At the start of 2017, James Beard Award-winning chef Chris Shepherd embarked on an ambitious project. After a chance meeting about a space he’d only be able to use for a limited time, he decided he’d open and close five restaurants in Houston in a five-year span. Each concept would be opened under the umbrella of One Fifth, where he would explore new cuisine that would challenge him to create something different.
The first concept didn’t seem too far outside of the box. In Texas, the land of steakhouses, he wanted to do his own take on steak. The accolades poured in. He’d turned a steakhouse into an exciting destination dining spot. When it came time to flip the concept to One Fifth in late summer, the idea stuck in the back of his mind that his take on steak was worth more than just a brief pop-up. So ever since he’s been looking for a place to make One Fifth Steak permanent.
In the end, he didn’t need to look very far. He’s decided to turn the restaurant that first brought him national acclaim—Underbelly—into Georgia James, modeled after his work at One Fifth Steak, which took a fresh approach to the Texas classic.
“Steakhouses use broilers and put them in these 9-million-degree fire boxes, but I cooked things like how I wanted to eat them,” Shepherd told Robb Report. “I cooked steaks in cast iron as I would at home, so it would develop that delicious crust like when I’m making them for friends. Then we did hanger steak, chickens cooked in the hearth and braised lamb neck. It was a white-tablecloth steakhouse, but I wanted you to feel like you were in my home.”
That philosophy—sans the wood-burning oven—will make its way from One Fifth Steak to Georgia James. When that restaurant opens in late 2018, the rustic farmhouse feel of Underbelly will be replaced by a more sleek and modern restaurant design with glass and steel.
What’s to become of Underbelly? Through that restaurant, Shepherd explored the cultures that merged in Houston, with immigrant communities bringing their culinary traditions from Vietnam, Korea, India, and more. He plans to close it March of next year, but elements of Underbelly will live on. First, three dishes will now appear on the menu of Shepherd’s The Hay Merchant. Then he also plans to open another restaurant, UB Preserv, that will still have the ethos of Underbelly, but also source ingredients from outside of Houston.
“This isn’t Underbelly 2.0,” Shepherd said in a statement. “This restaurant is my interpretation of how Houston is evolving. It’s becoming more global, with flavors and spices and products from around the world. Underbelly was founded on a very strict philosophy of what we could and could not serve. No more. Houston doesn’t limit itself, and neither do I.”