The first thing you must know about the Southern Smoke festival is that you will eat well. Very well. With 10 James Beard Award-winning chefs among the two dozen culinary stars participating in the fifth annual festival on Sunday , the food level is ridiculously high.
What began as a festival dedicated to smoked meats and live-fire cooking with a distinctly Southern bent has become a more global, freewheeling pigout where anything goes and good-natured one-upsmanship is the norm. Oh, barbecue still shines bright — pitmaster Aaron Franklin of Franklin Barbecue, an original participant whose lines are long for otherworldly brisket, is among the smoke stars — but festival-goers are just as apt to see tamales, pizza, tacos, roasted oysters, paella and fried chicken at the gastropalooza.
This year’s festival, starting at 4 p.m., takes place in a compound of parking areas behind Georgia James, the Hay Merchant and Blacksmith on Westheimer. Participating chefs will have booths set up throughout the Southern Smoke campus which also will include wine and cocktail stations, live music stage, and access into buildings where there will be more bars, indoor seating and silent action area.
Among the culinary luminaries appearing at this year’s fundraiser fest: James Beard Award winners Ashley Christensen of Poole’s Diner in Raleigh, NC; Chris Bianco of Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix; Donald Link, Ryan Prewitt and Stephen Stryjewski of Herbsaint, Cochon and Peche in New Orleans; Sarah Grueneberg of Monteverde in Chicago; Hugo Ortega of Hugo’s, Xochi and Caracol; and Justin Yu of Theodore Rex, Squable and Better Luck Tomorrow. Barbecue stars such as Franklin, Sam Jones of Sam Jones BBQ in Winterville, NC, and Pat Martin of Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint in Nashville will represent barbecue nation.
Some of Houston’s most popular chefs will also be cooking: Erin Smith and Patrick Feges of Feges BBQ; Felipe Riccio of Goodnight Charlie’s and Rosie Cannonball; Jason Vaughan of Nancy’s Hustle; Jonny Rhodes of Indigo; Manabu Horiuchi of Kata Robata; Marcelo Garcia of Eight Row Flint; Martin Strayer of Nobie’s; Trong Nguyen of Crawfish & Noodles; the Pitmaker barbecue team; and Lyle Bento.
Newbies this year are chef and food personality Matty Matheson; Chris Cosentino of the upcoming Rosalie Italian Soul; and Aaron Bludorn, formerly of Café Boulud in New York who is opening his own restaurant in Houston next year.
“This was a great opportunity to be a part of an effort to support the community,” said Bludorn, marking his first Southern Smoke. He said he was asked to participate by event founder Chris Shepherd, who he met through his friend Nick Wong, who came to Shepherd’s UB Preserve as chef de cuisine from New York’s Momofuku empire.
When: 4 p.m. Sunday
Where: 1018 Westheimer
Details: $200; southernsmokefestival.org
Bludorn is an example of Shepherd’s vast and growing network of food stars who are willing to travel to Houston for the fundraiser that benefits local charities such as the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, Houston hospitality workers in crisis, and Hurricane Harvey relief through the Southern Smoke Foundation. The foundation has donated nearly $1.4 million since 2015.
Another chef making her first Southern Smoke appearance is Grueneberg, who calls Shepherd her first mentor; he hired her out of culinary school at Brennan’s of Houston where she worked from 2001 to 2005 before moving to Chicago where she is among the Windy City’s top toques.
“Houston is very special to me and Chris Shepherd is a huge part of why,” said Grueneberg, whose family lives in Victoria. “It’s important to me that what’s raised at Southern Smoke is going to people in Houston and industry people who need help.”
There will also be music from Texas acts Charley Crockett and Folk Family Revival.
Last year’s Southern Smoke raised $425,000 and 1,700 attended the event. This year organizers hope to surpass that. General admission tickets are $200 per person, available at southernsmokefestival.org (where you can also find information on parking and other FAQs). VIP tickets and admission to Friday’s chef-studded kickoff event at the Houstonian Hotel are already sold out.