Best of Everything 2012
Food Fight

Behind the scenes: The fierce battle to create Uchi's amazing daily menu specials (see the video)

Behind the scenes: The fierce battle to create Uchi's amazing daily menu specials (see the video)

It's been said that perfection is the enemy of progress, but at Uchi both excellence and constant change are part of the restaurant's core essence. Every other Friday the chefs at Uchi Houston are tasked with creating something new and amazing to serve as daily menu specials, presenting their dishes for judgment to Uchi's executive pastry chef and director of culinary operations, Philip Speer.

Speer says the formal tasting session was instituted at Uchi and Uchiko, both in Austin, about two years ago to prevent constant tweaking on the dishes between himself, chef/owner Tyson Cole and Uchiko executive chef Paul Qui. Before the plates are served, chefs have to plan their dishes extensively, presenting Speer with the recipe, suggested menu name and description, the plate cost and food cost, and at what station it would be prepared.

"The goal is always to make a perfect bite. If I can take one bite of something and I'm not getting an ingredient that's going to make it a perfect bite, I'm going to try and bring those flavors closer together," says Speer. 

Uchi's menu is always in flux, changing at least one dish per day. The restaurant has a catalog of about 900 dishes compiled since 2006 that they can also dip into, categorized by ingredient and the date they were served. Chefs spend hours every week designing new dishes in addition to the demands of preparing foods on the menu for service.

"It's a lot of moving parts to make this happen, so we do this to keep it consistent and to keep food costs consistent," says Speer. "Most chefs would tell you this is the worst way to have a consistent or good food cost. … You're trying to perfect the dish, so you're wasting product by cooking it over and over again, that's why we go through this process of doing it, improving it and then not touching it again. If I don't think it's 100 percent, they're going to go back and make it until it's 100 percent and then it's written, products are set and it's done."

Uchi and Uchiko generally present about six dishes every fortnight, but Speer describes Uchi Houston as "over-acheivers," presenting at least 10 dishes over the last few sessions. When I sat in, the number was 12 and the tasting stretched from the typical hour to almost two.

The chefs (some of whom seem quite nervous) presented their creations to Speer individually, giving an in-depth description of the preparation and frequently answering questions about what is on the plate and their thought process. Between snapping pictures with his iPad and the constant buzz of his iPhone, most of Speer's critiques are delivered after the chef departs, generally written in notes and relayed through executive chef Kaz Edwards.

Sous chef Page Pressley delivered a "play on peas and carrots," a beautiful bouquet of squat prawns, carrot dashi, carrot gel, blanched peas, petite snap peas, pea blossoms and a pea and bocarones puree with a snap pea pod at the center. Before even taking a bite, Speer challenged Pressley on the pod, describing it as a dreaded NFG (that's a non-functional garnish) before declaring the rest of the dish a "home run."

"The goal is always to make a perfect bite. If I can take one bite of something and I'm not getting an ingredient that's going to make it a perfect bite, I'm going to try and bring those flavors closer together," says Speer.

 Uchi's menu is always in flux, changing at least one dish per day. The restaurant has a catalog of about 900 dishes compiled since 2006 that they can also dip into, categorized by ingredient and the date they were served. 

Out of the dozen dishes presented, 10 eventually earned a pass from Speer. That's pretty typical: Though there are weeks when only one dish may pass out of five or six, Uchi Houston has passed about 80 percent of their offerings, a rate Speer described as "amazing."

Pressley's mussels in a green curry sauce with tomato and broccoli blossoms was virtually the only dish that was approved as is — an incredible blend of just enough curry tang, countered my the rich, salty mussels, a pervading freshness from the blossoms and just a fint of acid in the green tomato.

Page's plate of short rib slices with creamy foie gras, black truffle and porcini mushrooms definitely had an amazing, rich taste, although it was uncertain whether Speer (or Cole, who ultimately has final say via updates from Speer) would put it on the menu without adding some Asian elements. Making something delicious is not enough — it also has to correspond with Cole's preferred palate, which defines everything that Uchi does.

Most dishes were given tacit approval though Speer and Edwards would work to perfect them over the next couple days before menu adjustments were made. A ceviche-style dish with snapper chips would get more acid, a delicate roll of buri with okra and carrot wrapped in slender zig-zags of cucumber would lose its thick beurre blanc garnish (Speer describes it as "very T.G.I. Friday's"), an "off-balance" tofu plate would become become vegan and get a makeover, etc., etc.

The dishes that didn't make it were a salmon roll that tasted surprisingly bland and broke a cardinal Uchi rule (no rolling in roe, looks too cliché), thus getting the ax immediately, and a duck dish with orange that Speer dubbed too generic would have to go back to the drawing board.

Think high-pressure culinary competition only exists on television? Think again. Check out the CultureMap video above for a peek behind the scenes into Uchi's kitchen and inside the intense tasting process.

Uchi tasting, June 2012, green peas
Photo by Joel Luks
Uchi tasting, June 2012, Kaz Edwards
Kaz Edwards Photo by Joel Luks
Uchi tasting, June 2012, Page Pressley, Kaz Edwards, Philip Speer
Page Pressley, from left, Kaz Edwards and Philip Speer Photo by Joel Luks
Uchi tasting, June 2012, green peas
Uchi tasting, June 2012, Kaz Edwards
Uchi tasting, June 2012, Page Pressley, Kaz Edwards, Philip Speer