Houston Chef and Restaurateur Chris Shepherd Talks About His Favorite Festival Hot Luck
Of All the Luck
It’s a given that chefs — especially ones who helm their own hospitality groups — are busy. Exhibit A: Chris Shepherd, of Houston’s Underbelly Hospitality (Georgia James, One/Fifth, UB Preserv, The Hay Merchant and the Southern Smoke Foundation).
The James Beard Award-winning chef and philanthropist is a frequent participant at festivals and charity events nationwide, in addition to acting as Houston’s unofficial ambassador. Shepherd — who was born in Nebraska and raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma — became enamored with his adopted state shortly after arriving in Houston in 1995 to work at the legendary Brennan’s restaurant.
“Seeing how ethnically diverse the city was, and how much product there was for a young cook to experiment with — it was an overwhelming sensory explosion for me. When I visited San Antonio, Austin, El Paso and Dallas for the first time, I had the same reaction. I love how each part of the state is completely different in terms of culture and food,” he says.
Shepherd rose to fame with the opening of his first solo venture, Underbelly, in 2012, which aimed to support the local foodshed and draw inspiration from Houston’s vibrant multicultural population.
The chef closed Underbelly in early 2018 to focus on other projects, but Shepherd has expanded his mission to educate diners about Houston’s ethnic enclaves through his other restaurants. He launched the Southern Smoke Foundation in 2015, after learning that his former sommelier Antonio Gianola had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis; the organization donated more than $1.3 million to various charities, including the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and restaurant industry employees in crisis.
Southern Smoke is also where Shepherd developed a close bond with Aaron Franklin, which led to his involvement with Hot Luck. Franklin co-founded the four-day celebration of food and live music with Mohawk owner James Moody and Mike Thelin, of Feast Portland, in 2017.
Says Shepherd, “Aaron really helped out when we started the charity, and he’s always been there for us. When he asked me to participate in the first Hot Luck, he said, ‘Man, I don’t want you to have to work hard. My response was, ‘No! I want to cook — I’ll work for you every day!’ Hot Luck is such an incredible event, and Aaron is such an open, friendly and amazing human being.” The feeling is mutual. Says Franklin, “Chris is rad. He’s the best guy around.”
In its relatively short history – Hot Luck turns three this year – the festival has gained a devoted and widespread following. Last year, tickets for the Whole Enchilada package sold out far in advance. It holds its own on the music front, but it was also co-developed by someone who cooks for a living. “It’s such a like-minded event,” says Shepherd. We all help each other and then hang out at night. We all really like each other. As a ticketholder, you can get close to the chefs and cooks. Unlike other festivals where they’re put on a pedestal, you can speak to people and spend quality time with them.”
That down-to-earth vibe is no accident. Hot Luck was conceived as a celebration of everyday events — potlucks, tailgates, backyard barbecues — and the nostalgia inspired by even seemingly commonplace foods (last year featured a themed event around mall food courts). The caliber of the talent, which includes renowned domestic and international chefs, only serves to elevate the concept. You might find yourself eating a cheeseburger, but you’d better believe it will be about the best damn patty you’ve ever had, like the one served at last year’s Coupe de Grille brunch, courtesy of Nashville’s Butcher & Bee.
While Hot Luck at its core champions Southern food and hospitality, chefs aren’t beholden to that theme. Even Shepherd — an advocate for all things Texas and the owner of phenomenally successful steakhouse Georgia James — notes, “I’m not gonna make brisket. We’re going to put our flavor on whatever we do this year. In 2017, we did Chinese food at Al Fuego — char siu beef cheek noodle bowls. Last year, it was siu mai. We’re definitely going to use the experience as a way to teach people about other cultures and inclusivity.”
That, in essence, is the heart of Hot Luck. Says Franklin, “We invite chefs because they’re good people and good at what they do, and we want our guests to feel the same way. It’s super-relaxed; we’re not trying to be something that we’re not. We’re scrappy.”
What’s in store this year
From May 23 – 26 in addition to hosting celebrated local chefs Fermín Núñez (Suerte), Yoshi Okai (Otoko), Kevin Fink (Emmer & Rye), Michael Fojtasek (Olamaie), Jesse Griffiths (Dai Due), Laura Sawicki (Launderette), Sarah McIntosh (Épicerie), Tyson Cole (Uchi), Zach Hunter (The Brewer’s Table) and Franklin himself, this year’s lineup features Justin Yu (Theodore Rex, Houston), Rebecca Masson (Fluff Bake Bar, Houston), Rico Torres and Diego Galicia (Mixtli, San Antonio), Steve McHugh (Cured, San Antonio), Abraham Conlon (Fat Rice, Chicago), Alon Shaya (Saba, New Orleans), Gabriel Rucker (Le Pigeon, Portland, Oregon), Greg and Gabi Denton (Ox, Portland, Oregon), Sara Kramer and Sarah Hymanson (Kismet, Los Angeles) and chef-television personality Matty Matheson.
Sign up for the All-in Whole Enchilada package ($550; includes access to all food and music events) and get exclusive access to Thursday night’s The Giddy Up welcome bash at the Mohawk, featuring a special collaboration between Matheson and Franklin.
Single-purchase tickets (prices range from $125-$215) are available for Friday’s Hi, How Are You? block party at Franklin Barbecue, Saturday’s Al Fuego live-fire event at Wild Onion Ranch and Coupe de Grille, an over-the-top Sunday brunch at Austin Speed Shop. Live music from Lucero, Leftover Salmon, Archers of Loaf, The Suffers, PJ Morton, Sunflower Bean, Robert Ellis, Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band, Naughty Professor, New Breed Brass Band, Harlem, El Tule and more will be held at venues in and around East Austin (prices range from $10-$32, tickets sold separately). A portion of all Hot Luck proceeds goes to The SAFE Alliance, which helps survivors of child abuse, sexual assault and domestic violence.