Chris Shepherd is out at Underbelly Hospitality. In the Houston food scene, this is the equivalent of the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI—just with less flashy regalia (although we do think that kitchen aprons are equally as fabulous as cassocks, albeit a smidge less liturgical). In other words, this is big, big news.
“We’ve done a lot in 10 years,” Shepherd said in a statement. “It’s time for me to focus on smaller projects and dedicate more time to Southern Smoke. Underbelly Hospitality is in great hands with MLB Capital Partners and the team we have assembled over the last five years. They have provided tremendous support and have been instrumental in Underbelly Hospitality’s success.
“I’ve put my heart and soul into these restaurants, and I’m so proud of what we’ve accomplished. I want to thank the entire Underbelly family for always being there, showing up and giving it everything, always.”
“Chris is an incredible talent. We are grateful for his immense contributions to both Underbelly and the industry as a whole,” said Todd Mason, managing partner of MLB Capital Partners. “Our talented team will continue to deliver Underbelly’s signature fare with unmatched technique and hospitality. Our focus has been and will continue to be the delivery of thoughtful food and beverage experiences.”
Chris Shepherd’s impact on Houston’s culinary scene cannot be understated. Back in 2012, Shepherd opened Underbelly, a restaurant that was an ode to Houston’s diverse culinary scene that would quickly become Houston’s most famous restaurant, a status that it achieved while also putting the city’s culinary scene on the map. While Underbelly won Shepherd a James Beard Award in 2014, Shepherd surprised everyone—including his partners—in 2018 by shuttering the restaurant.
Shepherd closed Underbelly so that he could expand Underbelly Hospitality, which has gone on to open concepts that include Georgia James, Underbelly Burger, UB Preserve, Blacksmith, the Hay Merchant, One/Fifth, Georgia James Tavern, and Wild Oats. The expansion of Underbelly Hospitality also saw Shepherd hang up his apron in order to take on an executive position with the hospitality group, a move that saw him supervising and mentoring the executive chefs of the various restaurants that are part of the group.
Shepherd has poured much of his heart and soul for the past few years into Southern Smoke, a crisis relief organization that he founded for people in the food and beverage industry. The organization will now become one of Shepherd’s chief focuses.
“Southern Smoke is on a path that myself, Lindsey and the whole team are very proud of, and it’s time to push that even further,” Shepherd said. “We are about to hit $10 million in grants, and we’re expanding the free mental health initiatives into five states within the next few months—we plan to be in all 50 by 2028.”
In spite of that planned expansion, Shepherd isn’t planning on jumping ship to another city. He still very much considers Houston his home.
“Thank you, Houston, for the past, present and future support,” Shepherd said. "This is my home, and I’m not going anywhere. I’m excited to see what the future holds for all of us.”