It’s hard to figure out where Texas cooking is headed right now. There are a lot of different trends going on and they have little to do with each other. In fact, sometimes it seems like the chefs in Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Austin arrived here from different planets. In this series, I’ll check out food from some hot Texas chefs and look for clues about the big picture.
Chris Shepherd’s menu at Underbelly is a cultural mash-up: there’s Germanic “Pork Schnitzel and Caraway Braised Red Cabbage,” Southern “Gulf Shrimp and Pimento Grits” a Nawlins via Tokyo “Waygu Beef Debris Po’ Boy,” East Texas “Biscuits and Gravy” served in a black cast iron skillet, and spicy “Korean Braised Goat and Dumplings,” to name a few. Toppings include Creme Fraiche, Buttermilk Dressing, Aioli and Japanese Kewpie Mayo. The top of the menu at Underbelly reads in part: “We hope you will enjoy Chris Shepherd’s refined take on Houston’s New American Creole Cuisine.”
So what exactly is this New Creole Cuisine?
In an article titled “Savoring Mutt City,” in the latest issue of the Oxford American, food columnist John T. Edge, wrote about a recent visit, “…the conversation shifted to the past decade, when this mutt of a port city, which is arguably the most ethnically diverse municipality in the U.S., began to emerge as the South’s twenty-first century Creole capitol, where Vietnamese pho is as beloved as Cajun gumbo and tandoor-cooked naan smeared with chutney rivals skillet-cooked corn bread smeared with butter.
Food wonks have recently fallen hard for the antebellum revivalist cooking of Charleston—home base of impish chef Sean Brock, recently profiled lovingly in Vogue (Jeffrey Steingarten) and The New Yorker (Burkhard Bilger). But the new immigrant + city-proud chef algebra that makes Houston the most vital place to eat in the South right now hasn’t garnered much magic-hour photography and breathless glossy magazine prose (until now)…
A chef in love with his city—that’s who curates those tastes and tips his toque with such aplomb. At Underbelly, Shepherd cooks with heart. And he cooks for Houston. In the process, he’s forging a restaurant that reflects the city’s status as the new Creole capitol.”
Fusion is throwing foreign ingredients together. Creolization is cultural blending. Korean bulgogi on Mexican tortillas and Vietnamese sandwiches on French baguettes are familiar examples. Louisiana gumbo is the most famous creole dish of the last century; the combination of African okra, French roux, and native American sassafras (filé powder) is a unique expression of the place it comes from. Now that Houston has replaced New Orleans as the immigration center of the Gulf Coast, a new cultural blend is emerging.
If you’re wondering about the many influences that come together on Underbelly’s menu, check out the photo collage of Shepherd’s favorite mom and pop ethnic restaurants on the wall near the entrance to the dining room. There’s also a long list of restaurants and markets listed on the holder that comes with the check. “Before you come back to Underbelly, please visit one of these places,” the check holder suggests.
Nose-to-tail butchering, local farm sourcing, utilizing Gulf bycatch, reviving heritage recipes, and pickling and preserving are among the modern trends that Shepherd passionately embraces. Shepherd and his staff cure their own salumi and there is a window in the restaurant where you can look into the aging room to see what’s hanging. But Shepherd doesn’t take the whole meat curing thing too seriously either. Recently the Underbelly menu featured a “Grocery Store Charcuterie Plate” with olive loaf and fried bologna.
Shepherd has no use whatsoever for the fine dining trend that favors tasting menus with small portions, tweezer art presentations, and timid spicing. Shepherd is a big hungry boy who loves to feed people almost as much as he loves to eat. And he likes it spicy; there’s Korean chile paste in the goat, peppery Vietnamese dipping sauce in the chicken salad and jalapeño in the salad dressing.
If you don’t love big servings of full-flavored foods, go eat somewhere else. And better not get carried away with the social media stuff either. Shepherd walked up to my table one day when I was taking a picture of my food with my iPhone and told me: “Stop tweeting, and start eating!”