The Silver Lining of a Short-Lived Lease
Chef Chris Shepherd decided to cook like five different versions of himself.
May 24, 2018 ● 3 min read
By Jourdan Plautz | Julie Soefer Photography
On paper, Chris Shepherd has two restaurants.
Look closer, and he has six.
What if, when it came time to open the restaurant of your dreams, you didn’t have to choose between concepts? What if you could sign once, but open a restaurant for every passion project, without developing a reputation as a flip-flopper, without catching shade from the public, without having to confine your creativity?
What if you could think outside of the literal box of your restaurant’s four walls?
For James Beard Award-winning chef Chris Shepherd, “what ifs” are the reality. His critically-acclaimed Houston restaurant, One Fifth, operates under a deadline: five years, five concepts, five challenges. Come 2021, One Fifth will close.
The idea once only existed as Shepherd’s pipe dream, until he found himself standing in front of a vermillion bricked church built in 1927. It came with the works, the realtor chirped beside him: leftover kitchen equipment, a pass, and arguably one of the oldest wood-burning ovens in the city.
It also came with a catch: a five-year lease, and no chance of renewal.
“I was like, ‘Okay, great, well, thanks for wasting three hours of my day,’” he says. But then, an idea struck, and he exchanged a look with his business partner Kevin Floyd. “The only way I would do this is if we changed the concept every year.”
“That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard,” Floyd said, which is as good a reason as any. They agreed to take the space.
Shepherd/Julie Soefer Photography
Just like that, One Fifth was born: five different restaurant concepts in five years, with one month between each concept for renovations and testing. The rotation has been incredibly freeing, Shepherd says; the menu changes, the interiors change, and even staff uniforms shift to fit each iteration.
One Fifth’s journey started with steak. Shepherd’s first restaurant, Underbelly, had armed him with a passion for grilling and a familiarity with whole-animal butchery. “It was kind of how I cooked at home — informal but fun.” By the end of that first year, One Fifth Steak had it all: happy customers, happy critics, and a menu boasting 100-day wet-aged steaks and three-tiered seafood towers.
As One Fifth Steak’s end date inched closer, Shepherd admits they considered bucking the original plan. Business boomed, and falling into the rhythm of a successful restaurant proved alluring. But the heart of One Fifth revolved around letting go of old instincts and uncovering new passions. “This gives us a viable option to figure out what we want to do later. We needed to push ourselves to be better, to learn more,” he says. “You get tired, sure — but to hell with it.”
So in the end, the grander mission of One Fifth prevailed, and One Fifth Steak shut down as promised. One Fifth Romance Languages, devoted to French, Spanish, and Italian food, opened in its wake. “We’re all trained classically French. We all understand some of the Spanish food — it was really just delving into Italian. All my chefs have done Italian food, and I had not.”
A trip to Rome and a slew of taste-tests later, Shepherd presented his translation of the Italian code. One critic called the result “one of the best pasta dishes I've ever encountered.”
The interior design transformation of One Fifth Steak into One Fifth Romance Languages/Julie Soefer Photography
Shepherd’s strength as a chef comes not only from his drive to learn, but his elasticity for new ideas. One Fifth Mediterranean (a reincarnation of an early concept, One Fifth Fish) will open in September of this year.
The decision sent him deep into books on Syrian, Israeli, Lebanese, and Greek cuisine. Through his culinary interpretations, Shepherd hopes to foster a global connection for both himself and his customers. “[Cooking is] a way to break down those walls that keep us from talking to our neighbors or trying something new,” he says. “That’s the way of life for us. To understand diversity, you have to embrace it.”
And why shouldn’t he embrace new ideas? “We can do anything we want. We already have the space, so let's just try. If you don’t try, you’re not going to get it done.”
Through the chaos of changing concepts and unfamiliar territory, Shepherd doesn’t regret a thing. His “what ifs” remain a constant reality, both in his doubts and dreams. But he needn’t have worried about abandoning them. Underbelly has since transitioned into UB Preserv, in order to make way for a new project: a revival of the beloved One Fifth Steak, called Georgia James.
For Shepherd, short-lived leases don’t demand short-lived dreams. The opportunities doomed to end, the ones dropped on doorsteps in inconvenient packages — these are ones worth taking. They teach us not to dream of falling into a successful restaurant’s rhythm, but to always drum up a new beat, starting with the words, “What’s next?”