Southern Smoke and Helping Hands


I had the good fortune to attend the Southern Smoke fundraiser for multiple sclerosis last night in Houston, which was an idea hatched by Chris Shepherd, one of Houston’s most celebrated chefs, and owner of Underbelly and Hay Merchant restaurants.

When Shepherd heard his friend and sommelier Antonio Gianola was diagnosed with MS, he decided to “throw a huge party and raise a ton of money” for the MS Society. While Gianola’s insurance is covering his medical expenses, MS is an incurable disease, so Shepherd wants to advance the search for a cure, and raise overall awareness of MS.

Chef Chris Shepherd of Underbelly and Hay Merchant.
Chef Chris Shepherd of Underbelly and Hay Merchant.

Shepherd themed the event around smoking, and recruited some of the biggest culinary names in the region to help with the menu, including Sean Brock (Husk/Charleston, S.C.); Aaron Franklin (Franklin Barbecue/Austin); Rodney Scott (Scott’s Bar-B-Que/Hemingway, S.C.); and Houston chefs Justin Yu (Oxheart); Ryan Pera (Revival Market, Coltivare); and Seth Siegel-Gardner and Terrence Gallivan (The Pass & Provisions) who, along with Shepherd, would be cooking as the “HOUBBQ Collective.”

Rodney Scott seasoning pork in the pit.
Rodney Scott seasoning pork in the pit.

The event was set up like a block party behind Shepherd’s Underbelly and Hay Merchant, and each chef occupied a corner of the gala: Rodney Scott made pit-smoked whole hog; Aaron Franklin crafted his famous brisket; Sean Brock smoked Gulf snapper; and the HOUBBQ Collective made smoked beef shoulder; smoked beef cheeks with apple kimchi; smoked duck on bao buns; smoked beef tongue and cheek bratwurst; and smoked sticky rice tamales.

Aaron Franklin's smoked brisket.
Aaron Franklin’s smoked brisket.
Sean Brock's smoked Gulf snapper.
Sean Brock’s smoked Gulf snapper.
Justin Yu's smoked sticky rice tamale.
Justin Yu’s smoked sticky rice tamale.

Southern Smoke was a success all around, drawing a huge crowd and raising nearly $184,000 for MS. Of course, an event this big needs sponsors to make it financially feasible, and they included the National Pork Board–who donated the pork used on the menu–Lexus, VerTerra Dinnerware, 44 Farms, the JW Marriott Houston Downtown hotel, and many more.

Nearly $184,000 raised for the MS Society.
Nearly $184,000 raised for the MS Society.

JW’s participation proves the transferability of this event to the hotel world. Even though Southern Smoke was created by a group of independent restauranteurs and chefs, JW Marriott Houston Downtown still helped sponsor the party. It’s positive exposure for the property, and shows that hotels and independents can work together for a common cause.

Folk Family Revival provided Southern Smoke's soundtrack.
Folk Family Revival provided Southern Smoke’s soundtrack.

For hoteliers reading this, think about how something like Southern Smoke could work at your own property, raising money for a charitable cause–perhaps one that directly affects an employee–and how you could recruit the culinary stars in your region to create a memorable event. You already have the infrastructure and real estate to make it happen. And, because hotels are always seeking group business, think about how event sponsors from the corporate world could eventually become meetings and catering clients too.