Chris Shepherd’s road to a James Beard Award
It’s been a whirlwind for Underbelly chef Chris Shepherd since he opened his Montrose restaurant in 2012. From national acclaim for the restaurant in its first two years to a recent James Beard Award for Best Chef Southwest, Shepherd is on the fast track to culinary stardom. Some might even say he’s already there. As for Shepherd, he’s just ready to be home for a while.
“I’ll be happy when this last trip is done,” says Shepherd, calling in from Aspen, Colorado, where he’s participating in the Food & Wine Classic. “The hardest for thing for me is that I know my cooks and my staff want me to go [to various events around the country], but they’re really happy to see me back, because I’m still ‘Papa’ to them.”
Aside from being a little homesick, “Papa” Shepherd also admits that while a James Beard Award comes with plenty of respect and prestige, it also presents its own set of challenges.
“It’s not like you all of the sudden get rich and famous,” says Shepherd. “Our business is still grinding every day. The thing that I made very clear to my staff and to everyone around me is that just because [the James Beard Award] happened, doesn’t mean we skate. Because this happened, we push harder, and further. People should expect more from us. We have to be on our toes at all times.”
Keeping up with people’s expectations of the restaurant is only one of the obstacles ahead of Shepherd. Opening up his own restaurant catapulted him into a whole new level of responsibility.
“There’s a lot more at stake now, having the amount of employees that I have and my obligations to them,” says Shepherd. “Just keeping the restaurant busy on a daily basis is huge.”
While he’s certainly not resting on his laurels now, Shepherd is in a better place than he was immediately out of culinary school, although getting to this point was not without plenty of bumps in the road. Shepherd is the first to admit that his career choice had (and has) a huge impact on other areas of his life, not all of them positive.
“If you want to succeed, you have to make a lot of sacrifices, whether personally, maritally or financially,” says Shepherd. “You’re going to work long hours and you’re not going to get paid in the beginning. When I got out of school my goal was to get the best jobs I possibly could and be where I needed to be, no matter the cost. Did a lot of people have to sacrifice a lot of things? Yes. And not just me.”
Despite the ups and downs of chef life, Shepherd still has a simple underlying philosophy that is in part, why people love him just as much outside of the kitchen as they do behind the line. (Just watch him work the tables in Underbelly on a busy night.)
“I am a simple person,” he says. “I’m down to earth and I like to work. I like to see people happy. That’s just what I do.”
And he’s certainly good at what he does, James Beard Award or not.