Last Saturday, Uchi Houston celebrated its first year of business. The restaurant didn't issue a press release or run a special menu. That meant just another ho-hum Saturday night of serving over 400 diners. It's no surprise for a restaurant that dominated Eater Houston's Restaurant of the Year balloting and showed up time and again in our surveys of 2012's best new restaurants and best meals.
Culinary director Philip Speer, chef de cuisine Kaz Edwards and general manager Dan Allen sat down to talk about first year challenges, why Uchi is so popular within the service industry, what role executive chef and co-owner Tyson Cole plays in the restaurant's operations and much more.
What were your expectations for this restaurant and how has it performed relative to them?
Kaz: I don't think we really had expectations. We were coming in based on another restaurant that had been open and thought we'd be starting off slow and build, which did not happen at all.
Dan: I think we had an expectation that we would be successful, because we had a lot of people from Houston going to Austin to go to Uchi. In fact, there was something like over 7,000 names in the Uchi database of people that lived in Houston. There was some good buzz before we got here. That was certainly helpful.
Philip: We knew that our performance needed to meet if not exceed all expectations of Houston diners.
Dan: We felt a lot of pressure, because Tyson the year before had just won Best Chef in the Southwest, the James Beard Award. Philip: Against Hugo (Ortega) and (Bryan) Caswell and some of these Houston chefs. Dan: There was a sense of "what are these guys going to do when they come to Houston? Can they do it away from Austin?" There was definitely pressure to deliver on that. I think as Philly said, by and large, we have, but there are times when, you know, we haven't.
What was the biggest thing you didn't anticipate about this restaurant?
Dan: It's a different kind of guest in Houston, and it was a little challenging for us at the beginning to understand that guest.
Kaz: The idea of what the guests perceive as high-end fine dining here versus in Austin. Austin's super casual, super laid back. Here people like to dress up and go out, spend a lot of money, drink a lot of wine. It's a little different than Austin.
Dan: They sit considerably longer. That messed us up in the beginning. We were planning on a certain length of dining, and planned our reservations around that. People were sitting a half hour, hour, two hours longer than what's normal. That backed us up; that was a big issue for us in the beginning.
Philip: One thing that I didn't really anticipate was the camaraderie of the food service community here. From the other chefs and managers and restaurant owners to just, you know, the foodies and writers.
Kaz: It was about a month back we were talking about that. It's, like, what's the difference between a really great restaurant scene versus just a restaurant scene. It's when new restaurants open all the community is abuzz. All the other restaurants are like "This is going to be awesome. This is going to be great." Whereas in a normal restaurant scene, people might be worried, competition. Houston was just pumping everybody up. That's how we feel when the Oxhearts and Underbellys open.
Philip: We were so fortunate to open at the same time those restaurants did as well, because it's not only great for the dining scene. It was really great for us, too.
Dan: The culinary scene has made us step up our game. With those restaurants and others too that have opened. You can't be complacent. While we all get along, it's certainly a competition for a diner. There's certainly enough to go around for everybody. You can't just say "we're here. Let's open up." That doesn't work.
What is it about this restaurant that makes it a destination for people in the industry?
Kaz: I think it's the idea of being about to try a lot of things. I think that our waitstaff does an incredible job of making everything accessible and fun.
Philip: To me, more than the food, it's the hospitality. It is a nice place, you can come spend a lot of money. You can get dressed up, but you can also come here and feel comfortable.
Dan: You can just wear jeans and flip flops and come hang out.
Philip: Comfortable in attire, but also in feeling. Uchi means "home." The original Uchi is in a home. We always try to convey that feel. You're a guest of ours. You're not a customer. You're not a diner. You're literally a guest, and we want you to feel like you're at home. Very often tables start talking to each other or at the sushi bar or the community table. I had two friends sit at the community table last night. By the end of it, the whole table was talking and hanging out. When we see that, Kaz will come out with a big tray of pork belly and just have them all share it. We try to push that vibe of home and comfort.
You said the diners in Austin are different than the diners in Houston. Do people come here for the vibe, or do they come here for the food?
Philip: Danny Meyer said, "People come to a restaurant for the food. They come back for the hospitality." That's really how we feel. The food and the buzz of the food attracts our guests. Hopefully, if they have the experience we're trying to put out there, they come back for both.
What I mean is, are people coming here because they want to eat this cuisine, or are they coming here because it's a hot place and they want to see and be seen?
Dan: I think at first it was see and be seen. That was the challenging part for us. Once that settled, there was room for people to come who really want to eat the food. That was part of the adjustment for us. In Austin, people knew the food. (They said) just get us the food. Here, at first, it was not that way. This is the hotspot. There's all the buzz going around. Some of them, honestly, didn't care about the food, which was sad.
Kaz: A lot of people came in because it was the old Felix's, and they wanted to see what we did with it.
Dan: A lot of those people have filtered through and gone on to other hotspots that opened up. It has created some room and some space for people who understand what we're all about and want that food to get in and not have to wait.
One of the things that I have observed is that people really love to work here. Have you had a lot of turnover or has it been pretty steady?
Dan: It's been pretty steady. We have people that have moved on for personal reasons. They moved out of the city. They go back to school. Nothing really related to the restaurant. The kitchen has had some turnover.
Philip: You have new restaurant attrition all the time. However, one year in, the employees that we have now are probably going to be here for a long time.
Kaz: Out of a guestimate, we've probably lost 20 to 25% of our kitchen staff, at the most. The majority of these guys are still here.
Philip: We're one year in here. We had our two year for 'Ko. March is Uchi's 10 year anniversary. I would say 60-70% of the front of the house has been there five years plus. Kaz has worked here for eight years. I've worked here for seven. Once you've been here, and you're part of the culture, then you're part of it. You want to see it through.
What are your expectations for the servers in terms of being able to guide guests through this experience?
Dan: We have pretty high standards for servers here. It's a tough job. They need to be genuine, and we don't script them. They need to comfortable talking with people. They need to know the menu inside and out. The ingredients, how the dishes are prepared.
Kaz: Even more so than most places. They have the option to run a server omakase. They pretty much pick the food. Order it however they see fit. We rely on them. To do that, they have to be well-trained.
Philip: Well educated.
Dan: Well educated and have an ability to understand their table. This menu can be be confusing to people. The initial meeting at the table they're a tour guide, guiding them through the menu. Explaining the menu, all the different components. Then they work with the guests to figure out how to order the meal. Whether the guest will order on their own. Or they're going to get one of our tastings. Or whether they're just going to let the server take care of it. Then the server's going to ask some questions. What do you like? What don't you like? What have you had before? They start the meal that way. Halfway through the meal they're like, "How do you like what's coming out?"
Kaz: That even goes to, like, every ingredient in every sauce. They do dietary restrictions. If it's gluten, if it's soy allergies. They have to know our ponzu sauce has these things in it. That's why a lot of them stage in the kitchen, too. They come back there and work in the kitchen to get a better handle on how things are made and what goes into it.
I know that you give away a fair amount of food here. What determines when a guest gets a dish?
Dan: The protocol is, what's going to make that a great guest experience.
Philip: We don't spend dollars on advertising. The value of that dish is better than any kind of advertising.
Dan: That's our marketing, which becomes word of mouth. Which becomes a guest that has had an experience that they wouldn't have had before. Then they come back another time, and they've added another dish to their repertoire. We may give them something else to try. The servers have a fair amount of leeway. Obviously, some of them go a little too far, and we have to rein them in. It can get a little out of control, because it's supposed to be a special thing for the table.
Philip: It's not a hookup. It's a gesture.
Dan: And there needs to be an intention behind it, so we've trained out staff enough and we trust them enough to do that. They're the ones that have the relationship with that table. They're the ones that are going to know what's going to help blow these people away.
Let me ask you about the food. How much control, Kaz, do you have over the menu? How much control does Tyson still have?
Kaz: We do tastings every two weeks. As far as control, I put together the tastings. The way our kitchen works is, we think of our kitchen as a creative learning opportunity. Everyone has the opportunity to come to me with an idea and develop a dish. We had a tasting on Friday. We had 11 dishes from six or seven different cooks and sushi guys for Philip to taste. He and Tyson go back and forth as far as flavors, textures, everything else. He will make tweaks or say go back to the drawing board. Then they go on the daily menu.
Philip: Core dishes is much different. We don't make a lot of changes to the core menu. Having our daily menu allows us to be creative. People come back for the core menu. We want to provide the dishes they've had before. Then you have a daily menu with something new. It's a good way to sustain the creativity but still have your core Uchi items.
?.As far as like Tyson's input on the food, I work to his palate. That's what I do. We may even disagree on food, but we know what he likes. I don't want to say there's a formula, but there's guidelines.
Kaz: Being in Houston, we do have a little bit more leeway. They're not in the house every day. I can call and get a dish on the menu.
Philip: Because we trust him. Not all the chefs can do that.
Kaz: I've had the pleasure of actually working with Tyson and Philly on the line, in the kitchen, everyday for a long time. It was pretty awesome. That was my best training was to be able to go to Tyson and Philly and put a dish in front of them. They'd say "no, this doesn't work." Philip: And here's why. Kaz: Exactly, and he does get irritated, but I will let the younger guys put up a dish that I know is not where it is as far as what we want, so they can hear the feedback coming directly from him.
Does Tyson come here very often? Philip, I think of you as kind of the Austin ambassador.
Philip: Tyson's very connected to the restaurant every single day, all the restaurants. He's in the restaurants every day in Austin. I've been lucky to make a career out of being an extension of his palate.
Dan: When we're doing those tastings, Philly's taking pictures. He's sending them to Tyson. They're texting back and forth. He'll have the menu before of what they're going to taste. He's directly involved.
Philip: A comment he had after the last tasting was "A lot of the dishes are starting to look the same again. Too protein focused. Let's do more veg focused. I noticed that every one of those dishes is on the same kind of plate." He'll say things like that. He trusts our palates.
Dan: One of the interesting things I've noticed about our company is, I've done these tastings and thought, Tyson's never going to go for that dish, because of the history of that ingredient. All of a sudden Tyson will say "that's cool." He evolves and changes, too.
What do you see for the next year?
Kaz: More involvement in the community. Being a year out, I think we have the ability to get more involved now.
Dan: First year was about getting our bearings, establishing our foundation, inside the four walls. If you don't have this working, whatever you do outside isn't going to matter. We really focused on let's build a solid restaurant here. Now's an opportunity for us to branch out and do more things in the community.
Philip: I met with Josh (Martinez) to talk about OKRA and how we as a unit can be more involved. A lot of us are individual members, but, as a business, how can we be more involved? Pairing up with Blaffler this year to do a whole series of dinners. We're doing a bunch of things for Free Press Summer Fest. The farm dinners that we're doing. We'd like to pair up with other chefs: whether it be Justin (Yu) or Chris (Shepherd) or Seth (Siegel-Gardner) or Terrence (Gallivan), The Pass guys. Whether it's doing more dinners. Chris Leung and I have been talking about doing a dessert tasting in our PDR with just pastry chefs. Continue to build our relationship with Houston as well as evolve our service and food.
I want to see the food just pushing and pushing and pushing the boundaries. Because we are 10 years old, you will hear comments about dinosaur, old school. To me, 10 years isn't a long time, but in the restaurant business it's a pretty long time. We don't ever want to be looked at as anyone that's resting on their laurels or the accolades we've been lucky enough to get. We want to keep pushing and doing new things. Evolving is the best word.
Dan: On top of all that, in the kitchen, I'll speak for these guys, we want to keep developing that staff to become rock star cooks, like Page (Pressley). Keep giving them opportunities. Taking the guy that's just out of culinary school and just keep working with him.
Philip: As you know, we're beginning work on our new concept and our Dallas location. That growth allows someone like Page or when Kaz left Uchi Austin to have his post here. This is Kaz's restaurant. He worked all the way through the ranks to have that. Our growth allows us to develop our staff.
Dan: The front of the house, too. We have a server, David Keck. He came in as a server but he had an incredible wine experience. He's moved into a company-wide beverage director position and is taking on working with the new concept. We've brought in someone below him to do the beverage training, because he doesn't have time to do that. We've got servers who are going to step up and go to Dallas to train that staff. There's lots of opportunities even for servers.
Dan: All of this growth is very intentional. Every step is thought through. We're not just going around opening up restaurants because we want a bunch of Uchis out. In fact, Tyson and Darrel and John are very conscious and very concerned about not losing control of our brand and our product.
Philip: And our culture, and not diluting. It's important to us never to lose sight of that. We don't want to become one of these fine dining chains that loses all credibility, because there's not enough attention to detail in each of the posts. We will never let that happen.
Dan: We were concerned about being able to replicate the culture of Uchi in Austin here in Houston...We have. It's taken work. It's taken effort. Now when we go to Dallas, how are we going to do that?
Do you want to tell me where the Dallas restaurant's going to be or what other cities you're looking at?
Philip: I can tell you at this time there is not a confirmed location.