Recently, Chris Shepherd had what he called "one of the greatest days of my life, legitimately." He got to have lunch at Saigon Pagolac with a few friends—restaurant co-owner Jacklyn Pham; plus Lawrence Allen of the former Asia Market; Ajay, Naresh, and Surekha Patel of London Sizzler, and Cindy Dang of Huynh.
"They had never met each other, ever," said Shepherd in a recent interview at his restaurant Georgia James. "I'm the only common denominator. So just being able to have an hour and a half, sharing stories, and me just sitting back and hearing conversations about how their businesses have changed and what's happened over the past eight years with them was awesome."
There was a reason for this lunch date—it was for a promotional video ahead of Shepherd's first book, Cook Like a Local: Flavors That Can Change How You Cook and See the World, which comes out Tuesday.
Yes, this was a planned shoot scheduled by trained professionals. But the scene captures what Shepherd is all about, and what makes this first book a triumph for Houston's most famous chef.
"The table is the starting place," he said. "When you can sit down over food and have conversations, you start to learn how people do things, their way of life. Maybe you take away a little bit of their life and give a little bit of yours."
Cook Like a Local, which was written by Shepherd and Kaitlyn Goalen of Short Stack Editions, reads like a 290-page summary of Shepherd's career to this point. Published by Clarkson Potter and with photos by Houston photographer Julie Soefer, it's a deep dive into the mind of Houston's culinary anthropologist, a chef who's made his name by giving greater exposure to flavors found across the diverse city.
The book is segmented not by course but by ingredient—for example, there's a chapter on soy, a chapter on fish sauce—and throughout, Shepherd showcases the folks along the way who influenced his cooking. Highlights include stories about the Patels of London Sizzler and a remembrance of late Houston foodie and Catalan host Liz Fenton. (You may also notice that the only white person pictured in the book is Shepherd.)
The process started about four years ago, when Shepherd enlisted David Black Agency to represent him as he began writing a book. He quickly assembled his team, then wrote and tested recipes while shooting photos at Soefer's studio. Six months from deadline, he called Goalen with some news.
"I said, 'Look, I'm closing Underbelly,' and she said 'Doo-what?!'"
They pushed back the release until Shepherd got Georgia James off the ground. It's good timing, with the chef now running four restaurants (including UB Preserv, One Fifth, and The Hay Merchant) along with a catering business and various other projects.
The book touches on seemingly all of it. Recipes—including plenty of his greatest hits, like Korean braised goat dumplings and lamburger helper; down-home favorites like Vietnamese-style crawfish and plain' old nachos; and unexpected twists like mapo tofu and fried chicken tamales—derive from Shepherd's adventures meeting Houston cooks and learning about ingredients. He spends time defining rice classifications and absorption methods, for one. This is helpful, not just for the home cook wanting to understand just what certain kinds of rice work better for certain recipes, but also for the person wanting to expand their pantry and skillset.
Heck, it's even helpful for established chefs. Shepherd talked about cooking with James Beard finalists Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman at Memphis Italian-style restaurant Hog & Hominy, and needing rice noodles, something the chefs didn't really know.
"They said 'Well, there's one market,'" Shepherd said. "We head over and they were like 'What is this?! We can spend weeks in here! We see this, but we don't know what to do with this?"
Shepherd slammed his hand on his book. "Here, just give them this."
By featuring the chefs who've influenced Shepherd, and by taking on a more casually educational tone, the book manages to celebrate rather than whitewash. That was key for Shepherd, who even addresses his place as a white chef in an international city exposing diners (who may pay a pretty penny for his food) to—among others—Vietnamese, Korean, Thai, and Indian cuisine.
"That's the way this philosophy has always been," said Shepherd. "Learning from somebody else, but then telling their story as well, and getting people to go visit them."
Underbelly Hospitality is throwing a book release party Sept. 3 at the Hay Merchant and Georgia James. While tickets are sold out for that event, you can snag a copy of the book here, and through other retailers.