Resy and Industry Members Gathered in Houston, TX for Annual Southern Smoke Festival


The organization raised a record $1.8 million for its emergency relief fund, Behind You Mental Health Program

Chefs, food and beverage workers and other industry members gathered in Houston, Texas on October 13 and 14 for two days of food, fun and fundraising at the annual Southern Smoke Festival. Southern Smoke – a non-profit that provides emergency relief funds and a no-cost mental health program for food and beverage workers – puts on the annual festival to raise funds for industry workers who are in crisis. With support from local and national chef talent the 2023 festival raised a record $1.8 million which Southern Smoke Foundation co-founder and James Beard Award winner Chris Shepherd emotionally announced on stage during the event’s finale. Resy and American Express, ongoing supporters of the Southern Smoke Foundation, were official festival partners and were on the ground to add to the weekend’s festivities. A Friday pool party to welcome attendees kicked off the weekend, followed by breakfast for participating restaurants on Saturday, and a Refresh with Resy station available throughout the day.



We asked Resy team members on-the-ground about their Southern Smoke Festival weekend highlights. Here’s what they had to say.


What was the best moment from the weekend? As someone who ran restaurants for 20+ years prior to joining Resy, my personal mission as an operator was always to support the MANY people on my staff who struggled with mental health issues (panic attacks on their shifts, deep depressions, suicidal tendencies, hopelessness). It was such a difficult situation to be in as a leader/mentor: trying to be emotionally supportive yet watching them not have the money or resources to get the very real help they needed. I would be transparent about my own struggles with bipolar disorder to try to give hope that it’s possible to persevere and to be successful no matter how dark it might seem in the present moment. Because of these experiences, the most meaningful moment of this weekend to me was not only thanking Chris Shepherd personally for all his efforts toward this deeply personal and necessary cause, but also hearing from the chefs and operators who all have stories just like mine and seeing the industry come together to step up and support their own in a HUGE way.  Watching the hard work and the love that every person put into this event so that people out there in the industry who are struggling could have a beacon of hope was overwhelmingly inspirational and emotional for me. I have never been prouder to be part of an event, and to know that Resy and American Express saw the value in sponsoring this.

Did you have a favorite run-in? My favorite was ending up in the elevator with Ashley Christensen on the way to the Respect the Rose dinner and telling her how much I love when a woman goes bold with her fashion (she was wearing a full sequined silver jacket). It felt like she was an old friend the rest of the weekend. It was also very special to see Aaron Bludorn and Cherif Mbodji (from my managed accounts Bludorn and Navy Blue) get called up on stage for an award for how much they show up in support of Southern Smoke Foundation.  The hospitality that group has always shown me as their Restaurant Success Manager at Resy clearly bleeds through on a larger level to the entire community of Houston and to the restaurant industry, as a whole.  Truly inspiring to be a small part of their restaurants’ success.

What was the best thing you ate over the weekend? I was not expecting it, but my favorite thing was the pizza slice from Chris Bianco – with red onion, parmigiano reggiano, rosemary and santa barbara pistachios. The thoughtfulness he put into not only the presentation of his food, but also his whole event space was incredible. I was impressed that he personally touched every single pizza coming out of that oven. To see such a seasoned chef working through the entirety of an outdoor event like that was truly inspiring.


What was the best moment from the weekend? Watching Chris Shepherd break down when he looked at the BIG CHECK with $1.8 million written on it, while standing amidst a sea of some of the most impressive talent the US has to offer was pretty special.

Was there a particularly fun or meaningful moment that stood out to you? Honestly, the entire concept of Southern Smoke Foundation – what they stand for, how they show up, and the impact they provide – made me incredibly proud. Witnessing all of the amazing talent and contributors come together in support of something so powerful and important was truly moving.

Did you have a favorite run-in? I was stopped in my tracks when someone I worked with about 20 years ago at his FIRST restaurant job ended up being one of the faces behind one of the best bites at the throwdown. Alejandro Borunda and Daniel Fox have created something truly special in El Paso with Taconeta. It was wonderful to catch two people I had worked with years ago, at two different venues, find their way to each other to spark magic!

What was the best thing you ate over the weekend? Anju’s soft-serve was my absolute favorite thing at the throwdown. I am an ice cream addict, and it was so innovative with both flavor profile and textural contrast. Color me obsessed. I am still dreaming about the baked oysters at Navy Blue with Andouille butter (WHAT??) and those BISCUITS. The lamb tartare at Nancy’s Hustle was also outstanding!


What was the best moment from the weekend? Was there a particularly fun or meaningful moment that stood out to you? I think the best moment of the weekend was when Chris Shepherd walked into the festival after party with a giant $1.8 million check, signifying the impact of his and his Southern Smoke team’s efforts to support the industry in a meaningful way. One meaningful moment I’ll carry is that I attended the festival with my two young children, and every single chef spoke to the kids, showed them various elements of the dishes, and asked if adjustments were needed to account for spice, allergies, etc. Was moved by all their hospitality on display!

Did you have a favorite run-in? Dana Cowin, food influencer and founder of the independent media company Speaking Broadly! She and I had just seen one another at the annual Food Education Fund benefit in NYC, so it felt serendipitous to see her again just 48 short hours later in Houston (and again on my flight home).

What was the best thing you ate over the weekend? Don’t make me choose! Was very excited to have a Suerte fish taco after so many months without, though shining stars for me were Chris Bianco’s pistachio pizza and Anju’s melon soft serve with crushed Frosted Flakes, strawberries, and some sort of insanely delicious drizzle!


What was the best moment from the weekend? Was there a particularly fun or meaningful moment that stood out to you? It’s hard to pick one, but if I had to, it would be during the testimonial portion of the Respect the Rose Event from chefs participating in the event. Many gave specific examples of how Southern Smoke has impacted one of their employees. There were many tears and smiles that came from those stories, and it made me even more proud to be a part of such an impactful organization. I also enjoyed watching Ashley Christensen leading and rocking the live auction that night. She has many talents outside of the kitchen!

Did you have a favorite run-in? I enjoyed meeting Nina Compton in person! I am a huge fan and asked for a picture — which she was happy to take with me. It was great meeting Chris Williams and learning about his new venture, the Eldorado Ballroom. This is a place where icons like BB King and Etta James used to perform! It’s hard to choose this one as I had many interactions with incredible chefs who spent their weekend, away from their restaurants, supporting a wonderful cause. They all worked tirelessly the day of the main event, rarely taking breaks, and working on thousands of portions of amazing food. It was rewarding to see, but no surprise because hospitality people love to take care of their own and others.

What was the best thing you ate over the weekend? Ashley Christensen’s chargrilled oyster, Chris Bianco’s Pistachio Pizza, Carlo Lamagna’s ink squid pasta with crab, and Jordan Rubin’s Tuna Tartare Roll.


What was the best moment from the weekend? Was there a particularly fun or meaningful moment that stood out to you? The camaraderie that Southern Smoke creates among chefs – all supporting a singular cause of helping their own – is truly inspirational. Being a part of it brings so much pride and joy and it creates a lasting bond among attendees. There are too many moments to call out, but from start to finish, everyone is there because they care so deeply about the industry, and it’s a testament to what the Southern Smoke team has created.

Did you have a favorite run-in? Chris Bianco is a legend and watching him make every single pizza for 1000 attendees was astonishing. All the chefs are incredible though, they were putting out absolutely delicious food for a thousand people, but having so much fun in the process. It’s unlike any other event!

What was the best thing you ate over the weekend? I ate so much and don’t regret a single bite, but I’d have to say Ashley Christensen’s Pimento Cheese Butter Roasted Oysters, the Quesadilla topped with Caviar from Taetemo, and the Turkey and the Wolf Pot Pie Empanadas.


What was the best moment from the weekend?  The Chef Pool Party on Friday was a blast! All of the chefs were there to support emergency relief efforts benefiting those across the entire industry and some even in their own kitchens. Hearing the stories of the impact that the foundation has had with a hearty dose of fun was a perfect mix to kick off the weekend.

Did you have a favorite run-in?  The whole Southern Smoke team. The passion they have for what they do and the impact they have within our industry is inspiring.

What was the best thing you ate over the weekend? A grilled NC Lighthouse Shoal oyster with pimento cheese butter & blue cornbread crumbs from Ashley Christensen…I’m still dreaming about it.