In early March, I guest judged for the fifth time at Chef Johnny Hernandez’s 11th annual Paella Challenge in San Antonio.

Cooking under tents at Mission County Park, more than 30 professional chefs from around the U.S. and Mexico competed for top paella honors in classic and contemporary categories.

Incorporating a high school contest, this festive fixture benefits Kitchen Campus, the youth culinary education organization that Hernandez founded in 2014 in memory of his father.

As Hernandez crowned the winners, few realized that this would be among San Antonio’s last public events before the pandemic-induced shutdown.

Hernandez was already shifting, though, with a case study in rapid response and innovation (see Q&A with Johnny Hernandez).

He is not alone. From philanthropy to repurposed kitchens, here are creative examples of dynamic pivots by Texas culinary leaders—and what food and beverage locales you can bookmark for future live events.

“Taking Care of Our Own”

In 2015, Houston’s James Beard Award winning chef-restaurateur Chris Shepherd founded the Southern Smoke Foundation after his friend, former sommelier Antonio Gianola, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Following Hurricane Harvey in 2017, the non-profit created an Emergency Relief Fund for food and beverage workers in crisis.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, the Southern Smoke Emergency Relief Fund has distributed nearly $2.9 million to 1,500-plus industry workers. In partnership with Mental Health America of Greater Houston and the University of Houston, the foundation also provides free mental healthcare to all Texas food and beverage workers, their children included.

Chris Shepherd
Photo: Chris Shepherd with Southerm Smoke smoker; Credit: Catchlight Photography

To date, Southern Smoke has distributed more than $4.5 million in direct relief and to organizations representing people in the industry.

[Related: Music-Centric Venues and Experiences in Texas That Make Events Sing]

Southern Smoke was created to “take care of our own,” states Shepherd, whose event-capable Underbelly Hospitality restaurants include The Hay Merchant and Mediterranean-driven One/Fifth Houston. Shepherd is also creating packaged meals for Texas grocery giant H-E-B’s new restaurant partnership program.

Supporters include Austin-based Tito’s Vodka, which named Southern Smoke one of four beneficiaries of a $1-million donation to help the industry.

Renowned for his urban western cuisine, Texas-born Tim Love blazed onto the Fort Worth culinary scene in 2000 with his event-capable Lonesome Dove Western Bistro in the Historic Stockyards District. His portfolio now includes the historic White Elephant Saloon, Love Shack, and Woodshed Smokehouse, with outposts in Austin and Houston. 

This summer, Love spoke at a White House roundtable in support of the new chef-backed Independent Restaurant Coalition, which is lobbying Congress to help America’s independent restaurants and workers through the pandemic.

Joining Love at the table was Kevin Fink, owner and executive chef of Emmer & Rye in Austin. Fink is a 2020 James Beard finalist for Best Chef in the new Texas-only category.

Five-time nominee and co-finalist Steve McHugh of Cured in San Antonio participated in this summer’s Cook Across Texas event, a virtual fundraiser benefiting the Southern Smoke Foundation. The Beard Foundation also recognized McHugh in 2020 as a Smart Catch Leader for his commitment to sustainable sourcing.

Last fall, McHugh, a cancer survivor, raised over $50,000 for The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society at his annual Cured for a Cure dinner. His recovery inspired the restaurant’s name and charcuterie-focused menu. McHugh has also prepared food for Jose Andres’ World Central Kitchen.

In March, star San Antonio chef Jason Dady partnered with food festival producer Culinaria to create HospitALLity House, an industry relief project providing free lunches and dinners to laid-off restaurant workers. Dady has also pivoted into retail mode via the H-E-B partnership.

[Related: Groups Meeting in Texas: Your Roadmap to the State’s Best Barbecue]

Unconventional Responses

Organized by the FestEvents Foundation to feed area pandemic-impacted restaurant and hospitality workers, Staff Meal Dallas prepared 25,000 packaged meals for curbside distribution over 10 weeks between mid-April and mid-June.

First to donate workspace was event venue 3015 in Big D’s Trinity Groves development. As demand grew, the Irving Convention Center stepped in with its state-of-the-art kitchen for the duration. Executive Chef Eduardo Alvarez, in his 10th year with the Center, led the effort.

Eduardo Alvarez
Photo: Chef Eduardo Alvarez and team prepare meals for Staff Meal Dallas; Credit: Visit Irving

The Austin Convention Center is providing space and helping hands in support of the Eating Apart Together (EAT) initiative to feed the area’s homeless. Efforts include packaging bags of shelf-stable food for delivery by outreach organizations across the city. Additionally, the convention center’s culinary team is adjusting its services with new standards and protocols for the present context.

Rearranging the Place Settings

Multi-level Legacy Hall has been a hit with Plano groups since opening in November 2017, even securing some 2,500-capacity buyouts. The artisanal food hall, beer garden, craft brewery and entertainment stage combine to make it a dynamic option for events.

Legacy Hall
Photo: Legacy Hall dining, Plano; Credit: Legacy Hall

With 20-plus eateries and several craft bars, the popular food hall is operating at 50% capacity for dine-in, while restaurant partners are offering third-party delivery and curbside pick-up, as of publication time.

These include meal kits and kits for recreating popular cocktails at home. Notable solutions included Cinco de Mayo taco and margarita kits with Mexican beer, delivered to at-home revelers by a serenading mariachi band.

Paused as of mid-July, dining and room service at 299-room Hilton Dallas/Plano Granite Park will resume once occupancy levels pick up. With all 30,000 square feet of indoor and outside space available under Hilton EventReady and CleanStay guidelines, group bookings are looking up for October and beyond.     

[Related: Texas Outdoor Venues Provide Creative Outlets for Modified Events]   

This summer, El Paso’s Downtown Management District created the Fresh Air Food Court, providing socially distanced, sanitized on-street seating for individuals and small groups to eat food purchased from Downtown restaurants.

Q&A with Johnny Hernandez: Answers, Action—and Margaritas to Go

Johnny HernandezFor nearly 30 years, Johnny Hernandez (pictured) has been a force of change for his hometown of San Antonio. Here’s how the inveterate entrepreneur turned up the heat in the pandemic.

When and how did you switch to pivot mode?

Man, it’s been a rollercoaster. Hit in succession were our convention and offsite catering businesses, our AT&T Center and airport eateries, and our restaurants in town. Following early conversations with city and county leaders, when cases were low and we thought we were managing boundaries, I envisioned a three-month adjustment plan. Who knew, right? But I had a fast-track strategy based not on cutting costs and hunkering down, but by rethinking how to get food to people. Leveraging our operational know-how, relationships, supply chain and other elements, we went to work.

How did you adjust?

In just two days, we converted two of our restaurants [La Gloria, his flagship in the Pearl complex, celebrating 10 years this summer, and The Fruteria in Southtown] into grocery stores, selling essentials with extended hours. We are cooking 10,000 meals a week for seniors in partnership with Meals on Wheels. Our relationship with H-E-B is blossoming. And we mobilized by creating Margarita Trucks stocked with food, margaritas, and at-home cocktail kits. Planners, these are also available for events!

Margarita Truck
Photo: Margarita Truck; Credit: Grupo La Gloria

What does the future hold?

From expanding our production kitchen and developing new ordering platforms to redeploying my staff, I’ve been learning and adapting non-stop. Engineering trucks that can efficiently serve perishables all day in the Texas heat has kicked my butt. But I’ve built my career on aligning challenge with opportunity. With the street side and airport restaurants now back open, we will emerge from the pandemic with three new business lines—and the reward of helping the community in a time of need.

Read Next: Outdoor Venues in Austin and the Hill Country for Fresh-Air Events