In 2015, James Beard award-winning Houston chef Chris Shepherd, of UB Preserv, One Fifth, and Georgia James, had just started hosting fundraising dinners for culinary scholarships when his friend, general manager, and sommelier Antonio Gianola shared some news. “He came to me and said that he’d been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and asked if we could do a dinner to raise money for MS research,” Shepherd says. “I said, ‘No, we can’t do a dinner. We’re going to throw a party.’”
The idea for Southern Smoke started as a parking-lot bash, but quickly escalated. “We ended up setting the goal at $100,000,” Shepherd says. “When we told the MS people about that, they laughed. But after the event, the people who’d been laughing were crying with joy.” The first Southern Smoke Festival raised nearly $200,000; the next year’s raised nearly $300,000.
Now, approaching its fifth year, the event has exploded into a full weekend of music and food from more than two dozen of the nation’s top chefs—barbecue and otherwise. This year on October 4–6, Shepherd will kick off the weekend with a Friday night dinner, where he and a handful of Houston-based chefs will serve a four-course meal featuring shrimp on sugar cane skewers, masala bhindi, and other Vietnamese-Lebanese-and-Indian-tinged dishes. Then comes the main event on Sunday, October 6, when culinary stars Ashley Christensen and Donald Link will cook alongside such beloved Southern pit masters as Aaron Franklin, Pat Martin, and Sam Jones. Expect to see more than a dozen hometown heroes including Indigo’s Jonny Rhodes and the team from Feges BBQ, too. As for music, up-and-comer Charley Crockett will headline, serenading the crowd with his mix of Texas blues and Cajun country music. See a full lineup and get tickets, which go on sale at noon central Tuesday, August 6, here.
And while the proceeds still benefit MS research, Southern Smoke’s fundraising expanded. After Hurricane Harvey in 2017, Southern Smoke wanted to provide aid to food-industry workers in times of need, modeling their approach on the Atlanta-based nonprofit Giving Kitchen. “Now, it’s a program set up to help anyone in a time of need. I don’t care if they work in a drive-thru, stock milk at a grocery store, own a farm, work on a farm, or are a chef,” Shepherd says. “If you need to go to the doctor you shouldn’t have to choose between that and paying your rent.”
It’s a cause that chefs are eager to support. “Chefs say they’re asked to do festivals all the time, but only a few where they feel like they’re really doing this much good,” Shepherd says. “It’s one of the most moving, emotional, joyous days of the year.”