Uchi Celebrates 20 Years Of Ground Breaking Cuisine With Los Angeles Outpost

Food & Drink

Hai Hospitality, the award-winning, Austin-based restaurant group behind Uchi, Uchiko, Uchibā and LORO Asian Smokehouse & Bar, is opening Uchi LA today, their first West Coast concept. The restaurant, in the heart of West Hollywood, marks a significant expansion milestone for the brand as it closes a successful 20 anniversary year.

Translated from the Japanese word meaning “house,” James Beard Award-winning chef Tyson Cole opened the original Uchi in a refurbished South Austin bungalow in 2003, with the simple vision of bringing the intimacy and collaboration of the sushi bar experience to every table in the restaurant.

His innovative takes on sushi and mold-breaking signature dishes have earned multiple awards as well as international attention, with a menu that offers hot and cool tastings, sushi and sashimi, makimono, yakimono, tempura, and a changing omakase based on seasonal items and only the freshest fish.

In 2005, Cole was named Best New Chef by Food & Wine magazine. Encouraged by the recognition he opened a new concept, Uchiko, which roughly translates as “son of Uchi” in 2010, and in 2011 he was awarded the James Beard award for Best Chef, Southwest.

His next concept, izakaya-style Uchibā opened on the second floor of Uchi Dallas in February 2018, expanding elements of Uchi into a cocktail experience. In April of the same year, Loro Asian Smokehouse and Bar opened in Austin, a collaboration with another James Beard winning chef, Austin pitmaster Aaron Franklin of Franklin Barbecue.

“We opened Uchi on South Lamar in a tiny bungalow house, and the goal was to be successful in that one house. It’s all I ever wanted,” Cole told me. “Basically, as the team became more successful, we grew. We opened Uchiko seven years after Uchi. That was just like a formula of what we do; it’s all about our people, our culture, you know, and so that’s grown from there.”

Hai currently operates in five cities across the U.S. including Austin, Houston, Dallas, Denver, and Miami, with Los Angeles slated to be the sixth. Each of their restaurants is allowed to create and cultivate their own identity, supported in a variety of capacities so that each location can grow while still being part of the umbrella company.

“We get the best talent, and they love the culture and what we do, and just continue to thrive and grow,” says Cole. “And I’m so very proud, and now especially talking about Los Angeles – a dream come true, you know? I mean, I can’t imagine opening in Los Angeles. It’s like the Grand Cru, probably the best place ever. Best sushi city in the whole country. People are amazing in Los Angeles. I love them.”

As a milestone year for Cole, 2023 has brought multiple professional and personal achievements. It saw the brand’s first international pop-up, with Uchi’s non-traditional Japanese cuisine showcased at the stunning Grace Bay Resorts in Turks & Caicos, where they held a successful three day stand in June. The second and final installment of this series is being held this week with a second takeover of Grace Bay Club’s Infiniti Restaurant & Raw Bar – the Caribbean’s longest bar. And pop-ups in Denver and Aspen helped to grow their loyal following and set the table for the opening in Los Angeles.

“I’m speechless about the restaurant community in LA. It’s amazing,” says Cole. “There’s so much depth, so much variation, so much talent, so many delicious restaurants. There are not enough days in the week to go. I think our location is good, in West Hollywood. I can’t wait. I guess there’s kind of a little buzz already, which is super cool about it, you know? I never imagined, Claudia, that with the strength of the brand we have built in the past 20 years, now people kind of know us. It’s very cool.”

Located on the ground level of a new ultra-luxe residential development, Nine Thousand One, the 6,000 sq.ft., Uchi Los Angeles is the result of a collaboration with local designers, craftspeople and artisans. Reflecting Southern California’s indoor-outdoor lifestyle, the design concept is built around rows of suspended live-edge wood slabs milled from local city street trees. Large openings connect diners to a spacious patio, and a zen garden-inspired ceiling rounds out the immersive yet tranquil dining atmosphere.

When Uchi opened in Austin, there was nothing remotely like it in the city. People were not quite sure what to make of the unique offerings such as the Uchi shot – sea urchin roe and a raw quail egg yolk topped with sparkling wine in a shot glass, or the tako pops — grilled baby octopus on wooden skewers. My favorite weird dish back then was the sawagani: tiny river crabs, fried whole and served amid seaweed to resemble a seaside scene. But it was the raw akami tuna served atop a perfect watermelon cube, drizzled with fish sauce and sprinkled with tobiko, that won me over forever.

Slowly, people started noticing, and spreading the word. Cole’s concept and passionate delivery opened the door for many more adventurous concepts that didn’t exist before Uchi. I see him as sort of a godfather in what was to become a thriving restaurant scene.

“Well, it’s all about timing,” says Cole when I bring up this idea. “I think Austin was primed and ready for something like what we did, you know? And this idea of taking hospitality to another level, throughout the entire restaurant, which we tried to do and still do today, adding that to the food itself, I think there’s magic there in what Uchi does. But again, it’s all about the people. I’ll beat that to death. I’m only sitting here because of our people. Without them I would not be here.”

“I mean, Claudia, seriously, we have over 1000 [employees] right now, and when I go to locations now and I show up there, it’s always as good or better than it was before. The talent is consistent. Driven. Tenacious. You know, it’s amazing. Concepts that can consistently make great food all the time, that is just as good or better each time, I think that’s golden. That’s the diamonds. I think we do that.”

That philosophy has translated into success for many Uchi alumni. Cole recalls a photograph from the Uchi cookbook. In that picture, seven people out of the 15 chefs have their own restaurants now. “It’s like legacy,” says Cole. “I’d like to think they all have the same DNA, all those chefs that we trained and learned at Uchi, you know? It’s like, you’re not gonna accept second best, you try as hard as you can every day to be awesome. To be the best. And if you go with that in your culture, I think it’s contagious, and that contagiousness just grows. And the guests can tell. It’s all about loving the food. You can taste the difference. Places that don’t put love in the food, there’s no flavor. Seriously. It’s like cafeteria food.”

Another trait that makes Cole stand out among his peers is an unexpected humility. With all the success and accolades, you’d expect the classic celebrity chef’s arrogant attitude. But not Cole. While he is enthusiastic and passionate about what he does, he does it all with a soft-spoken demeanor and never takes credit for himself.

“To train people every day, and watch them grow, and get better and better and thrive, at a certain point in time you must have humility. Because the people that you’re training to get better and better, when they surpass you, your reaction is like, crap, they can’t get better than me. Then you go, oh, maybe they can! So, at that point in time, it’s amazing, right? I didn’t think about that when we started – that these people would be better than me. But I tell you what, they’re much better than I was. It’s amazing to watch that happen. Because of the culture, because of the concept, because they buy in, you know, it’s a desire to always improve. Again, I’m speechless. And now we’re going to Los Angeles. I’m so happy.”

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