The Mockingbird sings its own melody in Nashville, Tennessee.
Words by Nicole Letts
Photos by Daniel Brown
hen chef Brian Riggenbach competed on Food Network’s Chopped in 2015, and subsequently won, he knew exactly what he would do with his winnings: open his own restaurant with his husband and front of house guru Mikey Corona. The duo had spent years perfecting their Chicago-based pop-up dinner series, Yo Soy, and knew that their city apartment couldn’t be home base for much longer. “We lived in a dry storage. You'd open the closet, and there'd be a couple of T-shirts and then giant, 50-pound bags of sugar and flour,” Brian explains.
As the competition wrapped, Chopped judge, chef, and restaurateur Maneet Chauhan was impressed. “When she asked Brian what our goal was, he told her we were looking for an investor for our first brick and mortar. We were ready, and we were willing to do whatever it took," says Mikey.
Maneet and her husband Vivek Deora invited the couple to visit their home in Nashville. “At first, we didn't even realize that it was a business proposal,” Brian recalls. “Then, it became pretty clear that they had a space and were looking for a chef and an operating partner. They showed us Nashville and everything that it had to offer. We were swooned from that day on.”
Brian and Mikey found themselves packing up their knives and their lives to move to Nashville, Maneet’s hometown and her restaurant epicenter. After landing in Nashville in September 2016, the husband-husband team opened their restaurant, The Mockingbird, ten months later.
NASHVILLE’S RESTAURANTS ARE SURGING WITH PATRONS EXPECTING GREAT FOOD AND A GREAT EXPERIENCE. WHAT DO YOU THINK MAKES THE MOCKINGBIRD STAND OUT FROM THE CROWD?
Brian: I think that one thing that we do really well is offer a good diversity on our menu. The elevator pitch is that we're a modern diner with global influences. There's a big Hispanic influence on the menu, but then there's also some Turkish, a little Korean, and a little Japanese. There's a little bit of something for everyone. While they might seem disparate at first, it's a cohesive thought, and it all makes sense. There's big, bold flavors that appeal to a lot of different types of people.
I HAVE TO KNOW WHERE THE NAME THE MOCKINGBIRD CAME FROM BECAUSE A MOCKINGBIRD MIMICS OTHER SOUNDS, AND YOU GUYS ARE CLEARLY NOT DOING THAT. TELL ME ABOUT THE NAME.
Brian: Naming a restaurant is a lot like naming a child. We went through a long list of different names, and how it couldn’t just be a name that you pulled out of a hat but needed a story behind it. We ended up on The Mockingbird. I'm from South Florida, Mikey's from Texas, and we're in Tennessee. The Mockingbird happens to be the state bird of all three states.
Mikey: But we didn't know that when we named the restaurant. That turned out to be something that was circumstantial. Initially, it was because mockingbirds mimic their surroundings, and we're doing that via food. Whatever surrounds Brian and me through our adventures and experiences, we're mimicking those with our food and what we offer.
Brian: We're able to do a grits dish or a fried chicken dish but puta new spin on it and do something a little different. We like to say that instead of xeroxing what other people are doing, we're hearing those notes and then riffing on them. It's like an improv.
Mikey: Giving it our own tune, I guess you could say.
SPEAKING OF NAMES, THE NAMES OF YOUR DISHES ARE SUPER FUNNY. I FEEL THAT THEY SHOWCASE YOUR PERSONALITY. I HAVE TO KNOW—WHO NAMES THE DISHES?
Mikey: It's all me. They're so cheeky and cheesy. When Brian and I were doing our pop-up suppers in Chicago, every month our menu was different, and it had a different theme. I would name the dishes according to whatever theme we were doing that month.I think that's programmed me into wanting to make sure every-thing is thematic. When we opened the restaurant, it didn't seem natural for me not to give a dish a name that was kind of whimsical and out there, much like our pop-ups used to be. We carry that heart and soul over from our past. I thought by naming them the way I do, it makes dining out and your experience a bit more fun. It takes away from a lot of the seriousness that restaurants can pigeonhole themselves into. I think it serves as a reminder for you to drop any pretension and just have a good time.
WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE DISH?Mikey: The Bird is the Word is my favorite because in south Texas where I grew up, chicken-fried chicken is a thing. When Brian and I first started dating, he would do these versions of dishes I told him that I grew up loving. He would surprise me with these dishes every now and then, so this is one of them. Of course, it had to be on our menu, and it turned out to be one of our most popular dishes. It is chicken-fried chicken thighs in a chorizo gravy with salsa verde mashed potatoes. It's got a little bit of acidity in that salsa verde, and the mashed potato really cuts through some of that richness of the chicken batter itself. It is just so decadent. Whenever I'm craving soul food, that's the dish that I'll order.
NOT MANY SPOUSES CAN WORK TOGETHER SUCCESSFULLY, BUT IT SOUNDS LIKE YOU DO A GREAT JOB WITH IT. HOW DO YOU BALANCE YOUR WORKING RELATIONSHIP WITH A PERSONAL ONE?
Brian: I think that it's an ongoing experience, a learning experience.There are a lot of challenges that it can pose, but we get to relish in all the good moments together, share all those great experiences. Then, when something goes down in the doldrums as well, we are able to comfort each other.
Mikey: We can relate 100 percent to whatever the problem is because we are in the same industry; we're in the same building; we're in the same restaurant. It's something that we share, but like Brian said, we also get to relish in the good times together. Knowing that the blood, sweat, and tears pay off, really, I think, is the glue in our relationship. There have been times when [our relationship] was tested and that glue has tried to be pulled apart. We're 15 years together now, and out of those 15 years, 10 of them have been working toward having this restaurant. It's remarkable. I think during those tough times, we have to remind ourselves to look back and see where we've come from and what we've set our mind to. It’s finally come to fruition and that is what pulls us out of it.
I KNOW THAT BOTH OF YOU EITHER CONTRIBUTE FINANCIALLY OR WITH TIME TO NASHVILLE PRIDE, AND MIKEY, YOU'RE A BOARD MEMBER FOR THE NASHVILLE LGBT CHAMBER OF COMMERCE. CAN YOU TELL ME MORE ABOUT YOUR INVOLVEMENT AND HOW YOU HOPE TO INSPIRE THE LGBTQ COMMUNITY AND BEYOND?
Brian: We didn't want to be fly-by-night or phone-in owners and operators. We really wanted to come down here and become part of the community, and part of the city, and the city itself has embraced us with open arms. We're trying to give as much back as we've been able to receive, as well, which has been really terrific.
Mikey: It has been. But also, being as open about our journey, and what we wanted to do, and that we're finally making it happen [is important]. In sharing that story with other LGBTQ members of the community, I think it shows them they can come here and be comfortable, and not feel like they're going to be judged if they're holding hands with each other, or if they're going to be here [at The Mockingbird] on a first date. We're welcoming to everybody. We want everybody to come in here and have a good time.