Feature Article: Austin Food
We get to know the acclaimed chef behind Otoko
by Tobin Levy
Photographs by Andrew Reiner
“Find what you love and let it kill you.” tattooed on Yoshi Okai’s right forearm, the Charles Bukowski quote is as rebellious as Okai’s cooking style. His decadent cross-cultural creations at Otoko restaurant, where the forty-year-old is head chef, are why Food & Wine declared him one of the Best New Chefs 2017. Like Bukowski’s writings, Okai’s artful dishes (his presentations are museum-worthy) are quietly personal and boisterously transfixing.
Okai’s presence is equally charismatic. He sports a dark mullet and favors punk band shirts and the color black. Okai is also an animated talker. Flashing a broad, puckish grin, he speaks with a Japanese accent and dynamic intonations. He is as grateful for the Food & Wine coverage as he is perplexed. “It’s just so not me,” he laughs. “Vice magazine would make much more sense.”
Okai’s creations are wholly unique, reflective of a surplus of passion for punk rock, landscape architecture, floral design and an aversion to cooking shows and cookbooks. “I don’t watch TV [about cooking],” he says. “Because if you see someone cooking something it stays in your mind. Then you create a new dish and say oh, I came up with this idea but no, you saw that somewhere…”
Long before the Food & Wine accolade, Okai’s ingenuity earned him veneration among his peers. Casey Wilcox, another one of Austin’s acclaimed chefs (Justine’s Brasserie, Uchi, Second Bar + Kitchen), lavishes praise. “Yoshi is a fucking sushi gangster. Knows it all before you do,” Wilcox says. “He has all the care of a Kaiseki master, but does it on his terms. He knows the rules, respects them, but breaks them if he wants to. That’s what makes him different. The Japanese aesthetic is to follow form, do the same, but he never will. Everything he’s gotten he’s earned. A warrior, one of us.”
Some of the less than traditional ingredients Okai has incorporated into his dishes include grasshoppers, meal worms, and sal de gusano (agave worm salt often found on the rim of mescal glasses.) One of the fundamentals of Japanese food that Okai is committed to is the multi-tiered approach to cooking. “The difference in Japanese cuisine is it’s not just about taste. It is your eye, the taste—and think of the after taste. You taste the dish three times, so that is important.”
Okai was born and raised in Kyoto, where, at his great uncle’s side, he started cooking at the age of six. However, throughout his youth cooking was not a priority. He was the lead in a punk band, worked at his parents’ landscape architecture company, their flower shop, and at a relative’s catering company. Eventually these iterations of Okai would coalesce into a signature cuisine. For example, today, when asked about his approach to presentation, he explains that when he is plating food “I am thinking about small gardens, and bringing landscaping to my dish.”
After going to college for landscape architecture, in 1997, Okai moved to Los Angeles with the goal of improving his English conversational skills, a goal that was thwarted by the large Japanese population in Los Angeles. “I ended up hanging out with too many Japanese people,” Okai says, “and not using any English. My sister had a friend who graduated from UT, and he was saying Austin had almost no Japanese people. And I knew of bands from Austin and I love music, so I said perfect.”
Six months later, without ever having been to Texas, Okai moved to Austin. Of course, he had preconceptions of the Lone Star State. “I thought of rolling hay [tumbleweeds] and bars with swinging doors,” he says, pushing his way into an imaginary saloon. “My plan was to just stay here a year or two then move to Holland for landscape architecture school.” Okai has now lived in Austin for nearly a decade. He still, at times, searches for the English counterpart to a Japanese word. And though some of his phrasing does elicit inadvertent levity, Okai has grasped the most elusive aspect of a second language—the translation of humor.
Okai has integrated humor into all facets of his life, including his tattoos, which now decorate most of his body. There is a large wolf (“because I like wolves”) on one arm just below a death Tarot card. “All think this has a bad meaning, but it’s really good meaning,” he says. His favorite tattoo is in two parts. The first being the number 8 inked above the knuckle of his right hand’s middle finger. The second is the number 6 in the same place on the opposite hand. When asked to explain their significance Okai’s grin widens, he starts laughing, then flips the double bird, hands so close together that their pinkies are touching. “86! Get it?” he says, explaining the etymology. “It means finished. Done. Sold out. It’s kitchen talk.” It is a joke clearly meant for his peers not the customers. “It is so funny,” he continues. Okai’s laughter is contagious. “I’ve never had a chance to use it.” It is an upbeat lament and a surprising admission given Otoko’s popularity.
Austin was clearly a game-changer. Upon arrival, Okai joined a garage band then moved on to punk. He got tattoos (he had only two when he moved to Austin). He also got married and acquired a pet—a black mini pig that Okai walked on a leash and that, sadly, he lost in the divorce. (The pig’s name was the Japanese word for “looks delicious.”) Then Okai, leery of 9-to-5 office jobs, entered the restaurant world.
He now owns an assortment of elegant, custom made knives specially ordered from Japan. His favorite took six months to make and was designed specifically for cutting blowfish to allow for a cleaner cut and a thinner slice of fish. The knife is beautiful, frame worthy. The glint of the blade is mesmerizing. The tiny engraved blowfish on the handle is unbearably beautiful. Unlike most chefs, Okai sharpens his own knives, a much trickier undertaking than it would seem, but one that is integral to the art form. A properly sharpened knife is a balanced one, explains Okai, as he turns the knife upside down, setting the base on the counter, taking his hand away, leaving the knife to stand steady and upright on its own. It is as dumbfounding as a magic trick. To date, Okai doesn’t have a single work-related war wound, no lingering scars from the slip of a knife. (In truth, he seemed a little flustered by the inquiry.)
Otoko’s popularity—the 12-seat restaurant is booked out months in advance—begs the question of whether Okai will be using his knives at an off-shoot or any time soon. All those hoping Otoko will soon turn his successes into an expansion or a new restaurant will be disappointed. “Lots of people think that way and most fail,” he says, “so right now I want to make sure this place continues to succeed.” He is happy in the now. It’s hard to imagine him any other way.
Read more from the Food Issue | July 2017