Chris Shepherd went a long way to find home. Born in Nebraska and raised in Oklahoma, he found the heart of his cooking in Houston, one of the most diverse metropolitan areas in America. As a young chef in 1995, he started following other line cooks and dishwashers out after their shifts, usually landing at one of Houston’s huge collection of small, international restaurants: Tucking into pho, wrapping his hands around tacos, searing his face off with Korean gochujang wings.
No other city, he says, compares.
“You tell people Houston is the most culturally diverse city in the country and they’re like, ‘What?’ Yeah. We’re not a European-based city. We’re everywhere else. It’s Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern and South American and Central American and African. It’s a lot of that. The food is GREAT.”
Shepherd began showcasing this side of Houston at his signature restaurant, Underbelly. Though he closed it in 2018, he maintains a slate of others, including Hay Merchant, the steakhouse Georgia James, UB Preserv, and One/Fifth Houston, a sort of restaurant-development laboratory that changes the concept every year. (He calls it “a testing ground for what I want to do when I grow up.” Right now, the focus is on the Gulf Coast.) Shepherd went on to win the James Beard Award as the best chef in the Southwest in 2014. He also became a passionate fan of international food, haunting Houston’s small kitchens and befriending family cooks, learning everything he could about Japanese shoyu, Vietnamese fish sauce, and spices from allepo chile to za’atar.
His new book, Cook Like a Local: Flavors That Can Change How You Cook and See the World, is arranged just like that. Instead of the usual chapters of types of dishes, he goes in really close on ingredients—how they’re made, how they’re used, and recipes that go beyond the traditional. It’s a mouthful of flavor, from a chef whose appetite takes in the whole world.
It’s a big mouthful of flavor, from a guy whose appetite takes in the whole world.
This is a quirky approach, focusing on ingredients and putting them in unexpected recipes…
It’s about showcasing people. This is Houston in a nutshell, but it’s every city in the country. There’s so much you can learn from other people and share with other people. It’s the way this country is heading. You can be afraid of it, but you probably should embrace it. It’s learning these ingredients, like fish sauce and soy. Traditionally, these are ingredients that (Americans) are a little bit shy from, that need to be celebrated.
There are dishes that are completely unexpected, like fried chicken in tamales and deviled eggs from soy sauce–pickled eggs. In all that experimentation, did you find any combinations that just didn’t work?
These are all dishes that we did at Underbelly. If it wasn’t right, we fixed it. But there’s an idea you go forward from. Like, the soy sauce–deviled eggs. I wanted to redefine a deviled egg. I love deviled eggs, but how we can make them in a way that we want to eat and pay homage to a different ingredient? The fried chicken tamale—my butcher’s wife makes the best tamales on the face of the planet. We did a big event and we had a lot of fried chicken left over. So I pulled it and put it in a tamale. Cold fried chicken is one of my favorite things.
Deserted island question: If you going to be stranded somewhere, what’s the one ingredient you’d take with you?
Probably a jalapeño. Or a serrano. Some kind of chile. We went to Paris a couple of months ago and the food was great and beautiful and amazing. But I was like, man, nobody knows what a jalapeño is. There is no spice. So I would say chiles.
Cultural appropriation is a tricky issue in the food world today. Did you worry about mixing up these traditional ingredients in less traditional ways?
I’m telling the story with them, and bringing them to the forefront. I don’t do this alone. We do this together—having family members from each of these cultures teach me and work through it with me, giving them 100 percent of the credit for it. I’m not going to cook a pad Thai, I’m going to get people to understand that flavor. Go try it on your own. Go to these restaurants and have these conversations. You might be the only person of your nationality in there, but don’t be afraid of that. Enjoy it, embrace it, and learn from it. We’re all on the same journey here. Let’s celebrate each other.
What’s an ingredient you wish every kitchen in America contained?
Fish sauce. Red Boat—it’s my only one. I know it’s ten times the price, but you look at the ingredient list and it’s two things. It’s salt and black anchovies. There’s no caramel coloring, no anchovy extract. I put it all to the test. I sat down —I’m going to tell you, there’s one thing you should never do as a human being and that’s do a fish sauce tasting and turn around and do a soy sauce tasting. To sit down and take six fish sauces, smell them, taste them blind, and figure out which one you really like . . . There was a fire of sodium running through my veins. But for most of the people buying this book, how much fish sauce can a human being consume in a year? You’re talking about two gallons a year for a household in Vietnam, that’s a lot of fish sauce. The average American is going to go through maybe a cup. So if you’re going to do that, you might as well use what is really good. You can use fish sauce in a brine or a marinade. A few drops doesn’t give a funk flavor, it gives a really delicious flavor.
What do your friends ask you to bring to every party?
I just did it for Labor Day—the Tater Tot Casserole with poblanos. That’s one of the easiest things. That and Lamburger Helper (a pasta casserole with ground lamb, sambal oelek, and Crystal hot sauce). Those are game changers. And Grilled Herb Chicken marinade—I’ll do that on everything and grill it. Pork chops, everything.