Shocking Departure: Chef Chris Shepherd is Leaving Underbelly Hospitality
Chefs may come and go, but generally chefs who also are part owners of their restaurants don’t. So it’s unsettling to hear that James Beard Award-winning chef and owner Chris Shepherd is leaving Underbelly Hospitality, the restaurant group named for and built upon his first restaurant, Underbelly. He owned 50% of the company. The remaining owner is MLB Capital Partners. Shepherd’s official date of departure has not yet been settled. However, he will remain affiliated with the non-profit organization, Southern Smoke Foundation.
Underbelly Hospitality currently owns multiple restaurants. Georgia James — named for Shepherd’s parents — just reopened in its new space at Regent Square a few weeks ago. Underbelly Burger opened at the Houston Farmers Market in January, and Wild Oats, featuring culinary director and chef Nick Fine, followed a month later. There’s also Georgia James Tavern in downtown Houston, which had a chef shuffle in April.
“We’ve done a lot in 10 years,” said Shepherd via press release. “It’s time for me to focus on smaller projects and dedicate more time to Southern Smoke. Underbelly Hospitality is in great hands with MLB Capital Partners and the team we have assembled over the last five years. They have provided tremendous support and have been instrumental in Underbelly Hospitality’s success. I’ve put my heart and soul into these restaurants, and I’m so proud of what we’ve accomplished. I want to thank the entire Underbelly family for always being there, showing up and giving it everything, always.”
A statement from Todd Mason, managing partner of MLB Capital Partners reads, “Chris is an incredible talent. We are grateful for his immense contributions to both Underbelly and the industry as a whole. Our talented team will continue to deliver Underbelly’s signature fare with unmatched technique and hospitality. Our focus has been and will continue to be the delivery of thoughtful food and beverage experiences.”
While it’s entirely unclear as to whether Shepherd will start another restaurant, or join a different restaurant group, he does have distinct goals for Southern Smoke, including expanding its free mental health care assistance for the hospitality industry to five additional states, and ultimately making that available in all states by 2028. He’s also committed to remaining in Houston.
Shepherd has functioned as the face of Underbelly Hospitality, so it is unclear how the company will retain the visibility and standing that it’s had since he co-founded it. Each restaurant does have its own executive chef to help lend a unique identity, but it’s fair to say that Shepherd’s national-level fame and reputation cast a long shadow. He’s also the author of Cook Like a Local, a cookbook that examines Houston’s multicultural culinary scene.
“As I always say, Underbelly is no longer a restaurant—it’s a way of life,” said Shepherd. “Explore your surroundings. Learn about people, where they’re from, and how to dine at the same table. Learn from anyone, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, age, or gender. Understand that everyone has a story to tell. We are always learning. It’s time for me to learn a new chapter.”
Phaedra Cook has written about Houston’s restaurant and bar scene since 2010. She was a regular contributor to My Table magazine (now closed) and was the lead restaurant critic for the Houston Press for two years, eventually being promoted to food editor. Cook founded Houston Food Finder in November 2016 and has been its editor and publisher ever since.