Chef Chat

Chef Chat, Part 2: Jose Vela of Mockingbird Bistro, on Working Up the Kitchen Chain While Learning English, and the Specials on His Menu

This is the second part of a three-part Chef Chat series. You can read Part 1 here and part three in this same space Friday.

Yesterday, we chatted with Jose Vela of Mockingbird Bistro about coming to the States with dreams of being a drummer in a Mexican rock band. Today we continue our chat, and learn how he worked his way up in the kitchen, about his experience learning English, and what he's doing on the menu right now.

EOW: So you ran out of money and started cooking. Where? When?

JV: First job, here in Houston, 1995. I moved in September over here. By October, I started working with John. It was at John's first restaurant, Riviera Grill, on Westheimer and Gessner. I walked in and said, "Hey, I'm looking for a job." He says, "You know how to wash dishes?" and I'm like "Yeah."

EOW: So you started washing dishes.

JV: Oh, yeah, my first job. But I moved really quick. Less than three months and I'm doing all the prep. First thing I learned how to do was the chocolate torte, which is still on the menu. I started with pastry and salads. Whatever they have to do, they just give me a list, show me one time and I just go for it. So, I worked in the morning with John, nine to three, and after three, I didn't have another job, so I volunteered to stay just to learn more. I would stay a couple more hours, clock out, no pay, just learning, and the whole thing started like that.

EOW: Did you ever go to another restaurant, or were you with John [Sheely] the whole time?

JV: Pretty much with John all the time. But in between the time when we closed the first Riviera Grill and the second Riviera Grill, which he opened in the Radisson Hotel at I-10 and Beltway 8, there were four months before he could get a deal. And during that time, I worked for Tony Mandola's on I-10.

EOW: So why didn't you stay with Tony, and you went back to John?

JV: So I was working at Tony Mandola's, and I started learning how to make sauces. Also, before Tony Mandola's, I think we painted two houses -- just to get the money. (laughs) So then one day, John called me, and he said, "Hey, I got the restaurant. I want you to come over here." And I pretty much knew how to do all the prep for the menu, so I went.

EOW: So, what about your family in Mexico?

JV: I have my mom and dad, and three brothers. Everyone's still back there; it's just me and two cousins here.

EOW: Did you ever think you were going to go back?

JV: As soon as I started liking the kitchen, because I really like it a lot, as soon as I knew I could do it, I just never looked back.

EOW: And what was the food at the Riviera Grill?

JV: We have a couple of dishes from there that we can't take off the menu: There's the crispy calamari, the chocolate torte for sure, and our steak frites with mushrooms -- we serve a 12 ounce New York steak with wild mushrooms -- crimini, shiitake and oyster mushrooms, with a side of baby arugula and crispy truffle frites. If we tried to change it, people would kill us.

EOW: Fast-forward to the present. You've been with John since 1995, it's 2013 -- that's 18 years. What kept you? You never went back to rock and roll.

JV: Just the kitchen. I started liking it -- started loving what I was doing. I remember John gave me a couple of books as gifts for Christmas time, you know, "Hey, these are for you" -- pastry and stuff. I have them at home still.

EOW: Did you read them? This was before the Food Network and Cooking channel.

JV: Back then in 1995, there were only two Spanish channels, everything was on repeat, and I didn't have the place to play, so I sold my drums.

EOW: So, but do you still like music? What are your favorite bands? What's on your iPod?

JV: I still love it. I have a lot of Spanish music, from all over the place, from Argentina, Bolivia, Mexico City. There's romantic, rock, heavy. There's a band, Molotov, they are based in Monterrey -- they were popular six or seven years ago, and I went to their concert. So I started getting into my books, I started going to school -- English school.

EOW: Wait -- going back to 1995, did you speak English?

JV: Not at all.

EOW: So how did you communicate in the kitchen?

JV: There was one guy, a Guatemalan guy, he spoke a little bit of English, so he translated. And John spoke a lot of Spanish.

EOW: Does he speak a lot of Spanish?

JV: Kitchen Spanish, like he "Give me the spoon, give me the spoon, pass me the carrots," "Dame el cuchillo, passe me la tabla" -- that's all kitchen Spanish. EOW: So when did you start learning English?

JV: Almost right away. I'm very aggressive; I always want to learn more, more, more. I see I wouldn't have the same opportunity if I didn't speak English. That was one of my priorities.

EOW: So you're at school...

JV: During lunches and at night. I was very lucky. I had this this guy, his name was Jim Trimming. He was a volunteer in one of the schools. I went to study with him Tuesdays and Thursdays, 9 to 11 in the morning. I think I did like two years with him.

EOW: Two years!

JV: He was a really, really cool guy. He spoke a lot of Spanish, so when I had a question, he would explain to me in Spanish, and he wouldn't let me pass to the next until I learned something. And then through the months or through the years, when I had vacation or if I had to work in the morning, "Hey, sorry, I have to work," and he'd be like, "No problem."

EOW: That's so cool! You had a fairy godfather.

JV: I was very, very lucky. I think he even paid for books and everything.

EOW: So did you keep in touch?

JV: You know -- after two years that we didn't see each other anymore, we lost contact. Then one day, a long, long time ago, he and his wife came to have dinner here, and I was looking at him, looking at him, and I was like, "This is Mr. Jim!" So I came up to him and I was like "Mr. Jim, how are you doing?" And he was like "Vela!" We hugged, and I was in charge here already, so I paid for dinner. And he was like, "No no no, you don't have to. We're not going to come if you pay," and I was like, "You know what? I'll pay anything for you." And then, that's it. That's the last time I heard from him.

EOW: So I want to talk about the new restaurant. Are you staying or going to the new restaurant, Osteria Mazzantini?

JV: I'm going to stay here 100 percent. John already hired another chef. He's coming here and doing the homework. I will be helping there a little bit.

EOW: So what is your official role here now?

JV: For me, when you say "Executive chef, executive sous chef, etc.," that's for big corporations. This is like a mom-and-pop. John owns it by himself, so I run the kitchen, all the menus, daily specials, everything. John trusts me a lot. I make a new menu, I give it to him, he checks it and makes sure it's good, but he trusts me lot.

EOW: Tell me about your menu then. How much is always there, and how often are you changing?

JV: We change the menu seasonally. We use whatever we can get -- try to support as many, as much local as possible. So right now, we're dealing with No Branch Farm, Live Green Farm, Black Hill Meat. For instance, the pork chop right now, we're doing a Berkshire kurobata pork. You can see the really nice marbling on the pork. We marinate it for two or three days, pan-sear it, then serve it with a dirty rice of mirepoix and boudin blanc, and serve it with roasted brussels sprouts and a Shiner Bock sauce. This is one of our best sellers right now. We sell a lot of specials.

EOW: What makes a special a special?

JV: What I try to do is two specials every night. We do a fish special and a meat special every night. So if it's going to be busy, we do ten orders of each, and when it's sold out, it's sold out. Last night, Saturday, we did a potato-crusted halibut with truffle passion puree, spring succotash, and a saffron cherry sauce. I've been doing kind of a French style, because the other chefs that worked for John cooked French, so I have a lot of influence from that.

EOW: Okay, so last question: The last meal that you would have in your life. Who would make it and what would it be?

JV: It would be my mom. It's a pork in green tomatillo sauce with purslane. That's a very traditional Mexican dish. And it has to be served with black beans.

Check back with us tomorrow as we taste some of Vela's food.

Mockingbird Bistro 1985 Welch Tel: 713-533-0200

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Mai Pham is a contributing freelance food writer and food critic for the Houston Press whose adventurous palate has taken her from Argentina to Thailand and everywhere in between -- Peru, Spain, Hong Kong and more -- in pursuit of the most memorable bite. Her work appears in numerous outlets at the local, state and national level, where she is also a luxury travel correspondent for Forbes Travel Guide.
Contact: Mai Pham