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Uchi's Competition 86'd Allows Staff to Shine

Bush wins!
Bush wins!

For the past few years, Uchi, the Austin-based, Japanese-inspired restaurant with a Houston location that has earned raves from both Chronicle critic Alison Cook and Press critic Katharine Shilcutt, holds a competition among its staff inspired by the Food Network TV show Chopped called "86'd." In this competition, junior members of the staff (it's closed to sous chefs and other senior members of the team) prepare a dish in 30 minutes based on a box containing four mystery ingredients picked by one of the senior chefs. On Saturday, four people competed in the first of two Houston finals to determine who would go to Uchiko in Austin to compete in the company-wide finals. Director of Culinary Operations Philip Speer, Houston chef de cuisine Kaz Edwards and local hip hop star Bun B (UGK For Life!) served as judges.

Before the competition begins, Speer reveals the contents of the box to Bun and general manger Dan Allen. Today, the contestants will be working with golden kiwi, rice cakes, celery root (with stem and leaves) and bay scallops. Edwards selected the ingredients that morning, although Speer has assembled boxes in the past. Speer states that when he's shopping he likes to think about what he would make with the ingredients. As Allen notes, "If Phil can't think of ideas, it probably won't work." As an example of a box that didn't produce good results, Speer cites one assembled by sous chef Page Pressley that contained Heath bar, blue cheese, horned melon and bison.

"This [box] is going to come out really well," Speer predicts. The celery root is "almost as versatile as potato." While Speer says that 86'd is "supposed to be fun; it is fun," he also relates having to overcome the urge to fire people when their work comes out particularly poorly.

The winner of the Houston branch of the competition receives a knife worth about $500. The overall winner receives an additional $1,000 worth of knives plus gift cards to a variety of restaurants that have traded with Uchi. Speer notes that, by awarding the winners knives, Uchi is "giving them a tool that will make them better." Bun adds that the experience will teach the participants what flavors work together and what doesn't.

With the competition at hand, Speer introduces the contestants. Grace Roh is a hostess from Chicago who started at Uchi after it opened. She's the crowd favorite, having cooked the best dish in the preliminary round. Monica Glenn is Uchi's pastry chef; as she is Speer's protege, he's rooting for her to do well. John Gross, known as J.B. or John Boy, is a line cook with three years of experience at Uchi; as someone who cooks everyday and already won a preliminary round on Saturday, he is the favorite.

Finally, there's Brian Bush, Uchi's kitchen manager. After completely a music major at the University of Texas, Bush started at Uchi as a busser. From there, he became a kitchen runner before staging in the kitchen for six months. After working for free, he was promoted to prep cook before earning his current role handling Uchi's purchasing. Speers says that Bush isn't ready to cook on the line, but he's been risen quickly because "he's very smart."

Edwards starts the clock. The contestants see the contents and immediately get to work preparing their dishes. With at least 20 spectators made up of Uchi employees and friends, there's both an energy in the room and lots of shouts of "hot behind" as the competitors move throughout the kitchen preparing their dishes. Speer observes the process and receives pictures from Uchi Austin and Uchiko of their competitions. With time running out, all four begin to assemble their plates. J.B. snatches his scallops off the grill, singeing the tips of his fingers. He leaps into the air and shouts as a few land on the floor instead of the plate.

Each contestent describes his or her dish for the judges before retreating to the kitchen while they deliberate. Roh makes a scallop ceviche with rice "sand" and seared celery root. J.B. presents seared scallop with scallop relish. Glenn offers scallops poached in yuzu with tomatillo and poached celery root. Bush offers fried scallops, fried rice crumble and celery root chips.

Speer leads the discussion as he tastes the dishes with Edwards and Bun. Although the judging criteria include presentation and difficulty, Speer makes it clear that the primary criteria are taste and use of ingredients. He's disappointed that no one chose to use the leaves or stem from the celery root. The judges quickly dismiss Glenn's plate for over-cooked scallops. JB comes up short for having elements that don't combine into a functional whole. Roh's dish is solid, and she gave it a water and sand theme that impresses Edwards.

However, Bush has a shot. Speer calls his monochromatic presentation "really strong." Edwards is impressed by the celery root chips, which can be tricky to prepare properly. Also, Bush fried his rice cake, which helps it stay crispy, while the other three's have gotten soggy. Finally, the sauce Bush prepared "makes everything pop." Bush wins because of the quality of his cooking and his use of ingredients.

The judges call the contestants back in. Speer explains what worked and what didn't for each dish. Finally, the winner is revealed. The crowd cheers for Bush. Afterwards, Bush says that he's been "trying to learn as much as I can" during his time at Uchi. He aspires to follow Edwards' path to chef de cuisine. If Saturday was any indication, he's well on his way.

· Uchi Tastes of Perfection [29-95]
· Uchi Takes Houston [Houston Press]
· All Uchi coverage on Eater Houston [-EHOU-]

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