Chef Chat

Chef Chat, Part 1: Manabu Horiuchi of Kata Robata — Japan in Houston

Houston is known as a multicultural city — a true melting pot of people and cuisines from around the world. This continues a series where we take a look at the chefs responsible for creating authentic dishes from several different nations right here in Houston.

His name is Manabu Horiuchi, but many of his longtime customers call him Chef Hori-San or, more simply, Chef Hori. He was born in Hamamatsu, Japan, and knew since he was 12 years old that he wanted to be a sushi chef.

Horiuchi’s mother was a big influence. She was a certified cook at a retirement center, and young Hori would help with the food preparation, including slicing meat and cutting vegetables. As soon as he graduated from high school, he attended Tsuji Culinary Institute in Osaka for formal training. It’s one of the biggest and most prestigious culinary schools in Japan, and Horiuchi says it’s akin to attending Le Cordon Bleu in Paris.

His first professional job was as an apprentice at Sushi Ko in the Ginza district. “It used to be a Michelin-starred restaurant, but I don’t think it has a star anymore,” Horiuchi mused. He honed his craft there five years, from age 19 to age 24.

He then moved to a place that focused on a different type of traditional Japanese cuisine: a kappo-style restaurant. In a kappo restaurant, chefs face their customers from across a counter and prepare dishes directly in front of them. “It’s very simple food,” he explained. “You braise or grill fish and grill vegetables. You also make sashimi, but not sushi.” He stayed there two years and then an opportunity to come to the United States arrived.

He met the Japanese consul general from Houston in 2000, who asked him to come cook for the consulate. Going to the United States was something young Hori had always wanted to do. His mother was a little sad to see her son move, of course. His dad was a tanker engineer and did a good bit of traveling over the course of his job, so he was more excited and happy for his son than sad. (Chef Horiuchi returns to Japan every year to see his family and friends and to reconnect with his birthplace.)

He was the official chef at the consulate for two years and when his contract was up, a place called Kubo’s caught his eye. “Chef Kubo [Hajime Kubokawa] was one of the best chefs in Houston — a very good sushi chef. I was very excited to work there.”

Eight years later, Horiuchi had an opportunity to be in a restaurant that showcased his own talents. It was Kata Robata, where you can find him to this day. It opened in 2009 and has become such an important part of Houston’s dining landscape that it seems odd that it has been around for only six years. “Somebody recently called us a ‘new Houston classic,’” said general manager Blake Lewis, who started with Kata Robata as a server when it opened.

Kata Robata wasn’t an instant hit. It took six months and reviews by the Houston Press restaurant critic Robb Walsh and the Houston Chronicle restaurant critic Alison Cook to get steady business flowing. The reviews published less than a week apart.

Unlike the basic Japanese fare at Kubo’s, Horiuchi happily borrows ingredients from other cultures when it seems appropriate. “If I want to use a French or American ingredient, I can, even if it’s not the Japanese taste,” said Hori. “The owners of Kata Robata [The Azuma Group] give me lots of freedom. If I want a Vietnamese, Chinese or Italian flavor, I can use it.”

Over six years, the food has evolved a great deal, and Horiuchi credits some of that to the chefs who have worked alongside him. “At first, it was my food and Jean-Philippe [Gaston], and then it was me and Seth [Siegel-Gardner]. I learned from Jean-Philippe. The molecular gastronomy stuff I learned from Seth [Siegel-Gardner]. I learned some French style from Philippe.”

Kata Robota always seems to evolve, just in very small increments. There are few new dishes that just got introduced to the menu. There’s a fresh seaweed salad with five different kinds and a sesame-soy vinaigrette — a recipe from Japan. “It’s very simple but has a tasty sauce and is good for the summer,” explained Horiuchi.

The Chicken Skewers 3-Ways is a casual, fun, izakaya-style preparation, with the “3 Ways” referring to three different types of sauce, including mentaiko, with a mayonnaise sauce that incorporates roe; and “Osaka-style,” a nod to okonomiyaki with kewpie mayo and bonito flakes.

Another new item, Kata’s grilled octopus, gets fancier treatment than most people get in a day. It’s massaged for 15 minutes with grated daikon, which helps tenderize it and relax the muscles.

Come back tomorrow for Part 2, where we'll find out more about chef Manabu Horiuchi's forthcoming Izakaya (with executive chef Jean-Philippe Gaston at the helm) and what dishes he recommends that people try at Kata Robtata. 
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Phaedra Cook
Contact: Phaedra Cook