When Chris Shepherd told his business partner he wanted to open five separate restaurants in one space over the next five years, the reply was, "Stupid. Too hard. No." But the James Beard Award-winning chef behind Houston favorite Underbelly didn't have to wait long before that partner started to backpedal and ask, "How?"
The ambitious concept will open in a 1920s church formerly occupied by beloved and recently closed Mark's American Cuisine. With a five-year lease, Shepherd plans to turn the restaurant over every August, reopening each September with a completely new concept.
First up is soon-to-open steakhouse One Fifth Steak, a modern take on a Texas rite of passage, followed by One Fifth Romance Languages, which is inspired by French, Italian and Spanish cuisines. And then there will be One Fifth Fish, the chef's play on all things surf. After that, it's anyone's guess, including Shepherd's.
For his first act, the chef is focused on lesser-known cuts of meat and reimagined sides. Think braised lamb neck (see the recipe), a wet-aged hanger steak he calls one of the most delicious pieces of meat he's ever eaten and creamed collards instead of the usual spinach.
Why the pressure to reinvent the restaurant every year? For one, Shepherd likes a challenge. He's pushing to learn more about traditional Spanish cuisine, put French techniques to use and try his hand at rolling out gnocchi. "Nothing good is easy," he says.
Shepherd also wants to do something wildly different with the location. Mark's was an iconic destination for almost two decades, and Shepherd knows he's responsible for ushering in a new era.
"If you've lived in Houston long enough, you will forever walk into that place and, if you didn't update it and change it, you would see Mark's," he says of the 19-year-old date spot and special-occasion haunt. That reinvention includes plans to turn the wood-burning oven into a focal point, create more of a kitchen atmosphere and brighten up the whole interior.
In addition to an annual rebirth, Shepherd is regularly updating the menu throughout the year, like he does at Underbelly. "We have to be able to support those guys as much as they support us," he says of the farmers he works with it.
"Here in Houston, we have hot and not as hot," he says. "I can’t just order asparagus every day. I get asparagus for literally one week." This hyper seasonality and close relationship with farmers is what Shepherd is known for at Underbelly, and he couldn't see doing it any other way at One Fifth.
Commitment to the local community, be it by working directly with farmers or by celebrating Houston's diversity in the dishes he serves, hasn't just put Shepherd on the map; it's helped transform Houston as a whole from a city known for NASA to what David Chang suggests could be "the next food capital of America." Anthony Bourdain agrees, as does The New York Times, which recently sang the city's praises. With much-awaited newcomers like Riel and Le Colonial cropping up on the scene, things are heating up in Houston faster than a barbecue pit in summer.
Amid all the praise for the city's blossoming dining scene, Shepherd is the first to point out Houston's rich and thriving diversity, without which the city would never have launched into the national spotlight as a culinary destination. The mix of cultures and unique ability for immigrants to open their own restaurants—thanks to favorable zoning laws, affordable rent and no income taxes—is what really sets Houston apart.
On his time off, Shepherd can be found frequenting places like HK Dim Sum, Chinatown's Harbor Seafood and Cali Sandwich for banh mi. On Underbelly's website, Shepherd even suggests diners try some of these spots before revisiting his restaurant.
"There are all the small ethnic restaurants that are really becoming one in their own. It’s not just the fine dining. It’s everyone coming up together," Shepherd says. "It has to be that way for a food scene to be successful."
Who better than Shepherd, who celebrates Houston's sweeping diversity in and outside his own kitchen, to raise the bar with a restaurant like One Fifth? It's a bold statement in Houston's dining scene, and when asked if the city is ready for it, Shepherds says, "One hundred percent." America, Houston is ready for take off.