Chris Shepherd’s bio begins like that of many other American chefs: weaned on Mom’s meatloaf and mashed potatoes, grounded in French classics during culinary school, and trained in every aspect of food service in fine-dining restaurants.
While working his way up the ranks on kitchen lines in Houston, he had an epiphany. There he was, living in one of the most racially and ethnically diverse U.S. cities, yet he knew little about its food beyond the barbecue and steakhouse cliches. If he truly wanted to “cook local,” he needed to step away from the professional stove and explore.
On days off, he’d drive to different neighborhoods to sample Vietnamese crawfish, Mexican spit-roasted goat or a family recipe for Indian masala. He took notes, asked questions, and formed lasting friendships with the cooks and restaurant owners.
Those experiences informed the free-wheeling menus of his first chef-owned restaurant, Underbelly, which earned him a James Beard award in 2014, and the vision for the broader hospitality group that he has since built.
Shepherd shares these lessons, and the recipes they inspired, in “Cook Like a Local: Flavors That Can Change How You Cook and See the World.” Each chapter is an in-depth lesson built around six pantry staples that have shaped his cooking as well as his worldview: Fish Sauce, Chiles, Soy, Rice, Spices and Corn. He introduces us to his mentors along the way.
Noting that Houston has one of the largest Vietnamese populations in the country, Shepherd enlightens us with a lively history of fish sauce before leading into recipes that feature the salty, funky condiment in different ways. For one rib-sticking dinner, I made Vietnamese Steak and Eggs — thin slices of marinated and cast iron-griddled steak and onions topped with a fried egg and served on buttered baguette — along with Crispy Brussels Sprouts with Caramelized Fish Sauce. Both were umami-rich revelations.
Korean-style Sloppy Joes, Grilled Shrimp Soba Noodle Salad, and Chile-Braised Chicken with Cornmeal Waffles also pique my curiosity. Some call for ingredients I’m not familiar with and that will require a trip to a market. Shepherd convinces me I’ll be better for the extra effort.
Susan Puckett is a cookbook author and former food editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow her at susanpuckett.com.
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