Pitmaker Replaces Stolen Pit Just in Time for Southern Smoke Spring Events in Houston — Updated

Chris Shepherd with Southern Smoke smoker

A week after New Year’s Day, thieves stole a big, expensive barbecue pit used to raise money for charity. Specifically, it was the big Pitmaker pit enveloped in a turquoise wrapper use for the annual Southern Smoke Foundation festival. The mobile pit was parked as usual at executive chef Chris Shepherd’s restaurant, One Fifth, when the criminals pulled up around 7 a.m. one morning and towed it off. Since 2015, the annual Southern Smoke festivals have raised $1,324,157 to date for both the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and for an emergency relief fund for workers in the food and beverage industry.

It’s been over a month now and the pit still hasn’t been recovered. “It’s one of those things where you wonder why people steal and then I just wanted them to have a hard time selling it,” said Shepherd. “Will I ever see it again? Maybe. Possibly. I remember years ago when [Ronnie] Killen’s was stolen that it got so much attention that it ended up in a field later. I was really hoping that’s what would happen because of its size and colors. As of this date, that hasn’t happened.”

Fortunately, Shepherd and the other organizers of Southern Smoke aren’t going to have to wait for the stolen pit to show up (or, worse, have to fundraise the over $10,000 needed to replace it) in order to carry on the good work. In a remarkable feat of generosity, Pitmaker is donating another one to the Southern Smoke Foundation.

The decision to replace it was “unanimous” according to George Shore, co-owner and general manager of Pitmaker. “This theft hit particularly hard for us because we love everything Southern Smoke is about and what Chris does for our community. It was really poignant.”

Shore said Pitmaker first got involved with Southern Smoke in its founding year. The coveted pits that the company makes are tested on the barbecue competition circuit to ensure quality. “We have a passion for what we do. My business partners, Julio and Victor, and I are like a lot of pit builders in that we use and battle-test our products in competitions. We find out what works. When you’re trying to produce the best food in a timeframe under different conditions, that’s the ultimate field test. You do it over and over and refine your product when you’re trying to build the ultimate barbecue smokers and grills.”

Aaron Franklin and Chris Shepherd
Aaron Franklin (left) and Chris Shepherd (right) at the 2018 Southern Smoke fall festival. Photo by Catchlight Photography.

The donation comes just in time for the newly announced, week-long Southern Smoke Spring event series. The regular Southern Smoke Festival happens in the fall, so the spring event series expands the foundation’s efforts and helps ensure assistance funds are available year-round. The events include special dinners at different restaurants and two citywide steak nights featuring Texas-raised 44 Farms beef.

“It’s just a matter of wanting to help and do more,” said Shepherd. “We learned after [Hurricane] Harvey that this can be more than just a one-time thing. We don’t need to keep it to one festival per year. We need to do more and to really have this city come behind it more. This is the first year and we’ve got 20 restaurants doing it. We’re just testing the waters. Next year, it could be 40 or 60 restaurants.”

As a regular Southern Smoke Festival participant, James Beard Award-winning pitmaster Aaron Franklin of Franklin BBQ in Austin is no stranger to Houston (and has plenty of fans there, too). He’ll help Shepherd kick off the spring series on Sunday, April 14 with a steak dinner at Georgia James. It starts at 6:30 p.m. and the cost is (an admittedly hefty) $350 per person. The cost includes “the ultimate steak dinner” and a copy of his Franklin Steak cookbook. With the way that Shepherd is known for nighttime feasts and piled-high “baller boards” of meats and seafood, chances are no one is going home hungry. Update, 3/9/19, 12:47 p.m.: the organizer reports this event is sold out as of 3/8/19.

On the other hand, a dinner on Monday, April 15 at 6:30 p.m. features a chef entirely new to the Southern Smoke cause. Chef and owner Jamie Malone is coming to Houston all the way from The Grand Café and Eastside in Minneapolis for a showcase dinner at UB Preserv. “She is awesome!” exclaimed Shepherd when asked about Malone. “We were both Food & Wine Best New Chefs in 2013 and we’ve been friends since then. We went up last year and ate at The Grand Café and I was blown away. I know it was one of Lindsey’s [Chris’s girlfriend] most memorable meals to-date. What she does is amazing and the food is fantastic. The place is small and quaint but it’s pushy and aggressive in subtle ways.” Houstonians can find out for themselves what that means when Malone comes to town. Tickets are $200 each. Update, 3/9/19, 12:47 p.m.: the organizer reports there are only 20 seats left for this event of 3/8/19.

steak at Georgia James
A 44 Farms wet-aged, bone-in strip loin at Georgia James. Photo by Julie Soefer.

The steak nights on Tuesday, April 16 and Wednesday, April 17 are when there’s a lower barrier to entry price-wise. On those nights, 20 restaurants are all featuring a Southern Smoke fundraiser steak dish. 44 Farms is donating the beef.

The participating Southern Smoke steak night restaurants are organized by neighborhood below.

Quattro at Four Seasons Houston, 1300 Lamar
Xochi, 1777 Walker

East of Downtown
Huynh, 912 St. Emanuel
Indianola, 1201 St. Emanuel
The Original Ninfa’s on Navigation, 2704 Navigation

Beaver’s, 6025 Westheimer
Cafe Annie, 1800 Post Oak

Coltivare, 3320 White Oak
Sonoma, 801 Studewood

Brennan’s of Houston, 3300 Smith

Georgia James, 1100 Westheimer
Goodnight Charlie’s, 2531 Kuester
Hay Merchant, 1100 Westheimer
Hugo’s, 1600 Westheimer
One Fifth Mediterranean, 1658 Westheimer
The Pass and Provisions, 807 Taft
UB Preserv, 1609 Westheimer
Uchi, 904 Westheimer

The Refuge Steakhouse & Bourbon Bar, 8540 Creekside Forest

Upper Kirby
Kata Robata, 3600 Kirby

The Woodlands
The Kitchen, 4526 Research Forest
TRIS, 24 Waterway Avenue

Specific dishes should be added to the Southern Smoke website soon.

Dave Arnold of Existing Conditions
Dave Arnold of Booker & Dax and Existing Conditions. Photo by Eric Medsker.

In addition, there’s a “cocktail surprise” happening at UB Preserv on that Wednesday night. Dave Arnold of Booker & Dax is taking over the bar. Arnold is also the founder and president of the Museum of Food and Drink (MOFAD) and established a reputation as a drink-focused, technologically minded culinarian and innovator. His New York bar, Booker & Dax, closed in 2016 but the name lives on as a “food science development company,” the products of which include the Searzall, a blowtorch attachment to ensure even searing, and the Spinzall, a centrifuge for clarifying liquid (such as fresh fruit and tomato juices). In 2018, Arnold opened a new bar in New York City, Existing Conditions, with Don Lee (PDT) and Greg Boehm (Cocktail Kingdom).

More details on the cocktail takeover at UB Preserv are still to come but one detail confirmed is that the restaurant is staying open later than usual so that bar and restaurant industry personnel can attend (at least until midnight and possibly even until 2 a.m.).

Finally, there’s a last hurrah on Thursday, April 18 at One Fifth Mediterranean at 1658 Westheimer. The Southern Smoke Spring Finale features Shepherd, James Beard Award-winning chef Jamie Bissonnette and author/chef Chris Cosentino. Bissonnette owns Toro, a Barcelona-style tapas bar with locations in Boston, New York City, Bangkok, and Dubai, and Coppa, an Italian enoteca in Boston’s South End. In 2016, she, alongside chef-partner Ken Oringer, opened Little Donkey, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Update, 3/9/19, 12:47 p.m.: the organizer reports this event is sold out as of 3/8/19.

Chris Cosentino
Chef-owner and author Chris Cosentino. Photo by Mark Mediana.

Cosentino runs Cockscomb in San Francisco, Jackrabbit in Portland, Oregon and Acacia House at Las Alcobas, a Luxury Collection Hotel in Napa Valley, with partner Oliver Wharton and parent company Delicious MFG & CO. He first rose to prominence during his 12 years running Incanto in San Francisco. This was in part for his commitment to reducing meat waste by making delicious dishes from as many parts of whole animals as possible, which is also known as a “nose to tail” cooking program. Cosentino proved his standing as one of the country’s best chefs when he emerged as the winner of season four of BRAVO’s “Top Chef Masters.” The charitable aspect of the competition meant he also landed over $140,000 for The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.

In addition to his many restaurant affiliations, Cosentino is the author of Beginnings: My Way to Start a Meal, Offal Good: Cooking from the Heart, with Guts, and, believe it or not, collaborated with Marvel Comics on Wolverine: In The Flesh. (Fun fact: UB Preserv’s chef de cuisine, Nick Wong, used to worki for Cosentino at Incanto.) Dinner starts at 6:30 p.m. and costs $250 per person.

Tickets for all the shenanigans go on sale at the Southern Smoke website on Tuesday, March 5.

Updated 2/26/19, 1:36 p.m. to add Grand Finale dinner information. 

Updated 2/28/19, 3:07 p.m. to add chef Chris Cosentino’s participation. 

Updated 3/9/19, 12:48 p.m. to indicate that some events are sold out.

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