Food for Thought

An emergency risotto intervention: This Mockingbird knows creamy rice

An emergency risotto intervention: This Mockingbird knows creamy rice

Pasta I can do.

I grew up with pasta. Well OK, I grew up eating mom’s tuna-noodle casserole with canned tuna and Campbell’s mushroom soup. But since I started cooking and writing about food I find pasta a perfect go-to dish. There’s always some whole-wheat penne or angel hair in the pantry, as well as extra virgin olive oil (garlic, butter and Parmigiano-Reggiano. Now that’s a comfort meal. And if you’ve got grilled salmon or chicken to throw on it, great. Bring it on.

But Italians don’t live on pasta alone. They also eat a lot of rice. Rice I can do. Really, I can. But that creamy goodness known as risotto, well, notto.

I’ve only tried it twice, once after a fabulous meal at the old Tony’s during Alba truffle season.

I freely admit my drippy, crunchy risotto (with cheap black truffle) tasted nothing like Mr. Vallone’s. I apologize for even trying.

The second time, well, never mind. You get the idea.

So, when I saw the press release for the 8th annual International Risotto Festival at The Houston Design Center on Oct. 17, benefiting the University of Houston’s Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel & Restaurant Management, I started to drool. Just a little.

I’m not psychotic. I have no demented dreams of competing with the 19 top local chefs in this competition. But, I thought, maybe, just maaaybeee, I could learn a thing or two about making some decent (read edible) risotto.

So I flew over to Mockingbird Bistro to get a class in risotto 101 from last year’s winning chef John Sheely, who will be defending his title this year.

I knew from past experience in commercial kitchens, not to wear high heels. Every restaurant kitchen I’ve been in (and that’s a lot) has those rubber mats with holes in them. So, flat rubber shoes. Check. Jeans and white tunic. Check, check. Reporter's notepad, pens and iPhone for taking pictures. Check.

A portable fan would have been nice since it was about 1,000 degrees in the Mockingbird kitchen when I got there about an hour prior to the lunch rush.

Sheely, in crisp chef whites, didn’t appear to feel the heat. I could feel the heat from the gas burners from three feet away, but he just leaned over and tossed a handful of shallots in the hot pan.

“Don’t brown them,” he instructed. “You just sweat them.”

Yes, I was already sweating.

Next came two pinches of chopped bay leaves from the perfectly prepped bowls of ingredients. Note to self: My homemade risotto would be a lot better if I had a prep cook.

Next, Sheely dumped the mixture into a bowl and tossed the rice into the pan. He uses Arborio, a short-grain variety. Vialone Nano is another possibility, but Uncle Ben’s is not a substitute.

“You have to toast it,” chef says. “Toasting rice keeps the starch inside the kernel, keeps it creamy. You want a porridge like consistency.”

Then he adds the onion mixture back in, adds the heated lobster stock and stirs once.

“You don’t constantly have to stir it?” I ask.

“No stirring,” he insists. “If you have the experience you can tell when it’s ready just by touching the spoon to the rice.”


As the liquid reduces, he’ll add the liquid three more times, only stirring it occasionally. Adding a pinch of salt and ground black pepper here and there.

At one point, we actually leave the hell temperature kitchen to check out the new lounge area and marble bar, leaving chef Jose Vela to add stock and stir. Note to self: Hire Jose.

When we return to the kitchen the award-winning risotto is almost done. Chef Sheely explains that he has been working with Vela for ages.

“And we’re still talking.”

“Sometimes,” Vela mutters with a laugh.

The recipe we’ve been working on is the lobster/tomato risotto that won last year’s festival. But now he is conferring with Vela about this year’s entry.

“The buffalo mozzarella?”

“Yes, I think so.”

There is more muted discussion, but I look away and pretend to be interested in checking my e-mails. No need to alert the competition. I’m just here to learn some cooking skills.

At this point, I realize the flame under the risotto is about the level of Dante’s Inferno.

“I’m experienced,” says Sheely, as he flips the risotto in the pan. Do not try this at home.

“You probably need to keep it on simmer.”

And that flippy thing?

“You can learn it,” Sheely says. “Practice with dry beans in the pan, you’ll get the hang of it.”

Maybe, not so sure.

Now he adds the cooked lobster pieces, butter and finally the cheese.

“For risotto it must be Italian Parmigiano-Reggiano,” Sheely says. “Not some parma from Wisconsin.”

He gently folds in the cheese.

At this point he starts tasting.

“You need disposable spoons or keep spoons in water, you have to continually taste for constancy and flavor.”

Finally, after about 20 minutes, he spoons some into a bowl and finishes it with a drizzle of beurre blanc and presents it.

“Do you want to try it?”

“Uh, yeah, OK,” I try to say without salivating.

We sit at the new bar and I tuck into the lobster risotto and try not to swoon.

It is divine, creamy, yummy and very decadent.

“You can make a delicious risotto with simple lemon, asparagus, rock shrimp, wild mushrooms and, of course, white truffles,” Sheely says, “which goes without saying.”

So, can chef Sheely defend his title this October in the 8th annual International Risotto Festival?

“We’re going to do our best,” he says. “It would be kinda cool to win two years in a row. But there are a lot of pretty good chefs out there.”

Spoken like a true champ.

Ah, risotto
News_Marene_Risotto_Risotto Festival_Giancarlo Ferrara_Arcodoro
At last year's Risotto Festival, chef Giancarlo Ferrara of Arcodoro shares his creation.
News_Marene_risotto_Mockingbird Bistro_chef John Sheeley
Chef John Sheeley of Mockingbird Bistro perfects his risotto. Photo by Marene Gustin