Pizza Night with Tyson Cole


Tyson Cole is expediting dinner, but not in his usual fashion. It’s a cool spring evening and the chef is spending a night off orchestrating pizza service for his five favorite girls. Rebekkah, his pretty wife, sets the table and sips a glass of red wine. Wound up by the audience, Esther, their Labradoodle, makes a few mad dashes through the kitchen, her nails sliding on the slick tile.

Although the odds are against him, Cole attempts to impart some culinary wisdom to his four-year-old daughter, Amelia. “I think too many cucumber slices might water down your pizza, honey.” Amelia does not welcome his suggestion.

While Cole’s daughters (Aubrie, 10, Larkin, 6, and Amelia) busy themselves with small bowls of colorful toppings (sweet peppers, fresh mozzarella, mushrooms, and chive blossoms), the chef drizzles impromptu antipasti of artichoke hearts, sliced apples, and strawberries with olive oil and a sprinkling of porcini salt from Williams-Sonoma (“my favorite new condiment,” Cole says, handing me a plate). The simple but unexpected confluence of sweet and savory is just the sort of culinary risk taking that first put Uchi—and Austin’s emerging food scene—on the map when it opened in 2003.

You might say that Cole’s career has been forged through juxtapositions. He’s the white guy who speaks Japanese and trained under sushi masters. He created a sashimi mecca smack in the middle of landlocked Texas. And his signature pairings of global ingredients with traditional Japanese flavors (think goat cheese, citrus oil, and raw sea bass) attracted talent like chef Paul Qui, and a host of others, who have since passed through his doors and infiltrated kitchens throughout Austin.

And even when he’s making smiley face pizzas with rounds of pepperoni and basil leaves, it’s hard to miss the precise hands and attention to detail that have earned him a Food & Wine Best New Chef 2005 recognition and a James Beard Award for Best Chef Southwest in 2011.

These days Cole is rolling with life’s transitions. He is moving from his West Lake home for another location that is closer to his kids’ school and promises a less painful commute. Partnerships with the Austin Food & Wine Festival have made him a high-profile ambassador of the local food scene. And later this year he’ll open St. Philip, an Italian restaurant and bakery with chef Philip Speer. While pies bubbled and crisped in the oven, we chatted about food and family.

Has parenting influenced your approach to food?

Absolutely, making food is all about sustenance and health. I’ve always been focused on that, but having children really reinforces it. Cooking is about kindness, generosity, and doing the best with what you’ve got. In that way cooking is in tandem with having both kids and guests.

You noticed that the pizzas your daughters made are indicative of their personalities. I guess that’s true of all cooks, right?

People’s personalities do come through in what they like to eat, whether they are adventurous or conservative. Larkin will eat any color, while my oldest is terrified of color. She likes to eat earth tones and beiges. You see that with guests at the restaurant too. We try to push them and expand their horizons, while still allowing them to feel comfortable about being there.

It must be difficult to leave the streamlined efficiency of your restaurants for the inevitable chaos of cooking with young kids.

Restaurant execution is so hard—don’t get me wrong, but it’s so well achieved because it’s so very planned, and the preparation is so specific. It’s much more chaotic at the house, figuring out each day what the kids are going to like, or how many snacks they’ve had and if they’re going to eat at all. It’s a moving target.

I returned to Uchi a few weeks ago and had an amazing experience--both the food and the service were extraordinary. How have you kept the restaurant vibrant and on top of its game?

Uchi is better than it’s ever been. Both the kitchen staff and the front-of-house staff are killing it. The reputation that we’ve built has allowed us to attract really great talent.

Believe it or not, upwards of 30 percent of our guests are first-timers. We know there’s a whole lot of people who haven’t been to Uchi. Austin is growing so quickly that the playing field changes by the day. There are so many new people here, and so many new places to try. In a way that’s our favorite guest—we get to say welcome, nice to meet you, let us feed you dinner.

In my opinion, Austin can err on the side of putting high concept before solid, back-of-house training. Any thoughts on that?

Hospitality is not about pressed linens, it’s about creating a connection and making customers feel welcome. Budding restaurateurs tend to wrap their minds around a concept that appeals to them. All too often, they love the idea of it and don’t think through the steps that will make it successful. That’s the hardest part—understanding how you’re going to hire, train, etc. It’s hard as a beginner in the field to connect all the dots.

What did Uchiko teach you about the local food scene?

That we were presumptuous to think that we could move uptown and instantly share Uchi’s fan base. We learned that Austin is somewhat provincial, and not everyone in North Central was immediately on board. People don’t necessarily venture beyond their zip codes. It took a while, and the first year was rough, but we eventually found our local audience. Today we really focus on the neighborhood. Those locals are our favorite guests, and the ones we hope become regulars.

What are three dishes you can’t take off the menu?

At Uchi it’s tuna and goat cheese, hamachi cure, and peanut butter semifreddo.

A lot of big-name chefs and restaurateurs are descending on Austin. How will those outside influences meld with Austin’s “keeping it local” food scene?

The smart people that are coming here are interested in understanding and fitting into our community. Danny Meyer and his concept “Shake Shack” (poised to open on South Lamar later this year) is an example. People coming here just to make quick cash will not survive because of the incredible competition we have now.

What are a few of your current ingredient obsessions?

Green almonds and pears. I love the versatility of pears—they’re all over my menu. The almonds are incredibly seasonal, but they are extradordinary. There’s nothing like opening a husk and finding a fresh almond that’s plump and juicy.

What’s your perfect meal these days?

I’m pretty simple--a great salad and roasted chicken.

Your next venture is St. Philip, with chef Philip Speer. What can we expect?

St. Philip will be a restaurant and bakery. We’re testing the pastries and pizza crusts now, and they’re phenomenal. We’ll offer different types of experiences that we’ll serve at different times of the day to an underserved area. The exciting thing for us is to try our hand at something entirely new, an Italian concept.

The traffic just prompted you to move from your home in West Lake to South Austin. What’s the secret to avoiding road rage in growing Austin?

Keeping a tighter orbit to work and home, and being able to drive places at off-peak times. Also, having lived here for more than 20 years, I know the secret shortcuts.

You confessed that your family are your toughest critics. How is that so?

In my restaurants, the people who walk in the door are already on board with what we do. We’d have to work hard to disappoint them. When you cook for your family, for the people you love, the emotional stakes are so much higher. Disappointing them has a much greater impact.

And yet, there’s no place like home, right?

It’s the most fulfilling place to cook because there are no rules, no sous chefs, and I have complete creative freedom to cook whatever I want. Of course, the real beauty of it is cooking for family.


Photography by Wynn Myers

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