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Chef's Corner: Chris Shepherd

Dai
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Chris Shepherd

Next year, James Beard winner Chris Shepherd plans to open One Fifth in the Montrose space formerly occupied by Mark’s American Cuisine. One Fifth will feature a different restaurant concept each year over the course of five years. (Photo: Julie Soefer Photography)

Find out where the experts eat, with our Chef’s Corner column. This month, restaurant writer Dai Huynh interviews chef Chris Shepherd.

On a September evening, James Beard Award winner Chris Shepherd was surrounded by celebrities – many of whom he didn’t recognize – at Jimmy Kimmel’s Emmy after-party.

“I don’t watch TV,” the 44-year-old Underbelly chef said sheepishly. “I did recognize Matt Damon. He sat at my table.” Along with Christian Slater, Jimmy Fallon and others devoured his Korean braised goat dumplings paired with Bulleit Bourbon.

Shepherd may not have stars in his mischievous eyes, but those baby blues twinkle when it comes to talking about travel and food. Since opening Underbelly in 2012, he has amassed a following with his fresh Gulf seafood and whole-animal butchery. Now, he’s scripting a new, ambitious project: One Fifth.

Every year, for the next five years, One Fifth will transform itself into a different dining concept. One Fifth Steak will be the first to debut, in January at the historic Westheimer location that formerly housed Mark’s American Cuisine and, even further back to the late 1920s, St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church.

One Fifth Romance Languages and, then, One Fifth Fish will follow. One Fifth Romance Languages will be Shepherd’s homage to the foods and wines of France, Spain and Italy. Plans for concept No. 4 and 5 are still being finalized and will be announced later. Along for the ride are partners in crime Houston Texans linebacker Whitney Mercilus and Anvil Bar & Refuge and Hay Merchant alumni Kevin Floyd and Steve Flippo.

Meanwhile, Shepherd will keep a sharp eye on his open kitchen at Underbelly and do some  globetrotting. 

Last year, you traveled to Vietnam. You came back with a bagful of ingredients and recipes, including Hanoi’s Cha Ca grouper, a certified vermicelli noodle hit with Houstonians. Where are you heading to next?

I want to go to Spain. I’ve been once, but now, I want to explore the countryside and Barcelona.

I hope you bring back  an amazing seafood paella recipe. Have you come across a version you like?

I actually made paella at home a month ago. Traditional paella pans are great. But you know what I found out? I like making paella in a cast iron pan. It’s something I learned from Ryan Pera (of Coltivare). It turned out just perfect. I got the best crust. That crispy bottom, the socarrat, is everything you want in a paella.

Have you eaten at any interesting, unique places recently? Either in Houston or elsewhere around the country?

The Saltie Girl Seafood Bar in Boston. That was really interesting. It serves tinned foods from Spain – cans of anchovies, squid in spiced ragout, baby eels, octopus, tuna, mackerel in olive oil. It has only 28 seats. It was $19-35 a pop. Those tin cans were not cheap. It was the three of us, and lunch was $300. It was fun.

You’re a big fan of Chinatown and Little India on Hillcroft. Do you still go exploring when you find the time?

No, not so much. But when we go, it’s to the same places over and over. I have people come through Houston, and when they ask for Vietnamese, I take them to Saigon Pagolac (9600 Bellaire) in Dynasty Plaza.

 I order the same things every time, starting with the salted plum drink. It’s like Gatorade ripped off from the Vietnamese. Friends always say the same thing when they try it for the first time, “Hey, this is like Gatorade!” Then we dive into the banh xeo, crispy Vietnamese crepe stuffed with bean sprouts, shrimp and pork. We also get the bo luc lac beef and the whole catfish – roasted with this amazing crispy skin.

When I want Chinese, I go to Harbor Seafood Restaurant Hai Cang (11768 Bellaire) for Cantonese seafood. They make the best shrimp with scrambled eggs. I also get the tamarind crab and the clams with jalapeños.

As for Indian, London Sizzler (6690 Southwest Freeway). I usually  order a few items and then the kitchen brings out the rest, whatever the chef decides. Have you tried their goat biryani? Man, it’s awesome.

What about places near Underbelly?

Mala Sichuan Bistro (1201 Westheimer Road) across the street. It’s easy. As for the best Vietnamese sandwiches, Cali Sandwiches (3030 Travis). She does a great job. Her rice and noodle dishes are good, too.

Any new places worth trying these days?

I like Southern Goods (632 W 19th Street) in the Heights a lot. I’ve been to State of Grace (3258 Westheimer Road) a couple of times. It was good. Coltivare (3320 White Oak Drive) isn’t new. But man, it’s still good. If I want something really fancy, I do dinner at The Pass (807 Taft). But you know where else is great? Cafe Annie (1800 Post Oak Boulevard). I had never been before, and it was so fantastic.

What’s next for you?

I’m writing a book. It’ll take about two years. Meanwhile, I’ll be getting ready for the Super Bowl.

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