Team OpenTable was scheduled to head down to Texas for the Austin Food & Wine Festival this weekend, but rain got in the way (bummer). Even though the festival is off, we’re taking the opportunity to honor some of the city’s great chef talent. In anticipation we chatted with James Beard award-winning chef Tyson Cole, founder of Uchi and Uchiko, two of Austin’s most celebrated restaurants. Here, he tells us why he’s lucky to live in Austin, what’s going on in the city’s food scene, and why Instagram is good for business.
Read the Q&A below to get inspired, and if you’re in town, come by and see us!
You started your career in Austin.
Yes, a long, long time ago. Uchi has been open for 13 years, and I’d made sushi for a little over 10 years. So maybe 23 years ago, I started?
What made you want to come back to Austin after training in Tokyo and New York?
My sensei took me to Tokyo; I never really made sushi in Tokyo, but I worked Japanese for 10 straight years for Austin. And I worked in New York for a little while, too. I was going to move away and give up Texas and go try to train in New York and open a place in New York, but it was really hard. Coming from Austin where things are easy and you have a car and a lot more freedom…
I was worked at a really great place called Musashino, and I had a lot of regular customers here. It would have been a real leap of faith to stay in New York, so thank god I didn’t. But going up there and checking out the scene and getting perspective on it was really valuable as well.
Was it always your goal to open your own restaurants?
I was making sushi that whole time. I realized there was a niche there for someone who had been blessed to learn the skill set that I had. Sushi was starting to get kind of popular. I had a whole bunch of regular customers, and it just seemed to make sense timing-wise to make the jump and try to open my own place.
Serendipitously, I had a lot of guests, regular customers, that were very inspired to help me open a place. I had a lot of offers for partnerships to open a restaurant; a few of them fell through, and then eventually I met my partner Daryl Kunik. He had been my customer for a decade. We went and looked for a space, found this space, and that’s how Uchi was born.
I wouldn’t say I started out wanting to open a restaurant, it just organically happened.
You mentioned a niche — how was Uchi different from the sushi restaurants that existed at the time?
At Uchi, we try to make every guest feel like there’s a sushi bar experience: the chef is there, you’re sitting right in front of him. They get to customize your order and over time, you have so many regular customers that you start to know them and get to be friends with them, and they start to trust you. That level of trust leads you to where they’re going to start challenging you to make new things. “I had this on Tuesday; what can you make today, it’s Thursday?”
Doing that over 10 years, I developed a repertoire of things that I did differently with sushi, just because I was so inspired by my guests to do that. I have this unspoken thing within me that I always want to please people; I’m so focused on hospitality. That’s in my DNA.
Over time, I just realized that I had all of the things we were making that other sushi bars didn’t make. I was combining ingredients that most sushi restaurants didn’t use and didn’t pair with their cuisine.
That was a lot of fresh produce, a lot of fruits — I found that texturally, really ripe fruits pair so well with raw fish. Even my first job at Kyoto, I was working lunch shifts and I would walk to Whole Foods every day and buy fruit with my own money to stash in my fridge where the Japanese owners couldn’t see it. I started pairing that with raw fish.
And those experimentations were the basis for some of the dishes at Uchi?
Absolutely. When we opened it grew into much more than that. With Uchi, there’s three things. The first thing is what I was doing with the sushi. The second thing is, I’m a sushi chef but in most sushi restaurants the kitchen food is secondary. I wanted to have an amazing kitchen as well. Lastly, I was all about hospitality so I wanted to be very Austin, very accessible, very focused on hospitality. I tried to combine those three things and again, quite serendipitously, 13 years later that’s what’s cool now: casual, Austin-style service.
On that note, what do you love about living and working in Austin?
I’ve been there for over 20 years. There’s this unspoken thing about Austin where people that are here are always pushing the boundaries, pushing the ceiling, trying to continue to do what they can to make this city great.
It’s always been that way, even back in the day when this was just a town. It was all about being unique and keeping Austin weird. It’s really driven by the demographic, by the youth, the university. That part of Austin defines it. And you add that to Austin 2016, which is millions of people moving here from out of state, from both coasts, from California.
And the level of talent that’s coming into Austin today — it’s like a perfect storm right now. I can’t imagine a better city to live in in America. It’s amazing to be here. I pinch myself every day. How perfect could this be?
When you started out, did you ever anticipate that Austin would become the food scene it is now?
No, not in the least. It was a sleepy town then and there were only three or four fancy, white-tablecloth restaurants, and the rest was all Tex-Mex and barbecue. I never would have foreseen it would become a food mecca like it is today.
What are you most excited about that you’re seeing today in Austin’s food world?
The talent. I feel so very blessed to be a chef in this era of food and foodies, and the popularity of restaurants. It’s in everyone’s radar; it’s in the forefront of what they do day to day. They look at food websites and Yelp and OpenTable — it’s so cool to be a chef in an era of all that happening.
I think Austin is a beneficiary of all that, and the talent moving here is just changing the scene right now. The level of execution is better, the level of quality is better, and it’s just raising the bar.
Everybody complains about staffing and how hard it is to find good people. Do you find that with this influx of talent that’s become easier?
Yeah. Obviously there’s a saturation point where there’s too many restaurants, but the more people that move here, the more talent there is to hire. I think it helps a lot. And it’s more defined talent. If you have certain positions you’re looking for now, I think you can find people that fit that position better, if that makes sense. People are coming in trained already, knowing what they want to do, and they’ve already done it, which makes everything easier to me.
If not staffing, what are some of your biggest business challenges now? Anything that keeps you up at night?
Don’t get me wrong, staffing is still really hard. [Laughs.]
What keeps me up at night is consistency. That’s the hardest thing to do in any job, but especially in the food-service industry and restaurant business. To really nail it on every single thing we try to do every single day, to be consistent — and now it’s harder because we’re not just one location, we’re four or five. How do you deliver a product that’s the same every day? That’s the very hardest thing that anyone can ever attempt.
You just expanded to Dallas. Any plans to go further?
We’re looking right now. We might eventually try to open out of state — that would be a real proof of concept if we could do that. We only open restaurants because of our people. That’s the reason we opened Uchiko originally; we’re growing talent.
I’m as much in the people business as I am the food business. We wouldn’t have one without the other. When we grow this talent that we have now we try to promote from within. If they’re ready to open another restaurant, we’ll open another restaurant.
And I think in this case it will probably be out of state. It will be, who wants to go and if they’re inspired to do it. It has a mind of its own now. I don’t necessarily control it anymore. [Laughs.] I never thought we’d have more than one restaurant, so it’s amazing to be a part of.
Who are some other chefs in Austin that you admire?
That’s a loaded question! I’ve been here over 20 years, so I have friends who have been here that same amount of time that are amazing chefs. But then there’s also a whole new breed of up-and-coming talent that are doing new things as well.
There’s a chef here in town, Alan Lazarus. I’ve known him for 20 years. He opened Vespaio right before we opened Uchi, and it’s so amazing. It’s been here the whole time. How do you compare something like that to some young person that’s worked around town or who’s from out of town and opened a brand new place? I don’t know.
I asked you about Austin — anything in the industry as a whole that you’re seeing today that you’re really excited about?
It used to be that the guests were just not as adventurous as they are today. The guest today is really pushing the boundaries and going out to eat and saying, what’s new? What can I try? As a chef or restaurant owner it just makes it easier.
Back in the day, it was easier to do the same thing and not make too many changes, but now it’s cool to try all the new foods. You want to tell other people that you did it and put it on Instagram. For a restaurant owner, that’s awesome. The more photos they take, the better.
A good example is sea urchin. I made sushi for a decade and nobody ate sea urchin. People thought it was disgusting. Now it’s everywhere. I’m like, what!?
I’m sure it makes it so much more fun for the kitchen, to be able to actually sell that kind of stuff and experiment with it.
Totally. From day one at Uchi the idea has been, we’ve had one core menu that’s permanent and one seasonal menu that changes every day. The thinking was, there’s always something to come back for that we’ll always have, that you can crave. But then the other half will be something new and seasonal that the staff can get excited about and play with and try to push the boundaries. That combination works really well.
What are you most excited about at the festival this weekend?
I’m excited for all the new talent that’s coming in. I’m excited for the individual events. I’m super excited for Rock Your Taco. I think that might be the most fun event. It seems like a great time, for people to get creative and make all these tacos.
I’m also very excited about defining relationships, talking with talent, meeting chefs, and seeing where they’re at and what they’re doing. And just watching some of the talent perform. Tim Love is just absolutely amazing. He was born to do this. [Laughs.] I watch him and I’m like, damn he’s good.