Austin's very own Tyson Cole of Uchi and Uchiko is fresh off a trip to New York, where he was presented with the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southwest. We talked to the chef about his restaurant tour of Manhattan, how Austin stacks up to the national restaurant scene, and his next step: Uchi Houston.
So how was New York?
It was pretty crazy! It was sort of a whirlwind tour. You know, we had gone to New York when we filmed Iron Chef America — Paul [Qui], Phillie [Speer] and I. We checked out like 30 restaurants in three days. This time we did a little less, because there were five of us. We still went to a lot of place and just ate our asses off, know what I mean?
Where all did you go?
It wasn't as street food-oriented as the last time. It was a little more restaurants that are more recognized, kind of do some R&D and check out some places with a few Michelin stars. I think the two best meals we had were at Eleven Madison Park, obviously, and ABC Kitchen was amazing. Really, really good. We went to places like that, kind of compared and contrasted the ideas, that kind of stuff.
So obviously there are huge differences between the foods they're doing in New York and what people are doing here, but I'm wondering what ideas you took home from your tour.
Well, of course it's a barometer, right. I think what we're doing with Uchi, Uchiko is comparable to some of these places. I think we do a really good job. It's all about being very guest-centric, knowing who your guests are and making it fun for them. That's why people go out to eat these days.
We went to a few places that we really didn't enjoy, and that I'm obviously not going to name. But other places that did made really fun and interesting and incredible food. And we'd go into those places and say "Hey, we could do this, or maybe we should do that, or you know, just trying to constantly improve."
How do you see the Beard win affecting you personally as a chef, and how will it affect the Uchi empire?
Well, you're almost an empire, I mean, you have Uchi Houston coming up!
I know, it's just funny, it makes us sound like I'm the Darth Vader of Austin restaurants. You know, for me, it's kind of two fold. I think part of me finds it incredibly surprising. I'm completely honored and stunned. It's something you never imagine happening. Like when I won the Food & Wine award in 2005, I didn't think that was possible. This is even more so, I'm just blown away.
At the same time, I think what we do here is worth recognizing. I think it's comparable to anywhere else, whether it's New York City, a bigger market like that, LA, San Francisco. Or a second tier, Portland, Oregon. I think that we do something that we work really hard on, and it's nice for people to recognize it even though we have that aspect of oh, we're in Texas. It's nice for people to notice that. It's very cool. I'm very flattered.
Speaking of empires, what was the evolution from Uchi to Uchiko and now to Uchi Houston like?
You know, originally with Uchi, I had the very young chef's idealistic view of the first restaurant. I wanted to have 50 seats, I wanted to have autonomy of the menu, make what I want, nobody tell me what to do. And everything's going to be perfect. And unfortunately when you realize it's actually a business, it doesn't quite work out like that. Eventually you realize okay, we have to have this many seats, the menu has to be a certain way. You have to make food people want to come back for. Whatever it is, it has to be consistent.
So when we opened Uchi, I learned that lesson over time. Fortunately, Uchi did become very successful. But then I never imagined that I would open a second one. That's just insane, you know? It's so hard, it's so much work, it's so much drama. I mean, this is one of the most challenging industries, I truly believe it. But we just got to the point with Uchi where it was five, six, seven years old, and we had an hour or two wait every night of the week, and I have a really good team of people that want to continue to grow with us. And I looked my partner in the eye and, you know, the idea of Uchiko came about.
For awhile, we talked about doing a second Uchi not in Austin, like maybe that's the best bet. But I was very adamant about it being here and not somewhere else, because quite honestly I thought there was a better chance they could both be amazing restaurants. So we were very specific on that. Then it was it can't be too close to Uchi, but it can't be too far away and so we looked for almost a year and a half, two years for the location where Uchiko is. And then it came down to, is this going to be another Uchi? Is it Uchi 2? Is it Uchi light? And that's when we decided it should be different, but the same. Like sisters. And that's where the Uchiko name came from. And fortunately after the ten, eleven months it's been open, we finally got them the same but different. You can go to one on Tuesday night and the other on Friday.
And now on to Uchi Houston. How (if at all) will that be different from the Austin location?
We've gained some momentum, we've found some incredible people. We just want to continue to get better at Uchi every day. It just made sense to see if we could open a place outside of Austin. Houston made the most logical sense. The Houston space will be an Uchi, it won't be an Uchiko. It will be 97% identical to Uchi here. Just slightly bigger, not much at all. It will have a private dining room, which Uchi doesn't. But other than that, the menu's the same. Hopefully people will feel like they're at Uchi, but in Houston. We'll ship probably six people from Houston to here? It'll hopefully, knock on wood, it'll be close to the same. And Uchiko will be the only Uchiko ever.
Stay tuned for part two of our interview later today for a major Tyson Cole announcement!