Sushi Chef

Born in Japan but adopted by L.A., Katsuya Uechi walks the line between tradition and innovation

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Photograph by Dustin Snipes

» “I can tell a good chef from a bad chef by the sushi—the shape, the look. The fish should be cold, the rice a little warm. When you grab it, it doesn’t break, but when you put it in your mouth, it breaks easily.”

» Uechi was 18 when he took his first job, at a sushi restaurant in Okinawa. Now 53, he owns five restaurants in the Los Angeles area and lends his name to seven others operated by SBE throughout the country.

» “My favorite place in the world to eat sushi is Tokyo, at Sushi Sei in Tsukiji and Sushi Gen near Ginza.”

» In 1966, the first sushi bar in the United States opened inside L.A.’s Little Tokyo restaurant Kawafuku.

» “I think sushi purists are good. But this is Los Angeles. When it comes to business, I should adjust to the people who live in Los Angeles.”

» “I’ve cut myself 1,000 times, but when chefs get a little bit older, they are more careful.”

» Uechi moved to L.A. in 1984 and opened his namesake restaurant, Katsu-ya, in 1997. It was there, in 2001, that he created crispy rice with spicy tuna, an aggressive departure from tradition. “We had guests come from Japan, including the president of the biggest Japanese chef organization. I treated them to crispy rice with spicy tuna, and they loved it! They sent me an e-mail saying, ‘If we do that in Tokyo, it might be…boom!’ ”

» Managing his restaurants and his school, the Sushi Institute of America downtown, keeps Uechi busy. But two to three times a month he’ll man the smaller “hidden” bar at his Studio City restaurant Kiwami for reservation-only guests.

» “If sushi chefs in Japan are a 10, I think the chefs in the U.S. are a 3 to 4. But Los Angeles is the number one sushi city in the U.S. Some people say New York, but L.A. is better. ”

» In March 2010, Santa Monica hot spot the Hump was charged with serving endangered sei whale as part of its omakase. It closed soon after.

» “People think buying the sushi chef a beer is tradition, but it is not. When you drink, you are not serious to the customer. I have seen a lot of drunk sushi chefs in Los Angeles. But when I was young, I did it, too.”

» Uechi’s go-to chef’s knife is a 13-inch Nenohi forged in the same manner as a samurai sword. It cost roughly $4,000.

» “I am always thinking about new dishes. When I am watching TV or watching somebody work, then it comes.”

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