A Texas-size thank-you. 
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Chris Shepherd at Houston Firefighters on Thanksgiving
Credit: Julie Soefer

Most of us bank on spending the holidays at home, but for firefighters and other public workers, being on the clock—while the rest of us are sitting around the table—is part of the job. Chris Shepherd thought about this rough justice in 2008. Then a chef at buzzy Spanish restaurant Catalan, he was already preparing his family's Thanksgiving feast in the ample space of an industrial kitchen. It would be easy, he figured, to knock out extra food for his local firehouse. "I remember thinking, ‘I have the ability to do this; why wouldn't I?' " he says.

That initial gesture led to a tradition that the award-winning Houston chef has relished for over a decade. "It's one of my favorite days of the year," he says. Shepherd used to get up early to make everything himself. But now that his company, Underbelly Hospitality, offers to-go Thanksgiving Day meals (with dishes such as creamed collard greens, cornbread custard, and potato tot casserole), he makes the deliveries and handles the main event: fried turkey. Over the years, he's roasted and smoked birds, but he finds frying especially satisfying. In his recipe, a peppery apple cider vinegar mixture perfumed with garlic, bay leaves, and orange zest infuses the turkey with its first layer of flavor. After frying, the crispy skin gets a liberal dose of Creole seasoning.

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Although Shepherd is well-known in culinary circles, the area firefighters don't always recognize the guy in glasses driving into the station, rolling down his window to ask, "Hey, what's up?" But that doesn't matter. "It feels good to look out for and take care of the people around us," he says. "I see them driving down the street and think, ‘Those are our guys.' "

Understanding and appreciating Houston's diverse community is at the heart of all of Shepherd's projects. Inspired by the city's culinary melting pot, his new book, Cook Like a Local, shares recipes and wisdom learned from chefs at area Vietnamese and Indian restaurants, Korean grocery stores, and more.

In return for his holiday generosity, Shepherd has been recognized in different ways: He received an honorary patch from Houston Fire Station 7 and a firefighter coin (along with instructions to keep it in his pocket at all times). "It's kind of cool to feel inducted with them," he says.

Aaron Wallace, captain at Fire Station 16 in Houston's Montrose neighborhood, says that even after 24 years on the job, gestures of gratitude (large or small) never get old. He adds, "There's nothing more rewarding than to know that people out there genuinely appreciate you."