Chris Shepherd is a big fan of the Houston Texans. So much so that the acclaimed chef behind Underbelly used to cook up delicious tailgating food for friends and fellow fans in the parking lot before games. Then, a funny thing happened. Word got out one of the city's best up-and-coming chefs was turning out refined bites within view of the AFC South team's stadium, and, as he tells our editor Richard Martin in this interview, he was approached by the team to turn his tailgating operation into an outpost of Underbelly. Last season, he opened two Underbelly locations inside NRG Stadium, and this year he's updated the menu to include incredible items like the Texans Two Step, a jalapeño cheddar dog topped with Korean braised beef with bacon jalapeño jelly, served with a — wait for it — tater tot casserole. Football food just took a bold leap forward.
Watch the video, then scroll down for more from our interview during Austin Food & Wine, as well as a teaser for Shepherd's spicy appearance this weekend on Mind Of A Chef.
I read the menu for Underbelly online last night and it's very creative!
The menu changes every day.
Because animals only have so many pieces and farmers only grow so much.
From an ownership perspective, is that difficult to keep it profitable?
No, because we’re using everything. If you bring a Swiss chard, you’re pulling stems and you’re doing pickles, or you’re braising stems – you’re finding uses for everything. Skin goes for this, bones go for this, trim goes for salumi or different sausages. If you notice, there’s meatballs on there. We always have some form of ground meat in ball form. Whether it be from goats of lambs or pigs or beef. It’s just a utilization thing. It’s being smart.
People associate New York or LA or San Francisco or Chicago as being the real astute, big food cities. But tell us about Houston.
Houstonians have really come around. Ten years ago, there were a lot of things that you couldn’t do. And now, you’re starting to see it with the influx of other restaurants. Like Pass & Provisions and Oxheart, and Haven, and all these other restaurants that are opening up. And Reef – Reef really did it for seafood. You’re starting to see people learning more about food and learning more about where things are coming from. They always like the hometown person to really do what they’re doing and so it’s all about – if they can trust you, they’ll buy it. And it’s building that level of trust.
Are you getting people coming to Houston from out of town and just coming to try out what’s going on there? Because there’s a lot of exciting restaurants.
They’re coming from all over. On any given night, people will come up and say hey, it was fantastic, I say are you from here – no. I’m from Chicago, I’m from New York, I’m from Atlanta.
So they’re reading about you in the food media and coming specifically to try out Underbelly.
Well they want to try Houston. It’s getting a lot of national press and a lot of people are really starting to come in.
It’s like gastro-tourism.
It is! It’s good to have that. It’s something the city hasn’t seen in a long time.
You can’t really talk about Texas without talking about football. And I understand that you are a tailgating fiend.
I do like to tailgate.
Texas games? So tell us what it’s like to go to a tailgate with Chris Shepherd at a Houston Texans game.
You couldn’t tailgate when the Oilers were there. It wasn’t allowed. So when the new ownership came in and the Texans came, they really wanted that to happen. And it’s one of the most amazing tailgate cities you’ve ever seen. I mean you just pull in and there’s buses and RVs turned in all over the place.
What kind of rig are you cooking on there?
I keep it simple. We change it pretty much every game, to what team is coming in and we kind of focus it from there. But it’s not a big tailgate – 40, maybe 80 people at times. But it’s dedicated food. It’s not just burgers and dogs and ribs and what have you. We try to focus on who’s coming in.
Well that would be disappointing. If I went to a Chris Shepherd tailgate and you tried to serve me a burger I think I’d be kinda pissed.
I would be too, actually. I would be too.
Do you change it up according to who the opponent is?
Yeah, I think the biggest one we did was when Andrew Zimmern was in town. It was like 250 people, there were four bars, two food trucks, 8 TVs, and we played Buffalo that week. And so we smoked a buffalo.
Yeah. I called one of my farmers and said you need to get me a buffalo. And they said yeah, we can do it, so we smoked one.
How was it?
It was good. We injected it with hot sauce and bone marrow. Just to give it a little fat. Because it’s so lean. But it came out amazing.
Are you still there on gameday?
Yeah. My tailgating has kinda slowed down a little bit because I do food in the stadium now. There’s two Underbellies in there.
They actually came out and they were like, who is this guy?
Kinda, that’s how it works. And they were like can you put Underbellies on the club level? I said yeah, I can do that. This year’s gonna change a little bit, but we do three dishes, we did pork belly steam buns and we did a beer-braised bratwurst and goat and dumplings. And it was really cool for me to see this year – somebody sitting four rows up just eating Korean food. That is awesome.
That’s extraordinary! What a proud moment for you to come from out on the parking lot cooking food, to opening a restaurant in the stadium.
Yeah, it’s really fun.
I’ve read a lot about the Vietnamese population in Houston. How does that influence you?
Yeah, it’s huge. I think we have the second or third largest Vietnamese population in the country. And so it’s funny when people come in and say hey, let’s go have Vietnamese – it’s like, well, what do you want? You have to be pretty specific because there’s pho shops, there’s banh mi shops, banh cuon shops, there’s traditional. So it’s not just one or two things, they’re everywhere. And I’m teaching my cooks – I see them bring in a Subway and I’m like, What the hell are you doing? Go eat a banh mi! They say where do I get it – there’s like eight shops in a half mile radius. It’s a learning experience for everybody.
It must be kind of cool to run a kitchen in a city like that because – do you ever take the whole team out and go on an excursion to check out the different markets?
A lot actually. We’re closed Sundays, and that’s generally because of football. But during the off season, once or twice a month. I say where do you guys wanna go. And somebody’ll say I wanna go eat Indian. And then we go eat Indian, and the whole crew goes out together. They really like – right now, it’s Vietnamese crawfish. Vietnamese-style crawfish. They eat a lot of that.
Watch Chris Shepherd take Edward Lee and Paul Qui for Vietnamese-style crawfish in this teaser for episode 2 of this season's Mind Of A Chef, premiering this weekend:
When you walk into these Indian or Vietnamese restaurants, do they recognize you guys from Underbelly? Or do they just think you’re a bunch of weird guys that are coming in?
Sometimes. And sometimes they say oh I don’t get it, they’re a lot of guys and they order a lot of food, drink a lot and – okay, that’s cool. But a lot of times we’ll go to one of our friends’ places that I know pretty well and they just roll out the red carpet for us. They throw food down, start giving us all the stuff on the menu, it’s like here my mom made this, my aunt made this – it’s an experience for them. To take them to any place and have them line up and be able to cook naan on the tandoor and sit there and watch them slap it on the side. It’s an experience for them. It’s something they don’t forget.
We’re here for the Austin Food and Wine Festival, and Austin is a miniscule city compared to Houston. What’s the deal? Why is Houston not getting all the shine that Austin gets?
That’s a good question. I think that’s something for you guys to answer.
You think it’s the New York media’s fault?
No, Austin’s a really cool city. It’s something you can do anything in. It’s got great food trucks, it’s got great restaurants, it’s got a great live music scene, it’s got everything, you know? And it’s compact; it’s easy to get around in. Houston is much more spread out. You fly in and go to a hotel and it’s 30 minutes here, 45 minutes there and it’s a little bit more hidden. But I’m sure Austin has a lot of hidden gems that most people don’t know about too.
Underbelly, 1100 Westheimer Rd., Houston, TX, 77006, 713.528.9800, underbellyhouston.com