Chris Shepherd and Aaron Franklin (holding some of Chris Bianco's magic) at 2019's Southern Smoke festival.

"You’ll want to hurry,” warned Chris Shepherd, regarding the ever-growing line in front of Aaron Franklin’s Franklin Barbecue tent at this year’s Southern Smoke Festival. “He’s only smoking 54 briskets today.”

Only 54. The offhand remark perfectly encapsulated the magnitude and popularity of the annual fundraiser and food festival Shepherd hosts in what is effectively his Montrose backyard. In its fifth year, the charity event benefiting both the Multiple Sclerosis Society and Shepherd’s own Southern Smoke Foundation (which aids hospitality professionals affected by both personal and natural disasters), raised $573,000, of which $100,000 will be donated to the MS Society.

Behind Georgia James, The Hay Merchant, and Blacksmith, the smoked-food festival drew hundreds of attendees, who each shelled out at least $200 for general admission tickets and up to $350 for Lexus VIP tickets. For the price, the guests got to eat dishes from 25 of the best chefs and pitmasters in North America. They brought their A-game, cooking one defining dish each in a veritable who’s-who of barbecue, Southern, Creole and international cuisine.

Attendees included celebrity chef and social media star Matty Matheson, and locals like Jonny Rhodes of Indigo, Manabu “Hori” Horiuchi of Kata Robata, and James Beard winners Hugo Ortega (Hugo's) and Justin Yu (Theodore Rex).

While the wafting aroma of rendering beef and pork fat hovered over the festival, cattle and swine were not the only products on display. Some standout dishes included chef Hori’s bluefin hand rolls topped with uni and caviar, chef Trong Nguyen’s (Crawfish & Noodles) fish sauce chicken wings, and Yu’s Teddy Cakes with whipped butter and caviar.

Matty Matheson's beef shanks, just waiting to be devoured.

Matheson prepared perhaps the most eye-popping and unique dish: smoked beef shank congee. The grit-like breakfast item congee is a staple across Asia, originating in India. Matheson’s variation featured bits of smoked beef shank in a rich and mildly spicy red sauce, a cracked egg, and small topping of fresh greens.

Those who braved the 30-minute-or-so line in front of Franklin’s tent were well rewarded. The godfather of Austin barbecue served full slices of his signature 44 Farms brisket, as well as smoked sausage tacos with pickled red cabbage. 

The Tontons perform; lead singer Asli Omar is pictured.

The evening also featured performances by Houston indie rock and soul band the Tontons, as well as headliner and Texas blues and country star Charley Crockett. There was a candle-making workshop hosted by Manready Mercantile in the Heights, as well as a silent auction inside a cleared-out Georgia James.

This event managed to raise more than last year’s efforts as it continues to grow in both size and notoriety. Its reputation as a must-attend food event seems to be outweighed only by its significance as a fundraiser that goes a long way in raising awareness about the mental and physical health issues facing people in the hospitality industry.

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