Tyson Cole on His Latest Culinary Masterpiece in Austin: Uchibā
Meet the executive chef and founder of Uchi restaurants, Tyson Cole, and take a peak at his latest restaurant in downtown Austin
Deep in the heart of Austin, where the charm of the city meets the bustling energy of an ever-growing downtown district, there is a new culinary gem that has taken the local food scene by storm. Uchibā, a contemporary izakaya restaurant — in Japan, these are typically establishments that marry food and liquor equally with tons of small bites, often on skewers and grilled over open flames — is the brainchild of the renowned sushi chef and restaurateur, Tyson Cole, who first made his mark on the city more than 20 years ago when he opened Uchi on South Lamar Boulevard. At that time, the city was not the well-known foodie’s paradise it is today.
Tyson Cole’s Journey
To truly appreciate Cole’s journey, one must go back to the very beginning. How did he go from washing dishes to becoming a sushi virtuoso, winning a James Beard Award in 2011? It all began during his college years at the University of Texas when his student aid vanished, leaving him in a financial bind. Desperate for work, he wandered into downtown Austin restaurant Kyoto, located above the jazz bar
Elephant Room. He originally wanted to apply to be a bartender downstairs, but the bar was closed.
“Just one staircase changed my whole life,” Cole explains. “They hired me as a waiter and dishwasher,
and I was quickly enamored and taken by their desire to always push harder, their tenacity, their attention to detail.”
Tyson Cole, a native Texan, grew up relishing traditional American fare, but Japanese cuisine offered him a world of flavors he had never encountered before. The acid levels, textures and the artistry in every dish fascinated him. The process of crafting sushi and the dedication of the sushi chefs left an indelible mark on him. After honing his skills for several years at Kyoto and then Musashino, Cole ventured to New York City to further refine his art. However, the competitive sushi scene in the Big Apple humbled him and made him realize he had more to learn. This led him back to Austin, where he founded Uchi, a game-changing sushi restaurant. Uchi’s innovative approach to sushi and hot dishes quickly made it a culinary hotspot in Austin, and it has been an enduring success since it opened in 2003. As Uchi celebrates its 20th anniversary, Cole attributes its legacy to a commitment to pushing boundaries, both in flavor and experience.
“From the beginning, the idea was, let’s do something different. Let’s make sushi more accessible. Let’s create excitement around it. Let’s integrate hot food from the kitchen with sushi to extend the sushi bar experience throughout the entire restaurant.”
A Passionate and Dedicated Team
Uchi’s success is also fueled by its passionate and dedicated staff. The team’s tenacity, the desire to constantly amaze diners and the infectious commitment to excellence have been the recipe for its long-lasting appeal. Uchi has become a launching pad for talented chefs like Yoshi Okai, Philip Speer and Masazumi Saio, who have gone on to open their own successful establishments contributing to Austin’s vibrant culinary scene.
“It’s amazing to see people grow, succeed and go on to open their own restaurants. I never dreamed of this, but it makes sense. It’s a testament to the path that Uchi has paved for them,” Cole says.
Uchibā Elevates Cole’s Concept to the Next Level
Fast forward to 2023, and Tyson Cole’s culinary empire has expanded to include Uchiko, Loro and now Uchibā, an izakaya that combines the artistry of sushi with the comfort of a Japanese pub, a place to relax and enjoy small plates, grilled skewers and sake. Cole’s take on this concept elevates it to a whole new level. He describes the essence of Uchibā as “comfortable, made-to-order food, hot Japanese dishes, skewers and buns. The interactivity of the experience, the blend of flavors and the combination of hot and cold dishes make Uchibā extraordinary.”
Uchibā’s izakaya experience isn’t just about hot food; it’s a celebration of sushi as well. The sushi at Uchibā is a delightful blend of traditional sushi craftsmanship with a contemporary twist. It complements the hot dishes, like kinoko dumplings, and creates an explosion of flavors. Cole and his team have also meticulously crafted a bar program that showcases rare Japanese whiskeys and innovative drinks, such as a deconstructed old fashioned with A5 beef fat washed Suntory whisky.
While Hai Hospitality, the group behind Uchi, is currently focusing on expanding nationwide with Uchi locations slated for Los Angeles, Scottsdale and New York City — coming “full circle,” as Cole puts it — the chef shares his love for Austin and the culinary scene in the city.
“I love Austin. It’s always been exciting. It’s an amazing city for dining and offers an opportunity to see what’s new and exciting. You can take an adventure here without traveling very far. I’m excited to be part of the culinary community here.” Cole says he hopes to open a second Loro (hopefully in the Domain) in the near future.
Outside the kitchen, Tyson Cole enjoys spending time with his family. He has three teenage daughters and relishes the moments he can share with them. Cole proudly shares that all of them enjoy sushi, with the youngest, Amelia, just beginning to explore the world of raw seafood.
“She’s got a good palate, and it’s exciting!”
Cole’s culinary journey from dishwasher to sushi sensation is an inspiring tale of passion, perseverance and an unwavering commitment to excellence. Uchibā, the latest jewel in his culinary crown, has captured the essence of Japanese izakayas, providing Austin food enthusiasts with an unforgettable dining experience. As Uchibā continues to flourish, the city can only anticipate more exciting developments from the visionary chef and his talented team.