End of May on the way and for my peeps that means a trip out to Lost Pines resort where we take them out for a couple days of much needed R&R, great food, swimming and just overall good times together away from the restaurants. This is the first year with Uchiko in the mix, which means altogether it’s likely to be 200ppl +! On sight catering all set up too: the best new BBQ in the world coming in to feed us: Franklin bbq!
Kyoto restaurant here in Austin closed recently. Sad news. Very sad. Kyoto was the first real Japanese restaurant to open in Austin in the early 80′s by a sushi chef named Ted Kasuga who saved a bunch of money he made working 7 day weeks in Vegas for almost a decade. Kyoto restaurant was super traditional with experienced female Japanese servers in kimonos, a full service sushi bar, and even a bamboo floored tatami room where you had to take off your shoes to sit in. Low tables where you had to sit cross legged and eat everything with chopsticks. (the first time i ate there it felt like i was in Japan.) Ted was a master sushi chef and worked at Kyoto for years; long enough to later open a second location in north Austin as well called Kyoto “2″.
Kyoto restaurant is where my life as i know it today began, and why it’s sad to see it go. I’ll never really be able to figure out what possessed me to apply there in the beginning; i kinda wanted to work downstairs below at the Elephant Room to be a bartender, but when i went to apply in the afternoon they were closed, so i went up the stair instead of down and applied at Kyoto instead.
Work at Kyoto was tough. I started on dish and had to prove myself to the other dishwashers right out of the gates. One of them was nicknamed “Uzi”, and he would always show me the large pocket knife switchblade he carried when he got upset…and i’m pretty sure half the time he was stoned anyway because he always tried to sell me weed from friends of his who would bring it up “from the valley”. Overall he was all talk, and a nice enough guy..i got him on my side and eventually got promoted to fry cook/prep cook…but the older Japanese women named Kiyoko who was the kitchen chef there didn’t want any part of a white guy in her kitchen so i got relegated to lunch time waiter.
I hated being a waiter. My uniform was terrible. Slip off Japanese sandals,black rubber trays, and a dayglow pink t-shirt with the Kyoto logo on the front, it was the early nineties and i felt like a gay member of “Wham!”. lol. Waiting tables there was super hard too! The restaurant was shotgun style, with the sushi bar in the front with 18 seats, a sushi dining room, a regular dining room with about 15 tables…and the tatami room with its own challenges and another 12-15 tables as well. The kitchen was tucked in the back and a long hallway circumvented the entire space. There were 2 dishes on the menu that were prepared tableside: Zosui and Sukiyaki. As the waiter if someone ordered it; i would panic. It meant i had to bring portable gas burner out the table…and all the ingredients,etc to set it up..and then start the pan on the stove and add each ingredient one at a time in progression to cook the dish correctly. Then i had to serve it in bowls to the guests upon completion. It was alone the hardest thing i’d ever done; i didn’t even know hot to cook!; but the real icing on the cake: sometimes id have 3-4 tables in my “section, (there were no sections), all order sukiyaki at the same time! id literally be running from the kitchen to the sushi bar to the tables like lightning, my pink t-shirt covered in sweat…a mad crazy chaos of panic and urgency; it was one of the most stressful jobs of my life. i was working double shifts waiting tables, lunch and dinner and sleeping in the tatami room on the floor between shifts to save bus fare. I needed to get out of the waiting tables thing asap.
I started to befriend the Japanese chefs while i was a waiter. They would make me dishes to try, and over time i started to really like the food. Id go out with them every night after work to the bar downstairs, then to their apartments late at night and watch VHS tapes of Japanese tv and game shows. I started to fall in love with the originality of everything Japanese; it was such a departure from everything that i knew and i was full on committed to learn everything i could from the people i worked with and so respected. My chef Kiyohisa Hara would later take me under his wing as an apprentice, and later after that i worked side by side with the owner Kasuga-san making sushi rolls as well. It was the genesis of my sushi career, and some of the most valuable memories i possess.
Just back to Austin friday afternoon from one of the most incredible trips to NYC of my life, culminating with James Beard awards on Monday where i won the best chef in Southwest United States title. In a tie, which was a bit odd and hasn’t happened in over a decade….and the first person in Texas to win one since 1992 as well. I’m honored, excited and completely stunned. A bit of nervousness flying up to NY for the show; John Mariani of Esquire and Andrew Knowlton of Bon App both predicted i would win days prior…so that just added to the anticipation and anxiety to the festivities as well. I thought i might have a chance with the James Beard semi-finalist nominations of Uchiko, my chef Paul Qui and our culinary director/pastry chef Philip Speer…but somehow just locked it out of my brain that the chance wasn’t even possible. Possibly the release of my Uchi cookbook in March and my article in the WSJ last month helped as well?? I’ll never know….but man, what an honor. The whole event played out like a storybook ending. i’ve everyone to thank that helped me get to the point of winning an award of such prestige. An American dream. From dead broke college drop-out dishwasher,to working 10 years of training to become a sushi chef, to husband and father of the 3 beautiful little girls, chef/owner of 2 amazing world class Japanese restaurants here in Austin, to the recipient of a James Beard award as one of the top chefs in America….all the hours of blood,sweat and tears payed off far beyond what i could’ve ever imagined.
A shock of electric ecstasy shot down my core to my feet when they called my name at the awards in front of everyone who is anything in the food world today. I was pacing the gigantic Avery fisher hall; a kinetic bundle of nerves. I saw it on screen that i’d won and it was almost a relief. I was so incredibly nervous i drank 5 bottled waters waiting to hear the results! (they wouldn’t server any alcohol until the end of the show and the beginning of the tasting; i’ve never needed a shot of liquor so bad in my life!) My lips were numb as i gave the acceptance speech, and walked from there off stage into a flurry of flash bulbs and anxious reporters & industry peeps. A culinary oscar? Why, yes it is! Completely surreal.
So many hours of work. So many nights away from my wife and family. And, so many people whose commitment and dedication to my vision of what Uchi could become to make this all come to fruition. I’m the sum of all that we’ve created and owe it all to my staff , my partners and my family. Congratulations to all. So very excited now to bring this award to Austin and continuing our push to make this city into one of the premier dining destinations in all of the country.
Next step: Uchiko’s adolescence into maturity, and Uchi Houston open by years’s end.
Sunday morning. Kinda gloomy & grey. Up from a good night at KO with lots of happy peeps and stunning food. My OCD is like daggers in my belly; need to push more, harder, better, refine. Within myself and both restos. Uchi redux in the works. Gonna tweek the expo line and maybe open up the kitchen a bit more. Simplify permanent menu and bleed more Japanese life into it. One dish at a time. Very bothered that a place like Ssam bar can be in the top 50 in the world and get visits from Michelin, but in Texas we get the shaft. I’m going to change that; now, soon, for the future in ATX and our culinary scene. Planting seeds. My food is gaining perspective, reach and latitude simultaneously….with the release of my cookbook and our jump into the Houston market by years end, i keep the momentum. Inspired by live Jonsi this morning i guess. And some earl grey. Really excited to get up to NYC in a week and eat everything we can. Late night Izakaya. Urchin and abalone at Soto. the smell,texture and flavor/crunch of fresh abalone or giant clam might be my favorite bite. I dream sometimes of the future. I’m 60. It’s 2030 and i’ve got a small place near a cold water ocean…15 seats…open 4 days…no menu.. i go to the docks at 5am and pick out whatever i like to prepare…blades….ice…kombu…a seasonal garden in the back abreast with fresh herbs,fruits and vegetables….simple combinations of stunningly fresh sea items and fishes with my usual take….i’m wearing cotton and denim and loafers. Taking my time. No rush. Just me, my guests, my knives and the fish.