People who think that Uchi Houston is just about sushi should think again. The Uchi kitchen turns out what I can only call works of art: intricately composed specialty dishes that are as visually compelling as they are complex in flavors, textures and ingredients.
At the helm of the Uchi Houston kitchen is Chef de Cuisine Kaz Edwards, who started at Uchi Austin straight out of culinary school seven years ago. We sat down for a chat about his induction into the Uchi family, the Uchi method of creating new dishes and more.
EOW: So Kaz, you have a very unusual name. Kaz is an unusual name, isn't it?
KE: It is, for sure. I don't think I've met that many other people with that name.
EOW: Where does the "Kaz" come from, then?
KE: I've always asked my mom and dad where it came from, and it was just something that my mom heard when she was a young girl, and it's one of those things that stuck with her. When she was young, she was watching a TV show and one of the characters was named Kaz as a nickname, and it just stuck with her, she liked it. It's not a nickname, it's actually my name, K-A-Z.
EOW: The last time I met you, you said you started at the bottom at Uchi Austin. Tell me about that.
KE: So I went to UT for college. It's one of the deals I made with my parents, that after high school I would go to college. They said they'd pay for my college, and after that, I could do whatever I wanted as long as I took care of it.
EOW: What was your major in college?
EOW: Journalism? That's a subject close to my heart. Did you pursue that at all?
KE: I did some freelance, and got a couple of articles published, just some creative writing-type articles. I've been divorced for three or four years now -- newly engaged, though -- but I'd married my high-school sweetheart, and I had written some articles based on that, and got those published.
EOW: Okay, so journalism...you did four years at college. When did the Uchi thing happen? How did that happen?
KE: When I started getting towards the end of college, I was obviously thinking about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. The food thing was always there. It was always in the back of my mind. It was always something I wanted to pursue. My senior year, I'd gone to the culinary schools, I'd visited them and I'd decided that was what I wanted to do, so right after college I went directly into culinary school.
EOW: Most of the people here go to CIA, or Art Institute...
KE: That's the thing about our staff. Most of them come from Texas culinary schools -- the Texas Culinary Academy in Austin, Le Cordon Bleu Academy, the Art Institute here, we have a bunch of students from there working here now. I went to Le Cordon Bleu, the Texas Culinary Academy.
EOW: So, were you drafted into Uchi?
KE: When I was in restaurant practical, the chef that I had at that time knew the manager at Uchi. Uchi didn't have a stage program at the time, but he talked to the manager there, I went in to interview and they offered me an unpaid stage position, and I took it.
EOW: This was how long ago?
KE: This is going on seven years ago.
EOW: And at the time, had Uchi blown up yet?
KE: Literally the day that I started was two days after Tyson was named Best New Chef in Food & Wine magazine, so it was one of the first big things that blew up about Uchi.
EOW: Choosing Uchi, was it a conscious effort because you wanted to do sushi...?
KE: It was a conscious effort in the sense that it was where I was told I needed to be. Because it was on the cusp of something great. Everybody felt that it was going to blow up, but they didn't know when or anything like that. But my chefs were like, "You need to get in with this guy, because he's going to be doing something great."
EOW: So the fortune-tellers were good.
KE: (laughs) For sure, for sure. I've gotten in, I haven't been able to leave, so it's been good.
EOW: Tell me about that journey. Getting into, becoming part of the Uchi family. Obviously for you, it's been a long journey.
KE: It has been. The cool thing, I guess, was that I started when Tyson [Cole] was still working on the line. So I'd come in, and he'd be breaking up a fish. I literally actually got to work with him. And then, in trying to do everything in the restaurant, I got to a point where I was working in the sushi bar a bit, so I was working the maki station, doing the rolls. And Tyson was cutting the fish, and it was a show, so he would take the fish and throw it down to you, and we'd catch it.
EOW: Really? I didn't know that!
KE: Oh yeah, it was a lot of fun. He would call for a whole fish, and they would bring 'em, and they would bring them kind of through the customers, and hand it to him over the sushi bar, just so they'd get that kind of show and feel, and they ate it up, they loved it.
EOW: Do you still do that?
KE: We don't throw the fish around, that's Tyson's thing. But every now and then, they'll call for a hamachi, and we'll bring it and we'll pass it over the sushi bar and make it a show, so to speak.
EOW: When you started staging, what did they have you do?
KE: (laughs) I cleaned a lot. I organized, and back then they didn't have a very extensive pastry program. We had mochi, and we had a couple of desserts. The black pepper sorbet with strawberries was one that we got written up for back then. So it was mainly kind of just standing around, watching, taking everything I could in, and then cleaning and organizing.
EOW: I kind of think of it almost like a surgery program. You watch and watch. And I just saw Jiro Dreams of Sushi, where it took ten years to learn how to do egg. So, do you get fish and practice? How does that work?
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KE: Sure. We get salmon in every week, and that's probably a harder fish to break down because it's so large. And that's where a lot of our guys start learning and watching the more experienced guys break down those fish. Then once they feel like they can kind of jump in and train on how to do it, then we'll start training them. And we'll actually buy a couple of fish on the cheaper end just to practice on.
Check back with us tomorrow as Edwards expands on his work at Uchi, how an item is added to the menu and more.