This is the first part of a three-part Chef Chat series. Check back with us for Parts 2 and 3, which will run in this same space Thursday and Friday.
Mockingbird Bistro is one of our city's finest hidden gems. Sitting smack dab in the middle of a residential neighborhood in the River Oaks-Montrose area, it's a place that you would know about only if someone took you there or if you lived in the neighborhood. But it's comfortable and friendly, a place that you can visit frequently, stop in and grab a bite at the bar, chitchat with the bartender, and be greeted in person by the owner, John Sheely, who is usually positioned in the back of the main dining room, standing next to the bar in his white chef's coat.
Ambience is just one part of Mockingbird Bistro's charm. The thing that gets to people is the food. The portions are generous. The food is classic American with French influence, and it's always delicious. Much of that can be attributed to chef de cuisine Jose Vela, a steady figure in the Mockingbird family since he joined Sheely as a dishwasher in 1995. Known to friends and family as just "Vela" (pronounced "bella"), he's one of those under-the-radar chefs who stay in the background, which is exactly why we're putting him in the spotlight this week.
EOW: I've known you for a long time, but I don't know about you.
JV: Well, I'm very simple. I moved here to the States in 1995 from Mexico City.
EOW: Why Houston?
JV: I was playing in a band, like a rock band in Mexico City. We had been playing for about two years in Mexico City -- kind of like almost getting a record. So these guys were like, "Man, we need more money; what about if we move to America, start playing, see if we can get more money, get more equipment, speakers and stuff." The bass player had a lot of family here in Houston. And the singer, my cousin, he was like, "Yeah, that's good a idea. I have an uncle in California. So we can move to Houston or California, and see if we can start jamming." So we decided to come to Houston.
EOW: What did you play?
JV: I played the drums.
EOW: That's super cool!
JV: I haven't played in a long time, because I've gotten very into the restaurant. So we came, everything was nice, everything was good.
EOW: Is that when you got your piercing? (points to his pierced eyebrow)
JV: No, I think I got this piercing about eight years ago -- way later.
EOW: But that's your rock star personality!
JV: (laughs) Kind of. I like to throw a party, I like to just kind of relax and enjoy what I'm doing at the moment. So we moved over here. There was three of us -- the bass player, the singer, my cousin, and me. We moved in with the bass player's family here in Houston.
EOW: Were you playing gigs?
JV: We did. We almost started playing with this band called Los Skarnales, a very well-known ska band. I think the band is still playing.
EOW: This is the mid-1990s, and you're playing Mexican rock with a ska band.
JV: Well, they gave us a chance to play with them whenever they go play. But the whole thing is, we ran out of money, so we had to start working. (laughs)
EOW: How long before you ran out of money?
JV: Man, I think it was like four or five months. We thought it was going to be so easy, but it wasn't.
EOW: So if you played gigs, did they pay you?
JV: What we were thinking was, we would move here and start making money. Because we were good. So we thought that for us, it would be easy, because back then, there weren't that many Mexican bands playing here. We thought we would make our money that way, but it didn't work at all.
EOW: So, four months, and you're out of money. Why did you get into cooking?
JV: Actually, all the family of my friend worked in the restaurant business, either as cooks or dishwashers. So, when I needed money, that's where I looked for a job.
EOW: How old were you?
JV: I was 19.
EOW: So, no experience.
JV: No experience professionally, but it's a long story. Before I started with the band, I was in architectural school -- had almost finished the career. I had been working in big constructions in Mexico, like subways and other huge projects. One of my cousins was an engineer and gave me a job as a surveyor. We started working in big places, where we would have to stay the whole week. So we had a little room with a little kitchen where we all stayed, and at that point, I never thought about being a cook, but I would always volunteer to cook for the team. EOW: So you were already cooking when you were in college. Where did the music come in?
JV: After the school -- I quit school to start playing in the band, because there was no time, and I had to make a choice.
EOW: You said you were a good band. What was the style? If you could pick a band that exists that's similar to your style, what would it be?
JV: Actually, when you just start playing, and you just want to jam, you usually just pick whoever you like in music. So we picked Metallica, Pantera, Nirvana, Ozzy Osbourne. And then we started going to music school, started getting more educated about music, so we started coming out with our own songs, our own music.
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EOW: What was your most popular song?
JV: We had only like nine or ten songs that we were playing. The most popular song was called "Herencia Letal" -- you know when your uncle dies and he leaves you some money? Translated, it means "lethal inheritance." It was also the same name as our band.
Check back with us tomorrow as we chat about Vela about his role at Mockingbird Bistro.