booked myself, if you will, and I had to be in Austin for a hot sauce-tasting competition. I was already coming back and they said ‘Hey, can you do this thing? It’ll take 30 minutes.’ Bullshit. It was three-and-a-half hours tasting hot sauce, wrecking my palate,” Shepherd says.

“And so I was late, and my crew was over at Kata. We were still working through this one dish, this foie gras rice thing, and the crew told me ‘Hori wants to know what you want to do with this rice.’ And I was like ‘pack it into a mold, and then burn it.’

And they were like, ‘You want me to tell him what? The man that spends so much time making this beautiful sushi rice. You’re going to ask me to ask him to burn it?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, let’s do that.’ And now it’s on the menu — charred sushi rice with eggplant.

“It made sense. We both learned something from each other.”

Now, you have a chance to learn from Chris Shepherd with his new book.

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