Houston chef Chris Shepherd grew up learning about food “in a vacuum.”
Growing up in a white, middle-class family in Nebraska and Oklahoma, he ate meatloaf, mashed potatoes and zucchini bread until he went to culinary school, where he learned French cooking techniques that, since Auguste Escoffier, had become the standard for high-end cuisine.
But the world has changed, and so has Shepherd. It didn’t take a long time living in Houston for him to realize that there’s a whole world beyond the fine dining kitchens in which he’d trained. As the most diverse city in the country by many measures, Houston provided a secondary education in food that transformed Shepherd’s understanding of both everyday ingredients, including rice, corn, soy sauce and chile peppers, and the complex issues that food also touches, such as labor, class and race.
To unpack what he’s been learning on this culinary journey, Shepherd teamed up with co-author Kaitlyn Goalen to write “Cook Like a Local: Flavors That Can Change How You Cook and See the World: A Cookbook" (Clarkson Potter, $35). The book uses six core pantry staples to take readers beyond the traditional lessons taught in fancy culinary schools to get at the heart of what it means to make good food. He kicks off the cookbook with an entire chapter on fish sauce, an ingredient now widely adopted throughout his beloved Houston, far beyond the Vietnamese restaurants that might have introduced it.
Grilled Herb-Marinated Chicken
There’s nothing new about marinating chicken with herbs and citrus, but the addition of fish sauce takes this tried-and-true technique to something seriously next level. The fish sauce works its way deep into the chicken to impart its funky, salty flavor all the way through. This recipe also shows off the special relationship between fish sauce and sugar (in this case, honey) and how they work together to create caramelization without tipping the scales of flavor into something too sweet. If you’d rather not mess with a whole chicken, feel free to swap in chicken thighs or breasts. Serve this with papaya salad.
— Chris Shepherd
1 (3-pound) chicken or 3 pounds bone-in, skin-on chicken parts
1 cup fish sauce
1/4 cup honey
Juice of 4 limes, plus 2 limes cut into wedges, for garnish
10 garlic cloves
2 bunches scallions (about 12), trimmed
1 bunch cilantro, plus more, chopped, for garnish
1/4 cup vegetable oil
Set the chicken breast-side down on a cutting board. Using kitchen shears or a cleaver, go up from the cavity of the chicken toward the neck, cutting on either side of the backbone to separate it from the ribs (save the backbone for your next batch of chicken stock). Turn the chicken over, place both your hands in the center of the breast plate, and press down hard until you hear the breastbone snap; the chicken should be flattened at this point.
Combine the fish sauce, honey, lime juice, garlic, scallions, cilantro, jalapeņos and oil in a blender. Puree to a smooth consistency. Put the chicken in a large resealable plastic bag and pour in the sauce. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight.
Prepare a medium-hot grill with a medium-low zone. If using coals, build the fire off to one side of the grill, giving you direct and indirect heat. Remove the chicken from the marinade, letting any excess drip away. Place the chicken, skin-side down, on the hotter side of the grill and cook for 5 minutes, being careful not to let it burn as the sugars from the honey start to caramelize. Using tongs, flip the chicken and move it to the cooler side; continue to cook until it reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees, 35 to 40 minutes (flip it again about halfway through for even cooking). Transfer the chicken to a cutting board and let it rest for 10 minutes.
To carve the chicken, cut the wing portions from the breasts, cut the breasts into two pieces each, and separate the drumsticks and thighs. Top with cilantro and serve immediately with lime wedges. Serves 4.
— From “Cook Like a Local: Flavors That Can Change How You Cook and See the World: A Cookbook" by Chris Shepherd and Kaitlyn Goalen (Clarkson Potter, $35)