Chef Chat, Part 2: Kaz Edwards of Uchi, on Creating the Perfect Dish

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Kaz Edwards Uchi Houston 904 Westheimer 713-522-4808 uchirestaurants.com/houston

This is the second of a three-part Chef Chat with Kaz Edwards of Uchi Houston. Click to read Part 1 and Part 3.

Yesterday, we chatted with Uchi Houston's Chef de Cuisine, Kaz Edwards, about his beginnings with Uchi Austin. Today, we chat in depth about his role as Chef de Cuisine.

EOW: Seven years out, and you're Chef de Cuisine. When did things really gel for you? How difficult is it to do? I know that you strive to achieve a very high level of perfection here.

KE: We have our head sushi chef Nobu, who's trained, and incredibly talented. I think there's two different facets we're talking about. You have the kitchen, where you move up through the chef ranks, and then you have the sushi bar, and they're two totally different beasts. Moving up through the sushi bar is going to take a lot more time. There's a lot more tradition to it, there's a lot more to learn as far as technique goes.

While there's a lot more to learn in the kitchen, I found it was easier for me, because that was my background, to kind of move up faster in the kitchen. It's kind of based on where your background is.

EOW: Okay, maybe I was a little confused about how that works.

KE: Paul [Qui], he had a background in both, so he was able to move up and zigzag through. As far as me, I started on the sushi bar, I got on the maki station and they trained me on that, and then they pulled me towards the back of the house to start managing and moving up in those ranks. And then I made it up to lead line cook, and then kitchen manager, then junior sous, sous chef and then chef de cuisine.

EOW: Looking at your menu, I was expecting it to be more sushi-focused, and I'm finding that you have a lot of these hot plates that are becoming a larger part of the meal.

KE: We still do probably about 60 percent to 70 percent in sushi. Thirty to 40 percent is going to be the hot food. We sell a lot of sushi, but it's those little extra things you don't expect. You expect to go to a sushi restaurant and get sushi, but you don't expect to get these composed, intricate hot dishes that we're serving. And you can step out of the box on those types of things.

EOW: Is the menu all Tyson, or do you have input, or how does that work?

KE: To put a dish on the menu, it's a two-week process. We come up with ideas. Our kitchen is so free-thinking -- that's what I love about our kitchen, and that's what I'll always promote in my kitchens moving forward -- but if a stage comes in and they have this really great idea, and they're passionate about the idea, and I think it's something we can develop, we'll develop the idea, and then we'll have a tasting. If it passes the tasting, it will go on the menu. So, anyone in our kitchen, including people in the front of the house, can come up with ideas for specials.

EOW: Wow, really?

KE: Yes, for sure, and they always go through me and I help them develop them, and we kind of come up that way.

EOW: Give me an example of something that somebody suggested who's not a kitchen person.

KE: Well, here's a great one. So, we have family meal every day. And one of the sushi chefs -- this was years back in Austin -- he loves salmon collar. So he would take salmon collar and cook it for family meal, and that's what we would eat. And Tyson and Phil and all these guys were like, "This is amazing, this is great," so eventually we put salmon collars on the menu. And it's something that we still serve today.

EOW: What about the daily specials that go on the menu?

KE: This is the two-week process I was talking about. I'll come up with the idea, like one of the dishes I have on right now is a cured and smoked salmon dish. So I'll come up with an idea, and I'll develop it, I'll create it and we'll taste it with my staff, my sous chef, my pastry chef, and we'll all kind of comment on it. And then we'll pull the front-of-the-house guys in and they'll taste it, because they're kind of our gauge for the customer, for the guest. So we'll get their opinions, and then I'll tweak it again over the next two weeks, to get it exactly how I want it.

And then at the end of that period, Tyson and Phil will come down, and we'll do a tasting for them. And by that time, we've developed probably ten dishes. They'll taste them and comment on them, say they really like it, or say we need to go back to the drawing board. And the stuff that they pass goes on the menu. The stuff that they want us to go back on, we'll go back on and rework it for the next tasting two weeks later.

EOW: Let's talk about some things about you. What's your favorite ingredient?

KE: One of my favorite things to work with is sunchokes. I absolutely love sunchokes.

EOW: Is it the flavor or the manipulation of it?

KE: Both. The great thing about sunchokes is it lends itself to both savory and sweet applications. If you took a sunchoke and just fried it, it would smell like a root vegetable funnel cake. You can take it and make chips out of it. You can dust it with sugar and it'll go with dessert, or you can dust it with salt and it'll go with steak. They're very similar to potato in starch content, so you can make soups out of them, puree them. It's one of my favorite things to work with.

EOW: What about technique? What technique do you think gives the most bang for the buck?

KE: Skilled knife work. I think nowadays people lose sight of that, because there's so many cool gadgets you can play with. We have a liquid nitrogen tank in the back. You can imagine that all the cooks that have come in, that's what made their faces light up, but I'll bet you if I walk up to their stations, their knives would not be as sharp as they need to be.

EOW: Who has influenced you the most?

KE: To be 100 percent honest with you, my parents. My parents are really involved, and they have always been the people I've looked up to, they've always been a driving force behind what I do and supported me in everything that I've done, so for sure, my parents.

EOW: You said that food has always been in the background. Did they feed you really well?

KE: I grew up in Beaumont, right on the border of Texas and Louisiana. And my mom's side of the family grew up in Louisiana, my dad's side in Texas. So the merging of the two different types of foods they liked was interesting. My dad's side was mashed potatoes and chicken-fried steak, my mom's side was crawfish and boudin balls, and crawfish étouffée, and so when we had birthday parties or celebrations, the men in the family would get together and cook. We'd have these great meals with all the men cooking these things. For Thanksgiving we'd have turkey, but Cajun-style turkey, and boudin balls, etc. We'd have 30 or 40 people every birthday, and everyone would bring one dish, so it was food all around me all the time, and it was always fun, always something I'd want to do.

EOW: Okay, last question. If you were to have a last meal, who would make it and what would it be?

KE: It would be my grandmother, my dad's mom, I call her Nanaw. It would have to be her fried chicken. I remember growing up, we would go on these trips, and she'd have this huge cast-iron pot, and she'd fry all this chicken in it, and we'd go on picnics and have this cold fried chicken. It's just good memories I have with my family.

Check in with us tomorrow when we do our tasting, when you'll see some of the amazing food from Edwards's kitchen.

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