Uchi and Uchiko are Austin’s go-to places for fresh sushi and small plates as well as a special night out. Chef Tyson Cole, pastry chef Philip Speer and former chef Paul Qui have helped put Austin on the culinary map. But what is a day like for a sushi chef working the line?
When Aleisha Fitzgerald moved to Austin, her first stop for dinner was Uchi, where she sat down to dinner with a friend and casually mentioned to the waiter that she had worked as a sushi chef in Florida. Before she knew it, she was staging in the kitchen and then was invited to work full-time. Here’s what her typical day at the South Lamar restaurant looks like.
9:00 - 10:00 Do yoga at home, prepare for the day.
10:00 - 12:00 I’m developing a special for the menu, so I’m coming in to Uchi early this morning to work on flavors, plating and to taste a couple versions. When it’s ready, I’ll sit down with Tyson, Phillip Speer and some of our other chefs at a tasting to critique and hopefully pass my dish.
12:00 - 12:30 Measure and start soaking rice.
Because I’m still learning and perfecting my rice-making technique, I show up two hours early to spend time with the rice. In sushi, the texture and temperature of rice is most important. Neither too soft nor crunchy, each grain must be coated evenly with sushi zu. Timing is critical.
12:30 - 3:00 I prepare the hangiri, the bamboo bowl where I process the cooked rice. I measure the zu and delicately pour it over the rice. Using a bamboo paddle, I turn the rice, releasing steam and spreading the zu evenly. After it has properly cooled, I put it in the bins we use for service.
In between soaking/cooking/processing batches of rice, I cut and scrape the fish we’ll be using in the rolls tonight. Along with Hamachi, tuna and salmon, the fish will need to be cut down to the proper size and shape to fit evenly in each roll. I will also need to cut unagi for nigiri pieces and make sure we have enough of other proteins like wagyu beef, taraba and tobiko.
I also make a second batch of rice. My day is interrupted about every 15 minutes with different tasks, which is one of the biggest challenges of the job. Having precise timing and the ability to multitask are requirements.
Next, I set up the station. There are about 50 different components that go into the makimono station alone. I make sure I have things like the yukumi (Japanese for “medicine taste”) for the anago piece. In this case, the yukumi is finely grated ginger, orange juice and Maldon salt.
When service starts, we will be moving quickly. Sometimes we have upwards of 400 covers per night. During service, our movements must be automatic and precise. Often, we’re reaching for ingredients while talking to a customer or taking an order. Our eyes are doing one job and our hands another. It’s muscle memory, like a dance. Everything must be prepared and in its place. My goal is to have everything set up by the time the other sushi chef arrives at 4:00.
There are five positions on the sushi line: a two-person maki station for the sushi rolls; niban and zero bar are stations for making nigiri pieces and sashimi dishes like the Hama Chili and other cool tastings; and ichiban, the position for the head chef. Ichiban is responsible for cutting the fish for nigiri and sashimi and for overseeing the movements of the sushi bar as a whole. I recently moved up a station to the first maki station, and it’s proving an exciting and challenging shift.
3:00 - 3:30 Family meal. Many of the ingredients come from elements we use on the menu, excess produce like the ends of a negi bunch that might otherwise be wasted. Lately we’ve enjoyed lots of Southern-style meals: shrimp and oyster po-boys, fried chicken with fresh biscuits and gravy. We always have a fresh salad and a little something sweet from the pastry chefs.
3:30 - 4:00 Pre-shift meeting with our chef de cuisine, Jeramie Robison.
4:00 - 5:00 I double-check that everything’s set, collaborate with the other maki chef and finish setting up the station.
5:00 - 6:30 Social hour. The first hour and a half of the night we offer a special happy-hour style menu featuring smaller portions of our most popular and Uchi-representative dishes.
6:30 - 12:30 On weekends we stop seating around 11, but I sometimes have tickets in front of me until 12:30 or later. At the sushi bar we’re also responsible for taking food orders. I have 2 guests in front of me throughout the night, and it’s my job to build a flavor palette and an experience the guest will remember. I like to start with more raw, delicate flavors and build to a nice rich end note, like the foie nigiri.
12:30 - 1:30 We break down for the night, clean the sushi bar. We put away proteins and make sure they’re properly packaged, sealed and stored to preserve freshness. In sushi culture and especially at Uchi, having an immaculate bar and keeping the stations clean and organized are points of pride.
1:30 - 2:30 Destress and stretch from a night of standing and working. Read a bit, go to sleep.
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