Chef Chat, Part 1: John Sheely of Mockingbird Bistro

This week we visited with Chef John Sheely, discussing mistakes new chefs make as well as his own mistakes.

EOW: I've met with chefs who are still early in their careers that are very eager to make a name for themselves and their restaurant. You've been described as a "veteran in the restaurant business." What sort of aspirations do accomplished chefs have?

Sheely: I believe you can't ever rest on your laurels; you're only as good as the last meal you put out. It's just an ongoing thing. To me, food is the easiest part as long as you buy the best ingredients, use proper technique and have a passion about what you do. The food's easy. The service and delivery to the customer everyday is what keeps people coming back. It's a very important component that I think a lot of people overlook. Many of these younger chefs just put their food out. They don't worry about the service. But I think every chef should take a big part in the service. They should know what's going on. How is the food served? Is it served properly? Is it served from the left and picked up from the right? Are they describing the ingredients and plates correctly? Are they reaching in front of the guests? It's all about the service. That's what I've learned in all my years of experience. Once you have that combination of food, service and location, it all works.

EOW: So what percentage of a chef's effort should be in food vs. service?

Sheely: For myself, when I first opened my first restaurant, I left the service in someone's hands while I concentrated on the kitchen. In fact, my first restaurant, some guy pulled me aside and told me, "We love what you're doing here, we love your food, and we'll come back again. But if you don't fix your service, we won't be back a third time because no matter how good the food is, if you can't serve it properly, we're not coming back." I think Houston is that kind of market. Houston is very service-oriented. There are a lot of restaurant families such as the Carrabbas, Mandolas and Corduas. They're very big on making you feel welcome and a part of their family.

EOW: What's another memorable mistake you made early on in your career that you learned from and has helped you to this day?

Sheely: There are so many. (laughs) I am guilty of opening restaurants in poor locations. Take this location. It's not a very good location. It's not on any major thoroughfare. It's a destination restaurant. You don't drive by and think, "Oh, let's go to Mockingbird." If I was on Westheimer, I might be doing double the revenue. This is true of every restaurant that I ever had, even when I was in Colorado. But I still make a go of it by making people feel like they're walking into my home. I'm here. My wife is here. The wait staff has been with me forever. Chef Jose has been with me since 1995. We all click and everything works together. I want people to feel warm when they walk in.

EOW: Speaking of Colorado, what are some of the major differences between the places you've worked in Colorado versus here?

Sheely: I used to think that Houston would have more of a year-round clientele, whereas it was very seasonal in Vail. But you know what? Houston has its seasons as well. People go out of town for the summer. It's slow when school starts and during tax season and holidays. There are ebbs and flows, much like in Colorado. However, it's not nearly as dramatic as the shoulder seasons when the mountain closes and everybody leaves.

Come back tomorrow to learn about Sheely's memorable food discoveries, how skiing ties into cooking, and how Sheely has been coping with the down economy.

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