Working at a sushi restaurant in your early 20s isn’t the typical source of life-changing inspiration. But for Tyson Cole, it was more than enough. The young Cole became so fascinated with the culture and cuisine of Japan that he dedicated himself to learning everything about it. And Cole had natural skills to go along with that passion, demonstrating dexterity with the knife that took him from dishwasher to head sushi chef.
Unsurprisingly, Cole’s next move was to Austin's top sushi restaurant, Musashino, where he completed an intensive traditional apprenticeship under owner Takehiko Fuse. Fuse would prove a pivotal influence on Cole, bringing him to Japan to improve his skills and knowledge of the cuisine and, perhaps most importantly, learn the language and thus better understand the culture. Cole brought this native knowledge to one of New York’s busiest, choicest sushi restaurants, Bond Street, before completing his last year at Musashino, where he began experimenting with new ideas about flavors, influences, and ingredients, running the restaurant in Fuse’s absence.
In May of 2003, Cole’s decade of training and dedication paid off when the chef opened Uchi, the restaurant that would showcase Cole's gift of marrying global ingredients and flavors with traditional Japanese cuisine and earn him a spot on Food & Wine's “Best New Chefs 2005” list. With three restaurantsCole opened Uchiko in 2010 and Uchi Houston in early 2012a cookbook (published in March of 2011), a James Beard Award, and a 2012 StarChefs.com Rising Star Award under his belt, Cole might be expected to sit on his laurels. But Cole attends to the sushi bar every night, conversing with patrons, intuiting their wishes, and using razor sharp knives at rapid speed to turn out works of edible art.
Rising Star Restaurateur Tyson Cole of Uchi, Uchi Houston, and Uchiko – Austin, TX
Caroline Hatchett: What was your first restaurant? What was the deal? How did you get the money?
Tyson Cole: Uchi in 2003. I had been looking to get my own space for two to three years. I partnered with friend and customer. We looked around town and found a French restaurant that went out of business. It was a wreck and we had to gut it and clean it out.
CH: Who are your mentors?
TC: Michael Bonadies. He was part of Drew Nieporpent’s Myriad Restaurant Group and opened all the Nobu restaurants. I met him a few years ago, and he’s helped me think about hospitality and restaurants and organization. We have similar concepts, and I wanted to learn how they do it. I worry about things being diluted. My number one fear is being diluted. New [restaurants] end up sucking or old one ends up sucking. Once you get past two and three restaurants and get celebrity chefs with 5 and 10 restaurants it gets scary.
CH: Tell me about your growth?
TC: I never wanted to have more than one restaurant. But with the success and awards, the food got better, and we hit a point of no return. We had to continue and find a new space or stick with it. If you stop, you die. We had staff that wanted to move up, but no place to put them. We had other ideas to do other things. My partner wanted to open a second place in another city, but we ended up opening in the North Side of town. It's been so amazing. We asked ourselves, “Is it going to be another Uchi? Are there going to be two Uchi's in Austin?” The name Uchiko, I had written down a long time ago and that's the name I stuck with. We opened it just four miles away. But there's a river between the two. It was auspicious; people on the North side of town didn't know who we were, and it took more time to get traction than we expected. It was a pretty poignant part of the process.
We made Paul Qui executive chef and gave him autonomy. But what ended up happening was that every table wanted Uchi food. So we had to add 30 percent Uchi and 70 percent Uchiko. Now it's really taking off.
For us the second restaurant was better at four miles away than 200. And if a second did work, we'd have two to work off of for a third, which makes staffing and logistics easier. Houston was the next, most logical choice with its proximity, location, Asian population, and money. People eat out there more than anywhere else in the country. What we do is unique. We looked at each other in the eye. We have a director of operation and a staff; we'd be foolish not to open [Uchi Houston].
CH: How do you translate your philosophy in Houston?
TC: We focus on trying to be the best. Have a couple of chefs at Uchi Houston, and they can't grasp out thinking .You tell them, “I don't care about food costs or back-of-the-house cost.” We give food away and use the best products. If you have the best ingredients, it’s not difficult to make great food. Cost shouldn't be the focus. Sushi covers food cost. So it’s like a playground in the kitchen.
CH: What’s your customer service philosophy?
TC: It's all about the experience. We don't want to falsify it. We want to customize the experience. We want every seat in restaurant to feel like sitting at the sushi bar. The staff has three or four questions to help guide the experiences: Have you been here before? What kind of meal are you looking for? How adventurous are you? We give the staff autonomy to lead guests to the meal and challenge them.
CH: What’s the biggest challenge facing your restaurant group?
TC: The biggest challenge is translating our culture and getting people to take ownership of the place and our identity—who we are and what we stand for. How do you translate that 200 miles away? We’re moving people around and moving people permanently; we have people going back and forth.
CH: How do you inspire your staff?
TC: We focus on the culture, with [help from] our social media director and director of operations. For example, we have Yammer, a social media tool like Facebook, for all three restaurants. It's cool. People share day-to-day stuff that happens at their restaurants. We want people to wake up in the morning and love their job and be excited. We want it to be contagious.
CH: What decisions or projects do you regret?
TC: It took me so long to see the forest through the trees. As a young chef coming up, it was about my food. My food is the best. It was quite selfish thinking in retrospect. It took my staff pulling me off the line and telling me, “If you're not on the line, think of how much more of an influence you can have on the restaurant.” I could have made the transition earlier. It was an epiphany.