Chef Chat, Part 2: John Sheely of Mockingbird Bistro

Today we continue our discussion with John Sheely to learn about how skiing ties into cooking, his memorable food discoveries and how he's been coping with the down economy.

EOW: I understand you love to ski. Do any skiing concepts translate into what you do in the kitchen?

Sheely: Sure. You just gotta hold on tight. And when you fall flat on your face, you just get back up, go back to the top of the hill, and do it again until you get it right.

EOW: I also hear that you love to travel and discover new foods. What's a memorable discovery you made on your trips?

Sheely: Fish tacos in Todos Santos in Baja. Those were the best fish tacos I've ever had in my life. It was a beautiful white fish fried tempura style by a street vendor. It was the best taco I ever put in my mouth. Another memorable meal was at the French Laundry. That was a three-and-a-half-hour meal, but it was awesome. At the time, the chef knew I was a chef. So if my partner and I ordered the same dish, the chef prepared our dishes differently. So if mine were grilled, hers would be sautéed. We would also have different vegetables. We had eight courses. It was amazing. It was an amazing, amazing meal.

EOW: What's it like when other chefs dine at your restaurant?

Sheely: It's a little nerve-racking but it's fun. If Mark Cox or Robert Del Grande came in, I would be nervous. At least I would, I don't know if they'll get nervous. I get nervous because these chefs are culinary giants in this city, and it can be rather intimidating. But if you do what you do best and stick with simplicity, it's fun to cook for them.

EOW: So do you ever get advice from other chefs that have visited your restaurant?

Sheely: Not typically, but I do get emails from somebody sometimes if something wasn't up to par, which I appreciate. It's nice to know of when something wasn't quite right so I can fix it. You're only as good as your last plate, so everything has to be perfect. It's such an exacting profession. When you do dry-cleaning and they didn't get the spot out, you still pay for the cleaning and may even continue going there. We don't have that margin for error. If I screw up something on your plate, you might never come back. You're going to tell ten friends and they tell ten.

EOW: Since the economic downturn, what have you been doing to hedge the effects and what have you learned?

Sheely: One of the things I learned was that I didn't have enough cash reserves. And though I knew this thing was coming, I wasn't quite ready for it. In the beginning, we were trucking along and everything was fine. We really just got hit this year. After Valentine's Day, I had two back-to-back months that were extremely slow. So since then, we've been trying to play catch-up. We've concentrated more on service and maintaining proper inventories. We have to be really careful. I don't think we're going to go back to the economy of free spending. Even if people have money now, no one is spending it like they used to. People's habits are changing. That's why we've built this new bar. We took out 40 seats, put in a bar, and are now offering a $9 bar menu. It's been a tough year. I can't wait for this year to be over and move on to the next.

Come back tomorrow to see the eight dishes Sheely served up in his attempt to add to my muffin top.

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