Otto Phan is a Chef. He is uncollaborative, self-promoting, cocky, and interesting. That is what makes him a great chef. You see, Otto doesn’t just think he is the best Chef in Austin. He knows down to his perfect rice, that he is the best. Can we argue with him though? I don’t think so. The man does make immaculate sushi. His food isn’t fancy. It’s not a show. It’s not a beautiful presentation meant to wow the eyes more than the tongue. I mean he did tell us that he can make better sushi using ingredients from Whole Foods. He is not trying to impress us. He wants to use his “disciplined” techniques to prove that he is the best. Taking his talents and moving to Chicago this summer. Phan plans to make a name for himself in a city of Chefs that won’t look twice at him. Time will only tell if he can be the next big thing. If he will be able to earn that Michelin star he so desperately wants.
Interview with Otto of Kyoten:
I’m not a collaborative person. Sushi has a reputation of not being very collaborative and the reason is that when I feed someone it should be part of my personality and not someone else’s not that there’s a problem with collaboration it’s not what I’m looking for, to be honest.
Ainsley: So where are you from?
Otto: I was born in Houston, once upon a time. I moved to Austin in 2002 and called Austin home ever since. I had a brief hiatus in New York, was in New York for two years then came back to Austin. Austin has always been my home ever since I left Houston.
Jason: So why’d you move to Austin?
Otto: I went to the University of Texas once upon a time.
Ainsley: What was your degree?
Otto: I was studying petroleum engineering. I was working at restaurants the whole time though and knew that’s what I wanted to do. I finished off the degree because that’s what you do and then you know, started chefing.
Ainsley: Do you feel like you actually got anything from the engineering degree?
Otto: These days I think everyone needs a college degree. I don’t think about it too much, though.
If you’re a trailer, the goal is always to get to a restaurant at some point, unless you’re doing barbecue.
Ainsley: It does teach you discipline.
Otto: Yeah, the college system teaches you how to be a grown-up. I wasn’t a very grown-up person, growing up.
Ainsley: What restaurants did you work for?
Ainsley: Ramen Tatsu-ya?
Otto: No. Tatsu. There was no Ramen Tatsu-ya back then. So that’s where I first learned. I moved on to New York and in New York, I worked at Nobu and then I worked at Bar Masa as well and then I came back to Austin and back in Austin I worked for the Uchi group.
Ainsley: How long did you work for Uchi for?
Otto: About a year.
Jason: What year?
Otto: It was like 2013 I believe.
Ainsley: Was Speer still there?
Otto: I don’t think so. He must have left.
Ainsley: Was it still very collaborative back then?
Otto: Yeah it was very collaborative. Line cooks made specials and there were a whole lot of different avenues to branch out. They give you the freedom to do what you make of it. You’re not a machine.
Otto: So after Uchi, I started a food truck. It’s a good starting point but it’s not sustainable unless you’re doing Barbecue.
Jason: How long did you do the food truck?
Otto: So, I did the food truck for two years but I was already out of there by the first year. The plan was to stay on the truck for a good 2-3 years but that’s the story with me, I’m quite impatient. Once I find the opportunity to move on, I do.
Ainsley: What made you want to leave it so bad? Was it just not working out?
Otto: We hit the ceiling really fast with what we could expect to make. If you’re a trailer, the goal is always to get to a restaurant at some point, unless you’re doing barbecue.
Jason: How long have you been a chef?
Otto: I started making sushi ten years ago.
Jason: Have you always wanted to open your own restaurant?
Otto: No, I never wanted to open my own restaurant. I’m too lazy. I just wanted to learn good food, to be honest. That was always interesting to me. There’s a point where you get to a certain level of good you’re not just going to give it up, right? So it was a very organic process.
The most obvious difference between sushi in Japan and sushi in America is that sushi in America can run quite sweet. In some places, it’s like pouring Coca-Cola vinegar all over the rice. It’ll never be that bad if it’s too sweet, right?
Ainsley: Is there a sense of pride then?
Otto: At some point, yeah, absolutely. This place happened because “I’m so awesome.” There’s a point where the only choice if you want to keep on making sushi you have to open your own restaurant and that’s the position I find myself in.
Jason: So, did you get the point where you got tired of working for other people?
Otto: No. Well… You get tired when you know you’re better.
Ainsley: And you decide to do it all yourself.
I don’t eat sushi in Austin. Ainsley: So what do you eat here then?
Kyoten: I always go for a good pizza or taco.
Ainsley: So where do you plan to go from here?
Otto: That’s confidential.
Ainsley: That’s confidential?
Otto: We’ll be here for as long as we want to be. You asked what makes this place better than other places and the most obvious difference is the rice here. The most obvious difference between sushi in Japan and sushi in America is that sushi in America can run quite sweet. In some places, it’s like pouring Coca-Cola vinegar all over the rice. It’ll never be that bad if it’s too sweet, right?
Ainsley: That’s disappointing to hear.
Otto: But it takes more skill to control the sourness in sushi rice. The sushi rice in Japan can be quite sour.
Otto: You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to appreciate good sushi, that’s why sushi is so great. There’s a lot to learn but you don’t need to know anything to appreciate it.
Jason: How do you feel about the other sushi restaurants in Austin?
Otto: I think they’re terrible.
Jason: Is there a place you go to?
Ainsley: What about Soto?
Otto: That’s the one that everyone asks me about.
Otto: But I don’t eat sushi in Austin.
Ainsley: So what do you eat here then?
Otto: I always go for a good pizza or taco.
Ainsley: So since the farmer’s market is so close do you ever collaborate with them on ingredients?
Otto: I’m not a collaborative person. Sushi has a reputation of not being very collaborative and the reason is that when I feed someone it should be part of my personality and not someone else’s not that there’s a problem with collaboration it’s not what I’m looking for, to be honest.
Ainsley: It’s funny, I want to defend other Austin restaurants but ever since I’ve been here this is the only place I go. I can especially tell the difference in the rice.
Otto: It’s about the balance. It’s quite balanced, you know?
Ainsley: So why do you use dill so much?
Otto: It’s because dill and salmon go so well together.
Jason: What kind of salmon do you use?
Otto: I use Scottish. Sometimes Faroe but predominantly it’s Scottish salmon.
Ainsley: Where do you get the dill from? I almost feel like you dry it out yourself.
Otto: It’s the same dill you get from the spice rack at HEB.
Jason: How do you feel about your clientele and your customers? You’re one of those chefs that aren’t very approachable.
Otto: I’m not that approachable because the question won’t be wrong, but be in the wrong perception. So I can get going if you ask the right questions. You can always ask questions but if I draw a blank then it’s not a great question. People try and compare me to say Tyson Cole, but I have more in common with your hair person when it comes to style.
Jason: Your food is very straightforward. If people don’t get it they don’t get it.
Otto: If you don’t get it from just what’s on the plate then it isn’t there. Sometimes the connection is there and sometimes it’s not. When you have a Philly roll and someone says it’s just a Philly roll then there’s nothing left to say. If you can’t tell mine is different from H-E-B I can’t change that.
Ainsley: What do you look for in customers to know if they get it.
Jason: For me, it is when their eyes close and their heads go back. For Steve Mchugh of Cured, it’s when the whole table goes silent.
Jason: What do you feel like you have left to learn about sushi?
Otto: It’s about progressing. It’s doing the same thing every day and believing it will be better than the next day.
Ainsley: What’s the last thing you feel like you improved on? Or worked really hard at?
Otto: The fish isn’t as dry aged here as much as other places. I’m super big on progression so I have a very short memory, to be honest. I’m always on to the next thing, on to the next thing. It’s problematic for me, it’s what makes me so impatient. Unfortunately, the bad feelings last longer for me. So I need to push harder. I’m running away from the bad memories rather than relishing in the good ones. Unfortunately, that’s my realm of thinking.
Ainsley: But you have a goal to reach in the future, right?
Otto: I always take my life two years at a time, unfortunately. It’s two years that, two years this, two years that, so I’m never fulfilled.
Jason: We really appreciate you giving us your time.
Until next time
Chef Otto is moving to Chicago according to Austin 360 ,
“The goal has always been to be the best sushi chef in the world, and I know the pathway is a lot shorter if I move on,” Phan said. “It was going to take LeBron James a long time if he stayed in Cleveland to get that first championship”