Chef Chris Shepherd spent his Sunday night at one of his four restaurants, Hay Merchant in Houston’s Montrose district. But he wasn’t in the kitchen. Instead, he sat at the bar with his face mask on while a few friends sat at spaced-out tables behind him. Together, they watched on television as his friend, celebrity chef and fellow James Beard Award winner David Chang, sweated across from Who Wants to Be a Millionaire host Jimmy Kimmel.
Chang, who lives in Los Angeles and is the founder of the Momofuku restaurant group, had pushed through all the rounds of the revived ABC-TV game show, making it to the final million-dollar question with one of his three “lifelines” still intact. And did he ever need it. He was playing on behalf of the Southern Smoke Foundation, which Shepherd cofounded with Lindsey Brown to provide direct assistance to restaurant and hospitality industry workers who’ve lost income. Formed after Hurricane Harvey, the organization had become a lifeline this year for an industry devastated by the pandemic.
Chang could either walk away with the $500,000 he earned so far, or he could try to double it by answering the last question of the night. If he got it right, that would mean $1 million for Southern Smoke, which, in its five-year history, has given out $5 million in donations to restaurant workers. If he got it wrong? He would bring home only $32,000—the difference between helping a few dozen workers and helping hundreds. Chang used that last lifeline, calling his designated phone-a-friend, ESPN reporter and analyst Mina Kimes, and asked her if she knew which president to have electricity installed in the White House: Ulysses S. Grant, Chester A. Arthur, Benjamin Harrison, or Andrew Johnson.
As Kimes sussed out that the likely answer was “it’s probably Harrison,” Shepherd watched tensely from the bar. Kimmel attempted to persuade Chang to walk away with the $500,000 prize he’d already earned, rather than risk almost everything on Kimes’s best guess, reminding Chang that no celebrity had ever bet it all on the $1 million grand prize. After agonizing over what to do in a scene that felt a little like Uncut Gems, Chang decided to go for it. “Benjamin Harrison, and that’s my final answer.” It was the right answer. Shepherd let out a whoop at the bar, as Chang made celebrity Who Wants to Be a Millionaire history. A day and a half later, Texas Monthly caught up with Shepherd, who next week will change his One Fifth Mediterranean concept to One Fifth Southern Comfort, serving out classics to diners over the holiday season. We wanted to know what Southern Smoke can do with a million dollars, what sort of financial straits the industry is still in, and whether Benjamin Harrison is now his favorite president.
Texas Monthly: What was it like to watch that, knowing that so much money hinged on the right answer?
Chris Shepherd: You sit and you watch it and it’s like, oh, he’s doing well, he keeps doing well, he’s still doing well. And then you’re down to the last thing. I mean, come on. If I had to do that show I’d have been out of lifelines by about eight thousand dollars. And then I’d have been done. Man, I don’t even know who Benjamin Harrison was. We were having that conversation this morning. Who was the president in 1875? I don’t know. So I’m pretty impressed by that. But I love Benjamin Harrison now. We’re going to have to do a dish at one of the restaurants called “The Harrison.” But I am a go-for-it guy. You’re there, you do it, right? The show isn’t “Who Wants to Be a $25,000 Winner.” So I’d have done what Dave did, and I think it was awesome to watch.
TM: What does a million dollars allow Southern Smoke to do?
CS: We do about two thousand dollars per person. And that’s just like for the average; each case is completely different. Some more, some less. And so that gives us the ability to help out five hundred people. That’s a lot: five hundred people not having to worry about rent or a medical bill or putting food on the table for their families like that.
But we’re not in a good place for the eleven million people that work in the food and beverage industry. That’s a tough number to swallow. You know, when we start talking about a million dollars, it’s fantastic. It is over the moon. But more than anything, what was done the other night was raising awareness for what the industry is going through right now. Most people aren’t going out, and I can’t argue with people not wanting to go out. But that’s where it affects us. It affects the waitstaff. It affects the dishwashers. It affects the cooks. If I’m only doing a quarter of the numbers, I can only bring in a quarter of my people.
TM: What should people know about what’s going on in the restaurant business right now?
CS: The Paycheck Protection Program was great, but we still don’t know what we owe. We still don’t know anything about it. PPP was an eight-week solution to, at this point, a nine-month problem. And it will continue. It’s going to be a year, year-and-a-half problem.
At Southern Smoke, the money that goes back into the community for every dollar is super, super high. [We] had a scenario the day before Thanksgiving where [Southern Smoke learned about] three people that had just started living in their cars. And so the board made an executive decision to put the funds together on Thanksgiving, so that they could put them back at home and have a roof over their head. We’ve had a scenario where a mother couldn’t take care of her three children, and so she had to be split up from [them] because she couldn’t afford it, and with Southern Smoke, she was able to get back into a home with her kids. It’s a real thing. It’s a terribly gloomy thing. And so what Southern Smoke is doing is really, really impressive. It’s not just like I need to pay my cellphone bill. No, it’s putting people in their homes and keeping them [there]. I’m really glad that we set it up this way. I’m really glad that we made the decision during Harvey to put in an application process to start the Hospitality Relief Fund. There are really not many options for people in this industry to have the safety net right now. And right now we’re able to provide a safety net for people.