While Katsuya by Starck in Jumeirah Al Naseem Hotel, Madinat Jumeirah, starts to doll up for Dubai and its glittering clientele at 9am, I wait for the chef responsible for the chain, Katsuya Uechi. He’s in town for two days for the opening.
The meeting’s not quite on the dot, but with a cup of fantastic cappuccino in hand, the complaints are sufficiently drowned out by caffeine. A smile seems possible.
Soon enough, a gent dressed in chef’s regalia and accompanied by an entourage steps through to the bar area (which is, this morning, doubling up as an office and interview space).
And I learn two important things about Chef Uechi: One, he is terribly passionate about his craft and two, without knife in hand he’s quite lost.
We exchange pleasantries. I try out my Japanese.
“Hajimemashite [Nice to meet you].”
Sufficiently having exhausted my grasp on the language, I settle in to ask him about his new branch in Dubai. He says the eatery will retain the world-class ways of his original US-based restaurant, with a few additions — some dishes have Middle Eastern touches.
The chef is a proponent of the traditional way of experiencing sushi, having gotten into the business rather young. “My mother had a restaurant in Japan [in Naha, Okinawa] so I grew up in a restaurant,” he explains.
And when it comes to recommending sushi, he’s hesitant about prescribing a hybrid nibble. “I want to say traditional,” that’s the kind of sushi one should eat, he says, flinching at the mere mention of fusion. Then, he takes a breath. He adds, quietly, to be successful, to gain fans and followers, one must adapt.
“I’ve been standing at the sushi bar, every day from morning to the night. So when I deal with a customer, I didn’t want to twist. I didn’t wanna make [sushi] their way. I want them to eat my way. But it not gonna work. Because, [a] lotta people from different country… they have their own taste, if I don’t adjust to them, they’re not [going to] like it.”
Uechi moved to the US in 1984 and after working in various sushi restaurants decided to do something on his own. The result was an elegant chain called Katsuya by Starck, i.e. designed by Philippe Starck. The chain has grown to at least nine restaurants worldwide and counting. The idea is to expand.
But to talk business with the chef results in a deep chasm of silence. To a question on the concept of the chain, he says, “When you cook, do you think about concept? A lot of people ask [my] philosophy — I don’t have that. I just want people to enjoy, and I want to enjoy.”
“The time that I make 10 times, I [am] only satisfied one time. It’s tough.”
But this reluctantly modern chef is a wonder in the kitchen. That evening, amid the LA-style glitzy party — bunches of realistic-looking cherry blossoms in vases, a cheek-to-elbow crowd, a DJ with a dance-worthy set and women dressed as geishas — platters of bite-sized nibbles barely make it past the live counter where Uechi slices and serves.
His recommended lot, spicy albacore sashimi with crispy onion, yellowtail with jalapeno and tuna with salsa, are fresh and with a burst of zing. The beef has been seasoned and seared to perfection and the bite of chocolate that comes along later has me seeing visions.
The crowd that seems to move as one entity with a focus on the live cooking pushes us out onto the balcony — but that’s just as well. In the backdrop stands Burj Al Arab and below a little pond with fishes and turtles wading around.
The night ends with people dancing and climbing over each other to get selfies with the interiors and the geishas, and there’s not a frown in the house. The chef has plated up a feast for the senses. Arigato sensei.