We’re thrilled to bring you our series, The Art of Plating, where we take you into the imaginations of chefs as they design and present their dishes. We show you how they do it, step-by-step, and let them explain their creative process in their own words—what’s going on in their heads as they put their food on the plate. This time around: Tyson Cole and Philip Speer of Uchi and Uchiko. Check back in for more dish design from Chefs Cole and Speer. – Ed.
The Dish: Uni ika
Watch the dish come together here.
The first time I ever had Japanese food, I’d never eaten anything like it. I’d only had heavy American food, over laden with fat. Japanese food seemed so different—the flavors and textures and acidity. The first time I ever had ponzu sauce, at a place called Nippon in Houston, I was like, “What’s this?” It was just soy sauce, vinegar and citrus. But it was like, “BING!” And I realized so much could be so good with the flavors of ponzu— floral, bright and refreshing. It’s like a beautiful woman in a clean white skirt, you know what I mean?
So I’m always inspired by Japanese food, but I don’t mind going in other directions. To me, if your gig is to create something as delicious as possible, why not bring in other influences? I trained with five master sushi chefs, and still I’ll put great olive oil on any piece of sushi, because I love the flavor and the richness.
This dish is inspired by a classic donburi [warm rice bowl- Ed.] topping of sea urchin (uni) and squid (ika). But we add pickled celery root and grapes for acid, crunch, and sweetness, and a sauce using tomato water.
Pickled celery root
This is a very similar to tsuma, the shredded daikon you get with sashimi, which is cut by hand or by machine. Here, we did it with celery root, which has a great crunch. The traditional way to cut it is called katsuramuki; basically you “unroll” a daikon radish while slicing it with a really sharp blade, so that it all turns into an extremely thin sheet. It’s a lot of skill. Then you slice that to make the shredded daikon. It took me 20 years to learn to do it, and once I got good—I should say adequate—at it, the challenge is: Can you do anything besides daikon?
This is lucky sorrel, just put in small bunches. It builds texture on the plate, and its freshness contrasts with the pickled celery root.
Even if a dish is plated, I’m always thinking about how to make it sharable at the table. So I try to build off the idea that if a guest takes a bite with their chopsticks, they’ll get all these different things in each bite. Curling the uni makes it easier to pick up with chopsticks. And it just looks sexy.
In Japan, sea urchin and squid are like peanut butter and chocolate; they just go together. I think it’s because squid has this oceanic taste and sea urchin has a similar flavor, but it’s luxurious and buttery.
Japanese cuisine is often based on asymmetry, so even when I’m making these bites that go together in one swipe of the chopsticks, they won’t all look or be the same. There should be a few grapes and pieces of squid tucked into irregular places.
Sanbaizu and Olive Oil
Sanbaizu is kind of like a riff on ponzu with a little bit of dashi for umami. Our version is a riff on that, using tomato water because it has its own acidity and umami. And the oil I love because it gives a little extra fat to go with the pickled celery root and grapes.