How a renowned local chef is (successfully) aiming to change the lives of hospitality workers nationwide

Southern Smoke Festival raised more than $1.8 million at this year’s event

Chances are you’ve heard the name Chris Shepherd. His name resonates Houston-wide as an award-winning chef in the local culinary scene.

Over the years, as he has cultivated his culinary chops in the Houston community, he has dedicated his efforts to creating a safety net of support for food and beverage workers across the United States.

Shepherd’s nonprofit, Southern Smoke, holds a festival each year that hosts some of the industry’s most talented chefs and personalities, with the help from plenty of local chefs and establishments. They all come together and throw one big party to help support any hospitality workers in crisis.

This year, the nonprofit raised a record-breaking $1.8 million in one weekend.

How Southern Smoke helps

Southern Smoke contributes in a several ways to food and beverage workers who have fallen on hard times. It puts dollars directly into the pockets of workers when it’s needed most – for things like mental health needs and unforeseen hardships. The funds and resources help those who put food on the table, and no ask is too big or small.

Shepherd first started the nonprofit to help a friend who had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. It started as a party in a parking lot in 2015.

“It quickly became clear how much support our friends throughout the food and beverage industry need, whether it’s through health crises, personal catastrophes, natural disasters or any number of other issues that prevent hourly workers from making the money they need to pay their rent and bills, support their families and otherwise survive,” said Lindsey Brown, Southern Smoke co-founder and executive director.

Even in its first year, Lexus signed on to sponsor the event, and the nonprofit raised about $180,000. Now, it draws some of the food world’s most well-respected chefs.

So, what exactly do the funds raised do to help those in need?

Southern Smoke’s Emergency Relief Fund helps workers to pay for essentials like groceries, clothing and medications. It can also be used to cover the cost of rent, natural disaster damages, lost wages and more. There’s no deadline for requests and no cap on the amount that can be given.

Grants are awarded based on unforeseen financial crises.

Southern Smoke’s mental health program, Behind You, provides no-cost mental health counseling for food and beverage workers and their families. While the coverage generally extends to those in California, Illinois, Louisiana, New York and Texas, any workers who live outside of these service states can apply for financial assistance for mental health crises through Emergency Relief Fund.

The programs are possible through the funds that Southern Smoke and its supporters raise every year.

Contributed photo. (� 2023 FLINT FIELD TX, all rights reserved.)

The Southern Smoke Festival

This year’s Southern Smoke Festival, which continues to be sponsored by Lexus each year, raised $1.8 million -- $200,000 more than last year’s total. That’s quite a long way from the first festival in 2015.

More than 60 chefs participated in the festival. The resounding message from everyone at the event was that they wanted to “take care of their own.”

Legendary pitmaster and Beard Award winner Aaron Franklin, who has been a brisket-serving staple at the festival since the beginning, said the heart and soul of the event is the same today as it was when it began.

“The feels and the hugs and the high fives are always there,” Franklin said. “This is the only event I cook at out of the entire year. I don’t (usually) do these things, but we will always be here.”

“We care about each other,” said Aaron Bludorn, owner of Bludorn Restaurant. “We care about those who work in the industry and the sustainability of our people that work in it. Not only is it important to show Houstonians we care, but it’s important to our staff to see we care about it.”

Even before this year’s event, previous Southern Smoke Festival events have allowed the nonprofit to distribute more than $11 million to food and beverage workers nationwide.

“The amount of people that this will help; the amount of mental health sessions that we can provide with this; the amount of rent we can help; the amount of people getting out of a domestic violence situation -- it’s unfathomable,” Shepherd said during the event.

More about Shepherd

There’s a reason the nonprofit has grown like it has. The beloved Shepherd has rooted himself in the Houston culinary community and has helped change the landscape of the scene since opening Underbelly in 2012.

Shepherd built the restaurant to support the Houston food community and its suppliers by buying local and drawing inspiration from the people and cultures that live within the city.

With Shepherd’s vision and passion, Underbelly saw numerous awards through 2018, including being named the best new restaurants in the country by “Bon Appetit” and “Esquire.”

He was also named one of the 10 Best New Chefs in America by Food & Wine in 2013 and was then awarded the 2014 James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southwest.

[RELATED: Learn more about Shepherd.]

There’s no doubt Shepherd has established himself in Houston, and he’s using that leverage – with the help of plenty of friends and supporters – to help countless people in the food and beverage industry.

If you would like to help, as well, you can donate to Southern Smoke by clicking or tapping here.

If you are a food and beverage worker who would like to learn more about getting support from Southern Smoke, click or tap here.

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