National food publications love to obsess over Southern chefs, filling their pages with profiles, artistically styled food photos and recipes for dishes that require a degree from Le Cordon Bleu to pull off at home. But some of the most remarkable accomplishments from Southern chefs aren’t happening in their kitchens or on the plate. Ryan Smith and Chris Shepherd are award-winning chefs and restaurateurs who run successful businesses, but still find the extra time to help out their local communities while maintaining a level of culinary excellence in their own establishments.
Chef Ryan Smith
Chef Smith has been nominated by the James Beard Awards as Best Chef: Southeast for his work at the outstanding Atlanta restaurant, Staplehouse. He is perhaps most proud of his accomplishments at The Giving Kitchen, a non-profit formed to provide financial assistance to members of the culinary community encountering crisis. The story of Smith’s involvement in both Staplehouse and The Giving Kitchen is one of triumph and tragedy, and also a story of three Ryans.
Chef Ryan Hidinger and his wife Jen earned a reputation for throwing excellent pop-up dinners around Atlanta and decided that they wanted to open their own small neighborhood eatery. They asked Ryan Smith, who was engaged to Ryan Hidinger’s sister, to join the team at what would become Staplehouse. Smith was garnering praise running the kitchen at Hugh Acheson’s popular Midtown Atlanta restaurant Empire State South, but blood was thicker than water, so he agreed to make the jump to support his family’s new venture.
In 2012 while the Ryans were in the midst of planning their dream restaurant, Ryan Hidinger was diagnosed with Stage IV gallbladder cancer and given less than a year to live. At 35, Hidinger’s world was turned upside down, but Smith remained committed to bringing Staplehouse to fruition. The third Ryan in this tale is Ryan Turner, Hidinger’s former restaurant boss, who was very supportive of his young chef’s plan to open his own place. Turner heard the news about Hidinger’s illness and immediately started to mobilize the restaurant community to help.
The Giving Kitchen executive director Bryan Schroeder recalls, “Ryan [Turner] just wanted to give him the best chance. So they planned a fundraiser event with a goal of $25,000 to help the Hidingers out with medical expenses. In the end, the event raised more than $275,000!” The Ryans considered what they had wrought and wondered what if the restaurant could give back to the community the way it had helped Hidinger.
Staplehouse suddenly had a mission that was even bigger than merely serving delicious, soulful food to discerning diners. The Giving Kitchen was set up as a 501(c)3 with Staplehouse as an adjunct business to help with fundraising efforts along with various events throughout the year. During the inevitable delays before opening, the Hidingers and Smith took the time to go through a journey of exploration together, studying the effects of diet and how it affects cancer, the results of which show up on the Staplehouse menu and its openness to pescatarian, vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free and other dietary restrictions.
Unfortunately, Ryan Hidinger passed away in January of 2014, 20 months before Staplehouse finally opened its doors, but Smith stayed the course even though he was essentially voluntarily out of work for two years waiting on construction. The time was spent expanding the reach of The Giving Kitchen, which has given away more than $1.5 million to restaurant workers who find themselves in crisis situations. If a cook becomes sick or injured and cannot work, they can apply for a grant from The Giving Kitchen that might pay their rent directly to the landlord for four months while they get back on their feet. They also offer assistance to cover funeral expenses for a death in the family if a worker can’t afford it.
The Giving Kitchen also connects restaurant workers to dentists and counseling services who offer care for free or on sliding scales for patients referred by TGK. Schroeder thinks chefs like Smith deserve even more credit than they receive. “People think chefs are these crazy pirates who shoot first then aim, but The Giving Kitchen is an incredibly organized and successful organization founded by chefs. We try to provide balance between being good stewards of the donated dollars and making it easier for restaurant workers to get emergency aid. Our donors can be assured that their dollars are really changing someone’s life.”
Chef Chris Shepherd
In Houston, Chris Shepherd is also working hard to aid members of his local restaurant community, particularly in the wake of the destruction of Hurricane Harvey that flooded the South’s largest city with more than 30 inches of rain last August. Shepherd operates multiple restaurants in the city, ranging from Underbelly, a farm-to-table establishment that tells the story of Houston and its diverse cultures through food, to One Fifth Houston, a restaurant that changes themes every year based on the whim of the chef and what currently excites him.
A proud advocate for Houston and its restaurant scene, Shepherd had already thrown two very successful fundraising events to raise money for multiple sclerosis in honor of a local sommelier who had been diagnosed with the disease. He also throws small dinners to donate to culinary scholarships. (“Because I want to still eat well when I grow older,” Shepherd jokes.)
When the storm hit, the neighborhood around Shepherd’s restaurants were largely unaffected by the rising waters. “We rode out the storm on Saturday night and were closed on Sunday. But on Monday we realized that people needed help. Restaurant workers were in trouble because they had lost their jobs, their homes and everything they owned.”
Underbelly the restaurant isn’t a non-profit, but this annual Southern Smoke fundraising event is a registered 501(c)3 foundation. Shepherd sought out how he could focus on the industry and give money directly to people who desperately needed it. A billboard next to the restaurant for Legacy Community Health offered an immediate answer. Shepherd partnered with the health center to become the agency to distribute the funds raised by his annual Southern Smoke fundraising event. With Houston in the national spotlight, Shepherd’s chef friends jumped at the opportunity to help out.
World-famous pitmasters like Austin’s Aaron Franklin and Rodney Scott of South Carolina fired up their smokers to prepare brisket and whole hog BBQ. Shepherd’s fellow James Beard Award winners Ashley Christensen from Raleigh, Mike Lata and Jason Stanhope from Charleston, and David Chang of Manhattan’s Momofuku empire and even more guest chefs brought their fine dining cooking talents outdoors to cook over open flames, in cauldrons and on grills for 1,600 lucky guests who paid hundreds of dollars per person for the opportunity.
Shepherd is extremely proud that this year’s Southern Smoke raised $501,000 for Hurricane Harvey relief efforts and that 139 workers, business owners and suppliers in the Houston food and beverage community who suffered losses during the storm received aid checks ranging from $1,000 to $9,000. “I still get people walking up to me to thank me for helping them, and I don’t even know who they are. We couldn’t have done it without the help of all the participating chefs and Legacy Community Health. I’m just the ‘go out and raise money guy.’ The fact that so many people came together to make this a reality speaks to the strength and resilience of Houston and our larger hospitality community. It was no small task to pull off an event of this size, with this many moving parts, but it was so worth it to be able to give these checks to folks who really need it right now. This is why we created Southern Smoke — to take care of our own.”
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