The Art of Plating: Uchi / Uchiko

Writing by Veronica Meewes
Photography by Lauren Ussery, Chris Perez and Adrienne Dever

At Uchiko, cooks intently chop and slice behind the sushi bar, and there’s a calm sense of urgency in the kitchen, where the only detectable sounds are the static hiss of a blowtorch, the melodic stacking of plates and the whisper of dancing flames on the grill.

Andrew Lewis, director of pastry operations for the Uchi restaurant group, actually sketches out each one of his ideas, which makes it much easier to build and share his vision with his kitchen teams across Austin, Houston and now Dallas.

“(Presentation) is very important to me because it’s their first presentation when they see the dish but it’s also the last course they’re going to have here so I want to leave them with a good impression, good visual appeal,” says Lewis, who’s been with Uchi for the past five years.

He describes his style of presentation as “controlled chaos,” which is amusing considering the thought, time and preparation that goes into each dish. “I really like what we do here,” says Lewis. “It’s that messy, organic look. I like some perfectly placed dots, like they do at Congress, and then there’s the old Uchiko style which was kind of a mess, everything just thrown on the plate. My style is bridging those two. Kind of controlled, but kind of messy.”

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Lewis is constantly tweaking the Uchi/Uchiko signature desserts like the tobacco cream (Oreo crumble, tobacco ice cream, candied pecans, spheres that ooze Nutella mousse when broken, Laphroig scotch butterscotch balls, smoked huckleberry jam) and olive gelato (torched lemon curd, gluten-free brownie, candied Marcona almonds, kalamata olive ice cream) as well as reimagining new creations. One summer special featured a smear of local peach jam, peach sherbet, frozen almond merengue, sake lees gel made from spent sake grains, and toasted almonds.

“And with the ingredients of some of our desserts, it’s hard to tell if what’s being put down in front of you is a dessert or savory,” says Lewis, who’s been known to use ingredients like black garlic, mushrooms, fish sauce and tomatoes in his plates. “We’re really bridging the gap between sushi, pastry and savory.”

ABOVE: Sketches of dessert concepts with plating notes

BELOW:olive gelato: torched lemon curd, gluten-free brownie, candied Marcona almonds, kalamata olive
ice cream

When executive chef Tyson Cole opened Uchi twelve years ago, he created an inherently Japanese aesthetic linked with an innovative sense of artistry, proving some rules are meant to be broken.

It is no surprise Cole comes from a fine art background. Before he set foot in a kitchen, he painted on canvas with ink and paint, but was constantly inhibited by the felt permanency of these materials.

“At the end of the day, when the painting was done, whether it took an hour or a month, it was for forever,” he describes. “And eventually I just didn’t want to paint anymore because it was so frustrating (that) it was never perfect!”

When he started training in Japanese cuisine, the artist had found his medium. “Making sushi was the most perfect thing that could ever happen to me,” Cole remembers. “Because plating food is very similar to painting, but you get a lot more chances.”

Watching Cole plate truly feels like observing an artist at work. He assembles a kodi crudo, using chopsticks to place each component precisely on the plate, adding a slice of red plum here and removing a borage blossom there.

IMG_9254ABOVE:Japanese Picnic: yellowtail belly, baby zucchini, creme fraiche, okra, alliums

BELOW:KODI CRUDO:Snapper, olive oil, dill oil, radish, borage blossom, red plum

“My oldest daughter plays cello and she’s learning that notes are one thing but dynamics — really, that soul of playing — is what separates you from good to great,” he says. “And I think it’s the same with plating. You can place ingredients on a plate and think it’s beautiful, but until you realize that it’s functional and applicable to someone who’s actually eating it? That’s the real trademark to me. I’ve always focused on that, I think.”

In addition to constant creativity and inspiration, which he finds in everything from nature to cookbooks to social media, Cole instills curious discipline and a passionate work ethic in his teams. His kitchen staff members all take part in creating plates, which go through constant and multiple tastings by everyone in the front and back of house.

There’s no doubt the Uchi aesthetic has been a huge influence on the many chefs who’ve come up in Cole’s kitchen. Most of the kitchen staff of COUNTER 3.FIVE.VII have worked at Uchiko in some capacity, and many more have opened their own restaurants – the most well-known being Paul Qui, who will open his second restaurant, Otoko, this fall.

“The main thing I think they take from the culture here at Uchi and all our restaurants is this undying desire,” says Cole. “It’s all about desire and asking every day, ‘How can we be better? What can we change? How do we differ?’ It’s all about excellence and how we can raise the bar.”

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In plating a special dish named Japanese Picnic, Cole artfully arranges cured baby yellowtail belly, charred baby zucchini, creme fraiche, fresh okra, alliums, a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of Maldon sea salt. He steps back and admires his work.

“I think food is almost beyond art, you know?” he says. “It’s probably the most modern form of art because it’s edible. It’s instantly consumed, and so much time is put into it.”

He considers this for a second and adds, “Maybe it’s art, but it’s a different kind of art. You look at some of the stuff that’s been done in the past – especially the Ferran Adriá stuff, the elBulli stuff. It’s some of the most gorgeous food you’ve ever seen in your life. It could be hanging on a wall in a museum, right? But you get to eat it! And that, to me, is much more valuable than something that’s printed on a piece of paper or painted.”

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4200 N Lamar Blvd, Austin, TX 78756

Writing: Veronica Meewes
Photography: Lauren Ussery,Chris Perez and Adrienne Dever


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