A Chat With Tyson Cole, Chef/Owner of Uchi and Uchiko
The country knows James Beard award–winning chef Tyson Cole as the indomitable force behind Asian fusion restaurants Uchi and Uchiko. In fact, he’s so well-known that he hardly needs an introduction. So we sat down to talk with Cole about the lesser-known aspects of his life: his memories of salmon cakes growing up, his background in physics and art (think color theory), and his Sunday church time with his family. Oh, and did we mention that he’s opening a casual Southeast Asian restaurant in South Austin and has plans for a tiny experimental sushi restaurant too?
Zagat: What were some of your favorite things to eat growing up?
Tyson Cole: I grew up in a middle-income family. My parents both worked for the airlines, so I was a latchkey kid. I ate a lot of typical white people food. Sandwiches, burgers, mac and cheese. My mother made these things called salmon cakes with canned salmon made into a patty like a crab cake.
Zagat: And you studied painting at UT?
TC: Actually physics and art. College was expensive. I painted for five or six years, and I couldn’t afford it anymore. Just by serendipity, I got a job in a Japanese restaurant and quit painting and started cooking.
Zagat: Do you ever think about painting again?
TC: We have three girls, and they’re in art classes now. I’m thinking about maybe picking it up again. It’s just frustrating. Food is easier because you get a lot of chances. When you paint, it’s never done. It is done, but I can’t handle that you can’t change it.
I did a lot of acrylics and ink. Ink is fun. I was really into color theory. Josef Albers and Paul Klee. I like the play of various colors. That’s another reason I fell in love with sushi. It’s a case full of colors of flesh.
Zagat: Does your background in art and physics play into your food?
TC: Absolutely. Food is very much about presentation, and the artistic part about it is preparation and combinations and trial and error. Trying to make things perfect. It plays into presentation and flavors too. I always say that true creativity comes from preparation. You can’t be creative unless you know what you’re being creative about.
Zagat: Where does your inspiration come from now?
TC: People. My staff. My family. Vicariously living through other people’s growth and therefore the things they succeed in. Being a part of that is amazing. For example, Paul Qui. I hired the kid off the street, and eight years later he’s the most famous chef in the country. I like to think I played a part in that.
Zagat: Going back to fusion food, do you remember the first fusion dish you made, or a small plate that you made that you loved?
TC: I actually fell in love with ponzu sauce, the Japanese vinaigrette. I started playing with various fish and ponzu sauce. Then I started adding fat to the ponzu, different kinds of oils. It’s a dish on the Uchi menu now, it’s the tuna and goat cheese. That was one of the first dishes I experimented with in the Uchi era, but before that it was all kinds of stuff. It was me walking into the H-E-B or Whole Foods or Central Market and buying fruit and playing with it at home and in the Musashino kitchen. I had a stash, and I’d hide it.
Zagat: When is Uchi Dallas slated to open?
TC: Ask my partner. Just kidding [laughs]. Probably in about 12 months.
Zagat: How do you keep Uchi from feeling like a chain?
TC: That is the question. Through culture, through people, through training, through building a team. The idea is that the Dallas location is its own restaurant, not another Uchi. It is Uchi, but it’s its own Uchi. That way it has its own identity and won’t be a chain per se.
Zagat: Philip Speer recently hinted that there’s going to be another restaurant in Austin that’s more casual.
TC: It’s a concept I’ve been working on for quite a few years. It’s a Southeast Asian fast-casual, less-upscale type concept. It will be lunch-focused as well. It has a large outdoor patio, and it will have a focus on alcohol too.
We’re working with the talent we have at all of our restaurants, trying to bring them up to grow into other locations. We want to open other concepts but use our people to do it, so that they can grow.
We got some awesome land to build it in South Austin. It’s probably 18 months to two years away. It will be worth the wait.
Zagat: You’ve been in Austin a while and seen the town grow. How has it changed, and what is it still missing?
TC: It’s missing a Balthazar [laughs]. No, it’s missing a lot of things, but compared to what it was missing two years ago, five years ago and 10 years ago, I mean the culinary scene here is amazing. Everything you want to eat is here. And a lot of it is pretty good if not very good. I’m glad to be a part of it, to push for that to happen.
It’s amazing to have a career that started through just wanting to learn Japanese food. And now where it’s at today. The people that we’ve grown and the talent that is growing. I’m beside myself being part of it. Paul obviously, but also Philip. Philip should win every award.
I got lit up if not crucified a few years back by downing on the “keep Austin weird” phrase. To me, it breeds mediocrity. It’s not that anymore. Austin has grown into a city. Now it’s “keep Austin ongoing, upcoming, make it awesome.” I’d rather that than weird. I liked weird in college.
There’s some accountability now. All these chefs, young people, entrepreneurs opening restaurants now. They’re all trying really hard, so the food is good now. It used to be that you could open a place and not try and it would do well. Not anymore. They close [snaps].
Zagat: Are there certain places around town you really like?
I was sad to see my guys’ place Spin close. It was short-sighted on their part. Cheap rent does not always mean success. Sometimes you have to spend money to make money. But I thought the concept was great and the food was amazing. They’re working pretty hard on translating that to Titaya’s.
Zagat: What is it like to have won a James Beard award, and where do you go from there?
TC: It’s an award I never fathomed winning. Even when I won the Food & Wine award in 2005, I thought it was impossible. It was pretty surreal to be on a stage with those icons and win that. I was really proud when Paul [Qui] won, but it was kind of a huge surprise to me because it took me 20 odd years to win it, and Paul just won it [snaps]. I guess that’s the power of media and television. Again, I’m so proud of him. Where do I go from here? I think the next thing is possibly winning the best chef in the country. That I don’t want to talk about [laughs]. Mainly because I don’t want to walk on that stage again.
We’ll see, I don’t know. I’ve done many things in my life that have made me nervous, and that was tough. My three daughter’s births, top three for sure. And they always wait until the end to announce the Southwest category, so I had to wait through the whole event.
When I won, I actually tied. And the woman I tied with [Saipin Chutima] was really kick-ass, but she’s from Vegas and is probably 60 years old. Her place is kind of a dive in a strip mall. I hear it’s amazing, but that was still kind of weird. Then it was fitting for me because my name short is “Ty,” her food is Thai and we tied. I said that when I got to the microphone, and no one knew what I was talking about.
Zagat: You mentioned your daughters. What do you do in your free time?
TC: We do all kinds of stuff with them on Saturdays. They play instruments, Suzuki method, strings project, cello, violin. Sundays we do church most of the day. Other than that, they’re in school and we’re just busy. Three girls is a handful. They’re three, six and nine. They’re up at 5 AM and it goes all day. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Zagat: What’s next for you?
TC: I’m going to go take a nap [laughs]. I’m pretty committed to our group. We’re looking at maybe doing some other concepts in Austin besides the Southeast Asian one. Opening Dallas obviously. And a ways down the road, I decided a week ago I want to have a different kind of sushi place too. A really small place.
Zagat: Like in Jiro Dreams of Sushi?
TC: Sort of. Pretty much. Back in the day, before I fell in love and got married and had children and everything happened with Uchi, that’s what I wanted. But it won’t be traditional. That’s my thing, I’m not Japanese. I speak Japanese, but I’m not Japanese. It will be something that no one has ever done before. It won’t be soon, but someday.