Chris Shepherd's Southern Smoke Is Awesome

The Houston chef just threw the best party in the South, all for a good cause

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Chris Shepherd, chef and owner of Houston's Underbelly, may be known for whole-animal butchering and Creole cooking, but he's also about to become respected for his generosity as well. Look no further than Southern Smoke, his culinary fundraiser that raises money and awareness for multiple sclerosis, to see why.

The second annual Southern Smoke went down in Houston on November 6, bringing an all-star lineup of chefs together for a cause personal to Shepherd. When Shepherd's former sommelier, Antonio Gianola, told the chef he was living with MS, Shepherd didn't miss a beat. He decided on the spot to start an annual fundraiser to support Gianola and others living with this misunderstood disease.

Photo: Courtesy of Southern Smoke

"Nobody knows what MS does," Shepherd says, alarmed at one of the most debilitating aspects of the disease, whose symptoms differ from person to person and also change over time. The lack of a clear, universal understanding of MS makes it even more difficult for those diagnosed and the people trying to support them. Shepherd felt this firsthand when he learned about Gianola's diagnosis and sees it as a major obstacle in fighting the disease. "We're encouraging people not to be quiet," he explains.

Photo: Courtesy of Southern Smoke

With chefs like Aaron Franklin of Franklin Barbecue, Stephen Stryjewski of New Orleans' Cochon and Ashley Christensen of Poole's Diner coming out for Southern Smoke, plus a Grammy-winning brass band playing tunes, staying quiet is now out of the question.

Not only has Shepherd managed to rally this enviable roster of chefs and entertainment, but he's also enlisted the help of his entire staff, and seeing the joy on everyone's face is one of the best parts for Shepherd. "We're a restaurant with a greater purpose," he says.

"It's not the easiest thing to do, and you have to be dedicated," he says of an undertaking like Southern Smoke. "But the goal is to make it bigger and bigger and bigger."

Photo: Courtesy of Southern Smoke

Last year, the event raised almost $184,000, and this year, Shepherd surpassed his goal and raised $282,000.

"For me, it's what I'm most proud of," the James Beard Award-winning chef says. Hear, hear.