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10 Years of Uchi

A look back at what has given the beloved Austin restaurant its own flavor of legacy.

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Legends don’t start out that way. It’s hard to imagine now, but ten years ago, Uchi was just a gleam in a sushi cook’s eye, just another new kid on the culinary block in Austin.

When he opened Uchi in a little cottage on South Lamar, Tyson Cole had just left a post at Musashino’s sushi bar. Luckily for him, a sushi chef works in front of his customers, not in the back of the house. There, he met Daryl Kunick, who would become his business partner. “Daryl had been my customer for nine or ten years—we spent a ton of time talking about ideas and dreams, and Uchi grew out of that,” Cole remembers. “When we opened, I never imagined there would ever be anything more than just Uchi.”

Cole’s restaurant empire now stretches from South Lamar to North Lamar and east all the way to Houston. Rather than a tendency towards megalomania, Cole keeps expanding in order to create a future for talented and loyal employees. “In the beginning, my vision was a sushi bar with amazing service, where the kitchen food was as good as or better than the sushi, but the essence was people.” As someone with a deep respect for the individuals who are the soul of the restaurant, Cole knows they are going to want to grow and develop and move forward, so new restaurants offer opportunities for cooks and servers to move into management positions or to open new kitchens and dining rooms.

Success didn’t come overnight at Uchi. In Cole’s view, it takes a restaurant three years to really hit its stride: “There’s so much pressure in the beginning, but it takes years and a lot of staff turnover to really come into its own. The people who stay are the ones who are really in it—then, about year three, the restaurant develops legs and takes off running.” From his vantage point of a decade in business, Cole “can walk into a restaurant and know instantly where it is in its development. It’s very apparent when a restaurant takes on that magical life of its own, but it’s not easy to get there,” he explains. “Uchi definitely had similar growing pains, and I can still empathize with everyone in years one through three. It’s hard work.”

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What’s it like to attempt to replicate a successful concept? “It’s certainly easier to open a restaurant when you already have a successful one that people can connect to,” Cole says, laughing. The expectations were high, but everything from funding to hiring was a whole lot easier the second and then the third time around. And while a first restaurant exists only as a vision in the mind of its creator, successive locations start with a vision that has become reality to many, and are built from an essence honed over time. “Uchi, Uchiko, and Uchi Houston all share an essence—from the beginning we established a culture that’s about people and likeability. We have always hired off personality first,” Cole explains, putting his finger on what makes all his restaurants so special, “It’s about people. Food is secondary.”

This is not to say that the food is not very, very good—excellent, even. Cole was awarded the coveted James Beard Award for Best Chef Southwest in 2011; Uchi was named one of the top ten best new restaurants by GQ in 2011 and was identified this year by Bon Appetit as one of the 20 most important restaurants in the country along with a fistful of additional accolades from the press, the public, and peers along the way. From the Tempura Fried Twinkies on Uchi’s very first menu to today’s Jar Jar Duck with Candied, Citrus, Endive, and Applewood Smoke on the Uchiko menu, Cole’s vision has always combined excellence with an element of fun; his food never fails to surprise and delight, and we’re all the luckier that Uchi was born here. The real reach of Cole’s vision can’t be overstated—with his energetic and generous encouragement, many Uchi staff have gone on to open kitchens of their own, taking with them an ingrained sense of playful excellence and commitment to people.

And that dream in the young sushi chef’s eye—the vision that believed Austin was ready for something edgier, more deliciously ambitious, creative, and authentic than anything we’d ever seen before? That vision spawned three restaurants and a cookbook, but more importantly, has influenced Austin’s culinary scene in myriad ways, setting a new bar for what kind of restaurants and cuisines can thrive, challenge, and inspire in this city.

Credits

Photography by Andrew Chan

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