Chef Chat, Part 2: Jamie Zelko of Zelko Bistro
EOW: So let's talk about your restaurant. I see some aged wood and old photographs. Tell me about your inspiration for the ambiance.
Zelko: Well the wood on the ceiling is reclaimed lumber from inside the walls. It's pine boarding that was put in the walls for insulations in the 1920s. So when the walls were torn out, there was this abundance of wood that was too beautiful to throw away. We treated and whitewashed it, and now I think it makes the place pop. Adding to that is the 1920s Houston photography we have on the walls. Other inspirations come from me going to antique shops where I find and learn ways to make things such as the [mason-jar] lights at the bar and the upside-down spigots for purse hooks. Also, the white wood at the front is from the early 1900s, from a mushroom farm from Pennsylvania. I got it completely raw. My dad's company processed it and made paneling out of it.
EOW: Your dad and uncles own Zelko Brothers Cabinet & Fixture Company. How were they involved with your bistro?
Zelko: I sketched out what I wanted to do here and they built it for me. From my drinks bar to my pick-up bar, they made the countertops, wine cubbies, hostess stand and more. They're pretty much responsible for what you see in this place. They do custom cabinets and millwork. They do everything manually, so no computers. Their craft is just going to go with them because no one understands craftsmanship they way that they do.
EOW: You say their craft will go with them, but it sounds like some of it already lives in you. Was there ever any pressure for you to get into the business of wood and not food?
Zelko: No. I am very fortunate. My family is unconditional. Though my dad wanted me to be a pro golfer playing in the LPGA when I was younger. I actually started playing golf when I was eight. I'm pretty decent now, but it was such a frustrating sport because it was solo. There was no team to work with. So besides golf, my dad never really pressured me into doing anything else. He did always have ways of hinting what he wanted like, "So, Jamie, what do you think about quitting softball and volleyball and doing the Nike tour?"
EOW: So besides culinary mastery, amateur woodworking, a small golf handicap, and a knack for team sports, what other hidden talents do you have?
Zelko: Well, my dad used to be a pro bass fisherman. He won several dozen Bassmaster competitions here in Texas. So I've won a Bassmaster with my father before. On the weekends I still get with my family, and we go fishing or golfing. I'm just one of those people who feel like they haven't made it, so I continually try to learn in my life. I also have my shooting license. I've flown an airplane, but I will never jump out of an airplane. No way will you get me to jump out of a plane.
EOW: Great! At least there's one thing I've done that you haven't. You were starting to give me a complex.
Zelko: Look, at the end of the day, I'm just a cook that likes making good food for good people.
Tomorrow we'll sample some of the food this wood-working, bass-fishing, plane-flying, gun-toting cook has to serve.