Meet the Tastemakers
They say it takes a village to raise a child. In the case of Uchi, it takes a solid team to build a house. In the past nine years, Uchi, which is actually Japanese for “house,” has changed how the general public views sushi, has received national acclaim from myriad local, regional and national publications, has opened sister restaurant, Uchiko, has released a cookbook*, has a steady stream of James Beard Award nominations (including a win for Tyson Cole as Best Chef Southwest), has a recent Top Chef winner in Paul Qui. Oh, and they just opened a third restaurant in Houston.
Today, the restaurants have been nominated for multiple CultureMap Tastemaker Awards including: Restaurant of the year, Chefs of the Year for (Tyson Cole and Paul Qui), Pastry Chef of the Year for Philip Speer and Best Decor for Uchiko. It’s been a good few years for the Uchi family, to say the least.
The food at both Uchi and Uchiko is amazing, if not transcendent. And there’s a line of loyal regulars and newcomers alike at both restaurant doors to prove it. Most of the feedback you hear about Uchi and Uchiko are that each new dish seems to be better than the last; that the flavors on the plate are so simple yet unexpected; and that it’s amazing to leave a place having had so many different things to eat, but not feeling overly full.
Comments like these are all about the food, of course. But what many people may not realize is the streamlined level of service or the myriad little details that are checked off on a virtual list long before the doors even open.
In its evolution as a top tier restaurant Uchi and Uchiko’s leadership team, beginning with Tyson Cole, has orchestrated not only a superb presentation of food, but also an elevated standard of service for both the front and back of the house in each restaurant that seems to give the whole experience that extra shine.
Achieving this was no overnight plan conjured up by Cole when he first opened in 2003. In fact, at that time, he had no experience in managing people, schedules or even a point of sale system. But as Cole eventually brought on chefs such as Paul Qui and Philip Speer, things started to take shape in a different way. All of a sudden, the food being the most important part of the restaurant became an extension of the entire Uchi team whether a sous chef, a prep cook, a hostess or a server.
That’s because the key Uchi’s success is not only the food, but the overall restaurant culture and family it has cultivated over the years. For instance, there isn’t a single dish that gets approved for the Uchi menu until everyone on staff has had a chance to taste it and give feedback. Sure, the main circle of chefs at each restaurant — including Cole, Speer and Qui as well as Kaz Edwards (chef de cuisine) and Monica Glenn (pastry chef) in Houston and Tim Dornon (chef de cuisine at Uchiko) — sit down and cull a few rounds of new dish concepts together first, but once something new has had a chance to get to a final stage, the entire staff is asked to weigh in with their thoughts.
The reasoning is simple, if everyone is on board with a new dish along with every other dish on the menu, they’re going to be a lot more likely to talk about it to customers. And in the end, when a customer is blown away by something new that they’ve never tasted before, that’s the result Cole, Speer and Qui are ultimately looking for.
“We probably have one of the most intense interviewing processes. It’s harder than tests in college. We have to make absolute sure that they can really be a good fit for us.” - Philip Speer
“For us, our process in finalizing our menus is much more organic than at a lot of other places,” says Cole. “We communicate with all of our cooks and take ideas from them. If one of my sous chefs says he wants to do a special with jicama, he has to make it. Then Paul, Phil, myself and our other chefs will taste it. Sometimes those dishes will make the menu, other times they won’t, but most of the time we at least work to tweak the dish until it’s just right—unless it’s just awful to begin with. Every one tastes in order for us to get better and better. That helps keep us in check as chefs and maintain a consistency in quality that we’re always looking for.”
It may be one of the main reasons why the Uchi team continues to multiply both in numbers and in strength. Many people may think that Uchiko opened so that Cole could just have a new project to play with, but the reality is quite different.
“We opened Uchiko so we could grow our talent,” says Speer. “Uchi was getting too small to be able to keep everyone and still add more talent. We just gave them a new work space.”
And we’re lucky they did, after all, that’s how Paul Qui was elevated to executive chef status and prevented from finding work elsewhere.
This attention to preserving the family culture was something that attracted Speer to Uchi six years ago. “You still have people working here that started with the restaurant nine years ago,” says Speer. “That’s astonishing and it’s certainly unheard of in the restaurant world. People get here and they want to stay because they know they’re valued.”
But maintaining a strong, loyal Uchi family takes a lot of hard work to find exactly the right people. That’s why the general motis operandi for Cole and Speer is to always be hiring. According to Cole, they interviewed more than 1,200 people for Uchi Houston, and are still in the process of solidifying their Houston team.
It’s a massive undertaking, but as both Cole and Speer describe it, it takes a lot to find the people that fit the Uchi culture exactly. Speer was recently been promoted from Pastry Chef to Director of Culinary Operations and oversees all restaurant training, hiring, kitchen design and purchasing in addition to his regular tasting duties as a chef.
“We probably have one of the most intense interviewing processes,” says Speer who revealed that they interview potential candidates three to four times before they even get to a final stage. At that point they have to take an intensive test. “It’s harder than tests in college. We have to make absolute sure that they can really be a good fit for us.”
Cole says that he learned early on that the key is not to wait until there is a space open for something like sous chef or chef de cuisine to go and find someone. Instead, he and Speer are always looking to hire for positions one or two rungs down the ladder.
In other words, they ask someone who applies for sous chef to work as a line cook first and eventually grow into the position. They hire assistant servers who will eventually become servers, and certain servers to groom for the role of manager or general manager. This way there is always someone waiting in the wings to step up to the plate when the time is right.
Most importantly, Cole, Speer and even Qui know that positioning their restaurants to have a single chef’s name as the main talent is not a sustainable model. In their minds, chefs will come and go, but the consistency of the food and the new ideas that come with new talent is what matters most.
“In every kitchen scenario in the world, the real talent is in the sous chef,” says Cole, who originally struggled with letting go of the primary control at his restaurant but eventually found value in learning from his staff rather than holding them back. “They make the chef look good. They’re young and inspired and have the engine to make it go. Then they blossom and become chefs, just like me and Paul in our early careers.”
“It really is like a family here,” says Speer who uses Kaz Edwards and Monica Glenn at Uchi Houston as examples of young chefs who grew their skills at Uchi Austin to eventually take the helm in Houston. “This is never going to be a restaurant with only one face for a chef. It’s going to grow and we’re going to be a part of that.”
The strategy to always stay ahead of the game by grooming new talent is perhaps one of the defining keys to Uchi’s success — aside from the food, of course. It started with Cole, Speer and Qui wrestling over each little flavor or ingredient in a new dish before sharing it with the rest of their staff. It’s evolved into bringing other talented chefs into the mix. Years from now, with the way this team of chefs and mentors have grown their strategy, who knows what the model will look like. But we can likely expect new James Beard worthy talent to rise to the top.
“Seeing Tyson create someone like Paul Qui is really the ultimate goal for any chef,” says Speer. “To have someone succeed like has has is really the best report card you can take home at the end of a day. That’s how you create a legacy as a chef.”
*Note: In the interest of full disclosure, I co-wrote Uchi: The Cookbook.