The Japanese Art of Cuisine with Katsuya Uechi

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 Even though my drive for success is strong, at my core I am a chef and I want to be cooking.

After high school I attended Tsuji Culinary Institute in Osaka, one of the largest and most well respected professional culinary schools in Japan. Upon graduation, I returned back to my hometown and began my career at Harbor View Hotel in Okinawa. I stayed in the city for six years, working in several different restaurants and hotels, perfecting my craft, until my first move to the United States in 1984. Though I stayed here for several years, learning the cultures of the American culinary scene, eventually I went back to Okinawa to retrain. The old art of Japanese cuisine is something that I take very seriously, and I wanted to have my foundation firmly set before I went about infusing American gastronomy with the delicacies of Japan.

My second trip to the United States landed me in Seattle in 1989. Two years later, I moved to Ventura County and have been thrilled to spend the last two decades bringing the art of Japanese sushi to the American West Coast.

Opening my first restaurant, Katsu-ya in Studio City, in 1997, was one of my biggest joys. At the time, it was the culmination of my years of training, both in school and working with many other talented chefs. Owning my own restaurant was always the main goal for which I was striving, but, as they say, the top of one mountain is always the bottom of the next, and soon it became time to tackle something new. I opened another Katsu-ya in Encino and continued on the path as a restaurateur and entrepreneur. Today I own four restaurants on my own in addition to three restaurants with my partners, SBE.

On another new adventure in the culinary world, I recently opened the Sushi Institute of America in downtown Los Angeles with my partners, the Mutual Trading Company, one of the premier suppliers in Japanese foodservice. It is ironic because even though I was never the superstar student in school, I find that teaching fresh young talent about the art of sushi making is extremely rewarding. As American foodies embrace sushi more and more, it is becoming that much more difficult to find and employ properly trained sushi chefs. Our vision at the Sushi Institute of America is to educate about proper techniques and promote the integrity of the centuries-old Japanese art. I am proud to report that we just graduated our first class of sushi chefs, and now several of the former students are working for me, in my restaurants.

This path has made for a very busy life for me and recently I became aware of the fact that I was spending more time in the office and less time in the kitchen. Even though my drive for success is strong, at my core I am a chef and I want to be cooking, so in my newest restaurant, Kiwami at 11920 Ventura Blvd., I will be running things from behind the sushi bar, instead of behind a desk.

While I appreciate the way American palates have adopted the taste for sushi, it is also true that dining out at sushi restaurants has become quite trendy. Therefore, I would offer this precursor in my description of Kiwami-it is a sushi restaurant for the purists. My favorite part is the Omakase Bar, or “Chef’s Choice.” Parties of six can make reservations in advance, but there is no menu for them to choose from. As I prepare this column, I am also preparing for tonight’s table, which will include baby tuna and octopus from Japan as well as the seasonal, first catch of bonito.

I am adamant in my pursuit of the freshest seafood and in my upcoming columns, I will use this space to discuss new ingredients that I am working with, methods of preparation and filleting techniques that I am using and teaching, as well as pay homage to the ancient art of sushi making. It will be my pleasure to serve you in your quest for sushi knowledge.

Katsuya Uechi

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