This is One Year In, in which Eater Austin interviews chefs on the occasion of their restaurant's first anniversary. We spoke with Uchiko's pastry chef Philip Speer a couple weeks ago, and now, on the restaurant's actual anniversary, here's head honcho Tyson Cole.
Uchiko. [Photo: Uchiko / Facebook]
What's been the biggest change in Uchiko since you opened?
I would say the menu for sure.
In what sense?
Compared to Uchi, we wanted them to be like siblings where they were the same restaurant but different. How different? We weren't really sure what was the best decision. So it was kind of like throwing darts until we got our guests' perspective and found out what people really wanted and what they didn't. And so it kind of evolved over time. It's interesting to kind of take a step back and look at now compared to day one, a year later. A lot of it's the same, but quite a bit of it is very different. It's changed, due to demand and also evolution. Things we thought would improve the restaurant.
Have there been specific changes in the approach to the food or influences you've brought in? I know Paul Qui plays a large role in the menu.
The idea with Uchiko was to continue the growth of our culture. Uchi is all about the people and the staff. So it gave us the format to continue to grow and have another space and bring people up. Paul is definitely one of them. We wanted to continue his maturation process as becoming a chef. He was an integral part of the opening menu of Uchiko. We promoted him as an executive chef at the new restaurant.
You know, we got into it and most of the original menu was based on specials we had made at Uchi in the past. A lot of that was dishes Paul had made. Quite a bit of it as well was Uchi dishes. Kind of tried to pick all the favorites, if you will. And that's how it started. We thought that was the best idea and we kind of found out pretty quickly that there were quite a few changes that we needed to make.
I talked to Phil Speer a couple weeks ago on this same subject and I asked him what the next hurdle was for Uchiko. He talked about sourcing ingredients and "trying to remain responsible." What are your thoughts on sustainable seafood?
I kind of feel like it's a double-edged sword somewhat. On one hand, I get the responsibility thing and I understand it's something that we should focus on. But on the other edge of the sword, it's a challenge because of a couple reasons.
The main one would be because of cost. It's easy to have a 100% sustainable menu when you have — somebody in Vegas, like a Rick Moonan for example. If you can pass that cost along to your guests, fine. But at the end of the day, you want your concept to be accessible. You want people to come in and be able to enjoy your food.
To me it's similar to organic food becoming popular. It was kind of a trend and obviously things like Whole Foods came from it. But the whole idea of tomorrow, could you afford to eat only organic? You'd probably have to spend a little bit more money than eating regular food. I think it's about the diner, the guest being responsible just as much as the restaurant, and saying okay, I'm going to pick and choose what I eat and where I eat. I think that's just as important as the restaurant itself. It kind of goes on both sides of the fence.
Do diners seem more willing to spend that extra money to get sustainable seafood these days?
I think that — when you say someone like the diner or the guest, that's a pretty vague statement because there are so many different kinds of people. Different kinds of customers. If I look at both of our restaurants for example, you get people from different walks of life, all ages and various demographics. Obviously a lot of people have no idea, a lot of people don't care.
But then there are a group of people who are somewhat in the know, or live their lives a bit more responsibly focused towards that, and they're the people that we want to offer the products and dishes for. It's not like we're irresponsible on the restaurant side at all. We're actually very responsible about the food that we serve. But it's also the demand side too, making sure that's also covered. That's kind of how it goes. I'd say we're 97% sustainable at both restaurants.
So what do you see as the next hurdle for Uchiko?
The biggest challenge is staying the course, being consistent. It's just the beginning. It's not like we've made it or anything like that. It's not even close to Uchi. Uchiko is 70% of what I eventually want it to be.
Any updates on the Austin Food & Wine festival?
I actually got out of a meeting on that like 30 minutes ago. You know, we were all up in Aspen for their Food & Wine festival. We were there for three or four days, got our take on it, took a lot of notes. At the end of the festival, we met with Food & Wine magazine and discussed all of the possibilities. I think Food & Wine's definitely going to be a sponsor. They're very excited about the idea of it, they just got off doing one in Atlanta.
Quite personally, I'm excited because I think what Austin has to offer is to be itself, the culture. The music obviously. The music part is huge, especially considering C3 [the company behind Austin City Limits] is going to be the producer and helping us to put this all together. And Food & Wine's excited about that too, because there aren't many quality food festivals — great chefs, great food and wine. Some of the best wines in the country if not the world, and adding the music element to that as well. The value is times ten to me. It's going to be really cool. Everything is hopefully going to be really centralized. Everything will be walkable possibly. So we're tossing around three or four central locations and venues. So that's the kind of cool thing is that everything will be within a square mile so you can pretty much walk everywhere.
What are some ideas you have for incorporating the music element?
We'll probably bring in three or four bands, hopefully some local talent as well. They'll probably be in a grand tasting area. So whether we do that somewhere central, in a park like Republic Square Park, or on one of the bridges. Right now it's in initial phases, nothing's set in stone, it's all just brainstorming. But I'm sure there will be times when there will be some food events or tastings or classes and hopefully leading into bands playing afterward or during. It's just exciting, all the various ideas.
The leader in all of this is Charlie Jones, he's been the visionary for ACL and all the stuff that C3 does. I completely agree with what he says, which is we want to focus on the first year being quality and doing it well. And that means as far as the programming and execution of it and bringing people into Austin. They're going to tell all their friends about it, tweet about it, and definitely want to come back next year. Should be really cool.
I know that the Atlanta festival was very much a celebration of the regional cuisine, and I'm curious as to how big of a radius you want to pull chefs from for the Austin festival.
I'm sure there will be some aspects that will be Texas. We'll probably use some of the Texas wines, most likely. But I wouldn't say that this is — we're definitely trying to respect the fact that Austin is in Texas? But it's not a Texas festival per se. I feel like people here, restaurants here specifically, we're trying to develop our own identity. People that don't live in Texas, they're all like oh, it's all about barbecue and horses. I think that Austin has way more to offer than just that. We'll still integrate those components into the festival. But again, it's only things that we think represent us the best. The better quality restaurants we want to really highlight. People like Aaron Franklin for example.
I was reading about him in Bon Appetit recently. It's pretty cool because it reminds me of myself in the first three or four years of Uchi. I don't think many people realize — you know, they have off the charts publicity right now. And everybody's like, it's the best barbecue in America. And I agree. It's incredible. But I think the main reason is that he's the only one that makes it, and he's the only one that cuts it. Every single piece of barbecue that anyone's had since it opened, he's cut. That's what I did at Uchi the first few years. I'm cutting everything. I want to control every bite. So it's cool to see someone else do that but in something that's completely different.
We actually interviewed him the other day about the Bon Appetit piece, and he said that he and his wife had their first date at Uchi and they go there every year on their anniversary.
Oh, really? That's really cool. We take our staff at the restaurants out to Lost Pines every year, and we actually had Franklin do the food for it this year, which was really cool. I talked to him for awhile. He's very humbled by how it's all taken off.
I'm sure, it must be completely overwhelming.
Yeah, I'm sure. That's the challenge. It's — I wouldn't use the word easy, but you do something like that and you have certain values, like I said, he's doing everything himself. But you get to the point where you start to realize — and this happened to me — but you get to the point where you realize, oh my God, I have to train somebody else to do this. Or we have to expand, or we have to get more people. And that's success! Growth, you know. And that's, in a nutshell, why we opened the second restaurant. And why Franklin pretty quickly went from a trailer to a brick and mortar. You have to expand, you have to — if the demand is there, it's just supply and demand.
Speaking of growth, any updates on Uchi Houston?
It's going well. We spent probably four or five months working on the design plan, and the inside is going to look pretty close to the original Uchi. We're going to have some of the wallpaper. It's going to be smaller than Uchiko but bigger than Uchi. Have a small private dining room. Our biggest concern was making sure that we didn't change the structure too much. Because that building, that restaurant, Felix's it's been there forever. It's almost iconic. So our GC went in a month ago to do some work and come to find out the whole building was inundated with termites. So we had to rip the building down literally to the slab. From there we could have just built whatever really cheaply. But we decided to just build it exactly the same. It's going pretty quickly now, all the walls are up and it looks like what Felix's looked like on the outside. It's pretty cool.
Last question: What does the future hold for Uchiko?
There's been so many changes over the past year, and obviously the semi-finalist nod for the James Beard Award was pretty exciting. In the last six months, everyone who lives near Uchiko has accepted it, they've taken it on. We have so many regular customers now who live within a square mile of Uchiko. So we're starting to see the bar take off, people eating at the bar and ordering a lot of specials. it's really about refinement.
Improvement. Consistency. The future of Uchiko is endless because we are at a point now — you know, we're busy on the weekends, but I wouldn't say it's too crazy Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. It's fairly busy, but we have private dining room we're still trying to utilize. We're trying to bring in talent from all over the country. Back of the house, front of the house. We just try to find great people and figure out where they're going to fit best and what they want to do. It'll be interesting to see what happens. It'll be interesting to see where it is a year from today.