Flatwater Free Conversation: Chef David Utterback on sushi, Omaha’s food scene, Beard Awards and more

Mike’l Severe: Welcome to Flatwater Free Conversation. My name is Mike’l Severe. I’m joined this time by Sarah Baker Hansen, of course, longtime Omaha food critic. And it takes two people, I think, to interview our next guest.

Sarah Baker Hansen: Yeah, I think so.

Severe: And our next guest here, David Utterback, is joining us here. Of course, Yoshitomo, we know very well, Koji and his brand new project that we’ll talk more about as we go along. But first, thanks for taking the time. We appreciate it. 

David Utterback: No, I appreciate the opportunity.

Severe: This is a little bit of a rhetorical question because there’s no way you’re going to know the answer. Do you remember the first thing you ever said to me in a podcast?

Utterback: No.

Severe: I think you said it to everybody, but you said, “no California rolls. There will be no California rolls. I’m going to change the way people think about sushi.” Mission accomplished or still in progress?

Utterback: I think it’s still in progress. I think we still get guests that come in every day that are so used to the way that they’ve been eating sushi, and it’s still being served like that everywhere. And so we’re still changing people’s minds.

SBH: Every day?

Utterback: Every day. I will go and I’ll check the back end of our point of sale system and see what was sold. And if you want to sell a California roll, you have to manually sort of type it in. So I’ll see those and I’ll be like, we sold six California rolls last month. How did we do that? Right?

SBH: Someone makes them?

Utterback: Oh, yeah, we’ll make them. You want to give me money for a cheeseburger of sushi, I’ll take it.

SBH: I find it so perplexing that of all the things on your menu, that that is what people would want.

Severe: It’s all they know, right? Some people that’s all they know?

Utterback: Yeah, and that’s OK. Not everybody is ready to jump off the high dive.

SBH: I came here (to Yoshitomo) once with a friend … and he did not know what to do without wasabi, ginger and soy sauce. And he actually asked for it. And I was like, “no, no, they all have sauce. Like, see how they have sauce?” And he just couldn’t get through his head that he needed that.

Utterback: We’ll give it to you if you ask, but we’re at least going to be like, hey, just try it the other way and if you still need that stuff, great. You do you. It’s still your food, right?

SBH: Yeah. I think it’s really interesting. When we were talking for the (Flatwater Free Press) story, you talked about the ritualistic way that people eat, and I think that applies to all food, but for some reason in this country, it especially applies to sushi. People do things considered totally impolite, like the chopsticks … and the stabbing of the chopsticks into a bowl of rice or something. You’re definitely not supposed to do those things.

Utterback: Right. The chopstick thing. I know that guests don’t mean any slight towards us when they do it, but I know that it is, so when I see it, I’m like, “oh, that guy.” But what other cuisine do you show up to your meal and you just start doing weird things with your utensils, right? That’s like you go to the French restaurant, you grab your fork and you grab your knife, and you just start playing with it before. Just weird.

Severe: I think for Americans in general, almost everything we know culturally, we get from movies. So “Karate Kid II” taught me how tea is served. And then I found out that was real. That is really how tea is served. … We also learn by watching, and I think somebody just saw somebody rub and they thought it was the right way to do it.

Utterback: You’re absolutely right. I mean, in the omakase room, it’s a fancy meal. And everyone’s trying to be on their best behavior, but they’ve never been in that environment before. And so you have all of these things and they’re different. It’s a different setup, and you’re not quite sure … what’s allowed. And so one person will decide to do something, and then I’ll see the rest of the table do it. 

So there’s like a little finger towel to wipe your fingers on in between courses, and it’s just little tiny napkin, and no one will know what to do with it, but one person will take it, unfold it, and maybe wipe their face, and then the rest of the table will all wipe their face with it. 

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We have a little plate where I serve the sushi one by one. You’re not really supposed to move it, but if one person at that counter doesn’t know that he’ll pick it up, he’ll eat it, and then everyone at the counter thinks right. So it is a lot of, “oh, if he’s doing it, it must be OK.”

SBH: I’ve learned a lot from eating at your counter. … The first thing I learned was the soy sauce, and you explained that to us very early on. And then the other main thing is to pick up the sushi with your hand. And that was something that I just had never even known, because I think eating with your hands in this country is impolite. It’s just not a thing that a lot of people do. And now I always do that, whether I’m here or somewhere else.

Utterback: And it makes the experience so much better.

SBH: Way better.

Severe: You go in that room, though, and, you told me this, you’re paying for two … two and a half hours of great dishes, but we’re paying for two and a half hours of you. Your telling us stories and you have the opportunity to direct people and teach them. So the next person who’s watching, the person who went to your omakase, can go, “oh, that’s how you do it.”

Utterback: Right.

Severe: You’re teaching generations.

Utterback: Yeah. We’re slowly, one by one, counter by counter, trying to kind of shift it to a better place so we’re just a little more educated.

SBH: Do you see other people that have dined here a lot of times who now do things the way you would hope that they do? How does that feel?

Utterback: Great. You have people who probably would have happily gone through their lives just eating the pretty basic sushi they always have. And now I have some guests that have stopped just going to regular sushi bars and only come to the special counter or will only come here. But their enjoyment of sushi has grown. 

It was just a food that you ate every once in a while. It was a food that you didn’t put much thought into it. It was just in the repertoire of restaurants or types of food that you ate every month. And now it has changed from the Olive Garden – whatever we just eat, you don’t think about it, you don’t go home and tell someone, “I went to the Olive Garden, I got the tour of Italy,” right – to now sushi has become a special meal every time that they go out, and their enjoyment of it has improved.

Severe: So how did we get here? Obviously, you weren’t doing this at the beginning of your working career. How did you transition from what you were doing and how did you discover this is what you wanted to do?

Utterback: So I had started making sushi. It was a couple of years. I was just making basic, everyday sushi that we’ve been talking about for the last 5 minutes. And I took my first trip to Japan all by myself. It’s very scary. Never really been on a plane as an adult. And so I managed to get a reservation at an omakase counter. And at the time, I didn’t know that really these … sushi counters existed. And so I just wanted to eat the best sushi in Tokyo. And so in my hotel, I brought my laptop. I Googled “best sushi in Tokyo,” like a real pro does. To put this in perspective, this is far enough back to before lists.

SBH: There was no eater.com.

Utterback: Right. You couldn’t just find out what the best restaurants were. There was no ranking systems.

SBH: There was probably no, like, was there Yelp or things like that?

Utterback: Maybe.

SBH: But would you have even trusted them?

Utterback: I mean, I don’t think it exists in Japan. This is before food as pornography. Before we were just romanticizing individual bites of food and the labors of these chefs. And so it was just a whole bunch of people says this is the best sushi in Tokyo. And so I took that information down to the concierge at the hotel, asked him to make a phone call, and I think it was the next day, I ended up in the counter of Jiro Ono, which is Sukiyabashi Jiro, which is from the famous documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.” And back then, they were a popular counter, but I was the only diner that day. Ten seats, just me. There was, like, five sushi chefs all just standing there, ready to serve 10 people. Now it’s a private restaurant.

SBH: Is it still in the subway station?

Utterback: Yeah. So it’s actually in an office building. It’s in the basement of the office building, but there’s a subway exit directly attached to the basement of that. So when you come out, it’s right there. And most people walking by have no idea that this counter is there. But there’s, like, a door and a little sign. It used to be in Japanese, and now it’s in English. But so many people have tried to get into that restaurant, and it’s private now. You have to almost be a member. You have to go a lot to get in. But there’s a sign in front. And before, it was in Japanese, and it roughly translated to, “please don’t take pictures of this door.” Like, we’re fully reserved. You can’t get in. But … I ended up at this counter, and I just never experienced food like that before. I was a guy who just worked at a restaurant, just made regular food.

SBH: Was it similar or – I guess I’ve seen the movie and seen (Anthony) Bourdain eating there and all of that – was it similar to sort of like, what you do now? Did they hand you the piece and it was exactly like that?

Utterback: Yeah, it’s exactly like the documentary. Just a standard service. And I remember at the time, I was trying to take pictures of it, and I think I was using, like, my Razor phone.

Severe: Still one of the greatest phones ever.

Utterback: Yeah. And I took too long to take one of the photos, and the chef, Jiro, he grabbed the piece and threw it in the garbage because I was taking too long, and I didn’t know.

SBH: That was one of the first things you told me, too. Don’t linger around.

Utterback: I think I died of embarrassment. I’m actually still on the floor of that restaurant, and this is my life flashing forward.

SBH: It’s so wild to me that, I mean, you probably are maybe the single person I know in all of the chefs I’ve ever met that’s actually eaten there.

Utterback: Yeah. But once the documentary came out, it became impossible to get in, to the point where now it’s a private counter. Because it’s private, their three Michelin stars got removed, and now the only way you can really experience that counter is if you just happen to know somebody who goes there every month.

SBH: So you went to the counter and then you sent them a letter?

Utterback: Actually, I brought a letter. And my mom wrote the letter. 

Severe: I was going to ask you, did you write it in English or did you write it in Japanese?

Utterback: It was in Japanese. And my mom’s pretty old school. She comes from a really tiny island of 6,000 people and grew up on a farm. She wrote that thing in pencil – pencil she sharpened with a razor because she doesn’t use a pencil sharpener. I have no idea what it said. Yeah, I just asked her to write me a letter saying if I could stage for a short period of time. … Just work for free a couple of months.

SBH: So then … you got an email, right?

Utterback: I got an email and it was in Japanese.

SBH: Your mom must have put your email in the letter?

Utterback: Yes. I was like, put my email, my phone number, all that stuff. And the return email was in Japanese. I’m like, I don’t know what this says. And translate … the internet didn’t really have that. So I sent it off to a cousin. The cousin translates it. “Wow, they’re going to give you a job, but it’s for 10 years.” So if you want to come, you got to come for 10 years. So I sent her a thing, she translated. I send it to them. I think this whole time they think I speak Japanese.

So, you know, imagine I show up actually taking the job and yeah, I don’t speak (Japanese) at all. It was a back and forth for a while. They finally settled on letting me come for three years. That wouldn’t work. I had just gotten married. My wife would leave me. It wouldn’t have worked. And so I declined that position. But I think at the end of the day, I’m better for it. I’m actually happier having not taken that position.

Severe: How many times have you been to Japan since then? Just to go and learn more.

Utterback: Thirteen times. I go about twice a year now.

Severe: And what was this first year when you went?

Utterback: 2009.

Severe: OK, so 14 years basically going every year?

Utterback: Yeah.

SBH: One of the really interesting things you said when we were talking … you said if my life would have allowed me to go, we wouldn’t be talking right now because I’d still be there.

Utterback: Right. I would have been finishing up two, maybe three years ago. I’d either stayed there and continue working at that counter or come home. And when you have experience like that, where can you work that you can take advantage of it? There’s only so many cities, right? New York, L.A., San Francisco. You’re not committing to 10 years through all of that and then coming home to your small town.

Right? That’s like a NASA astronaut coming home to work the flight deck at your local airport. You’re somewhat overqualified at that time.

Severe: So when you thought about opening your own place, was it an omakase you thought about originally, or you thought you were going to do what you’re doing here at Yoshitomo? Or what was the original plan?

Utterback: The original plan really was to just get me a job so I could have some money and take care of my family. It was out of necessity and need, but I didn’t want to work for anyone else anymore. And I had been doing this omakase thing. I was pretty realistic with myself. I knew that I couldn’t just open up the counter. We would have maybe lasted two or three months. Everybody in the city who wanted to do it probably would have done it, and that had been it. 

And so we would need to educate diners slowly on that. And so we built a little side counter here, but the whole idea was Yoshitomo was just going to give me a job. I don’t think my initial idea of the restaurant was to change the game. It was just to sort of tap into things that I’d already done and maybe make the changes where I thought they could be better. Little small changes.

SBH: You talked a lot about how when you were starting out and when you got back from that trip to Japan, you were really focused on improving, not just improving your technique, but improving quality. It seems like you did kind of have this idea in your head that you wanted to create an experience that was different.

Utterback: I saw these guys working, and I desperately wanted to be there, but I was in situations where that’s just you’re so far away from that, but how can I improve myself and try to get there? And so a lot of that was just reaching for any way that I could build a skill, learn a thing, take some of these things and push it closer to this quality level.

SBH: And you’re completely self taught. And so I think a lot of people probably don’t realize that. You do research on social media and the internet, you’re always eating, and that’s sort of like a self education really.

Utterback: And it’s weird. I only know of a handful of self taught sushi chefs running counters in Japan. And even when you find out, everyone’s like, “Wow, I can’t believe you’re self taught.” But for me, it was a necessity. There just wasn’t somebody who was so skilled in the things that I wanted to learn. Of course, I’ve worked with many skilled people, but these specific preparations, and no one had worked in an omakase counter. So the only way I was going to be able to do this thing that I wanted to do was to go there (Japan) and watch, learn, bring it back, experiment. And to me, because of that, I feel like I’m stronger and I’m better for it. I’m a better chef. 

One of the advantages of going and doing 10 years with a Jiro or a Saito or one of the greats is that you walk in the door and somebody has already made 120 years, generational mistakes learning how to get it right. And you can show up and they just go, “This is how you prepare this. We know this is the perfect way to do it.” And you spend 10 years learning the perfect way to do it their way.

But when you get done, you only know how to do it their way, and you’re a little bit restricted by that. And why would you change that? If you spent 10 years developing a skill in the style of someone else and you go out on your own, why would you just then do something completely different? So it’s not even in your best interest to grow. And that’s why you see a lot of those counters, most of the counters, they’re kind of the same. I will go eat seven, eight omakases and I can tell you, they’re not all over the place. You see a style, they’re all kind of the same. This one is a different style, but the quality levels are pretty much the same and all that. 

And so because I don’t have that, I’ve had to teach myself everything. And for me to get to the same end, right, the same preparation, I just have to ruin it over and over and over. I just have to ram my head into the wall until I finally break through. But once I have, I can take it apart. I can put it back together. I can remix it. I know what works and what doesn’t. And as such, now my style isn’t like a Tokyo style.

SBH: It’s completely your own.

Utterback: It’s my own style. It’s a mishmash of so many different people’s styles and things that I’ve liked over the years that it would be really out of place in Tokyo or in Fukuoka or in all these places because you come expecting one style, and it’s all over the place.

Severe: You said to us at Koji that everybody’s pretty much getting the same fish. It’s the style, but I think it’s the conversation. I still remember you told us a story over at Ugly Duck about there was a pond or something where they threw tangerine peelings in there, and that’s why the fish had a certain (flavor) … that will stay with me forever. … As great as the food is, and it is amazing, but it’s the conversation that sets you apart from the other people.

Utterback: And that’s why I personally like it. I’m crazy about sushi. I’m one of the handful of sushi chefs you’ll ever meet who’s just wild about it. I love sitting down at other people’s counters. And as awkward as you all feel on the other side of the counter, I’m the same. I’m there and I’m like, I don’t know what I’m supposed to touch, I don’t know if this is OK or not. … I do this every week and I’ve been to every counter, and I’m still nervous on the other side. But what I love about it is you get that time with the chef. 

What other restaurant do you spend two hours with the chef? The finest restaurants in the world, the chef’s generally not even there, but everyone’s back in the kitchen. A plate gets handed out. That person who’s bringing out that food didn’t make it. They weren’t connected to it. They have information on it, but it’s only so deep. And so in an omakase room, it’s so great. You’re connected to the person who made it, sourced it, knows the story, is in love with it. And you can feel that.

SBH: When I was writing the story, I talked to your friend Devin (Ferguson), who was your first and only guest when you did your first pop up. And the first thing he said was, “I’d never spent time with a chef like that.” However many years later, that was the first thing he said. And then he talked about how awesome it was and his memories of it. But I think that is really what sticks with people.

Utterback: Yeah. And if you’ve never had an opportunity to come to an omakase counter or a private event with the chef, I think that’s what people are really into.

Severe: Yeah, big time. So you’re opening a restaurant to give yourself a job, but you’re also taking on the responsibility of having employees, of the chance of maybe just not working out. What was that feeling? Were you nervous? … Kind of describe that.

Utterback: Everything was a shoestring budget. It had to work. I had to paint the walls, the burnt wood walls in here, I did that with a torch out back. I don’t have any more leg hair because I burned it all off in that week where I was doing the walls. And so if you’re not personally invested in your restaurant, I think a lot of restaurants fail because there isn’t somebody who’s there who is going to live and die by the success of that restaurant. 

If it’s always somebody else’s problem to make it better, it’s never going to get better. And so here, we had almost no money in the bank for the first six months. I didn’t take a paycheck for three months. I sold all of my stuff, knives, guitars, motorcycle, you know, just all this stuff that I had spent the last 10 years working to own, I sold it all to survive these six months where the restaurant was kind of being put together and then us being open. And then even beyond that, we’re not in the greatest location in the city. We’re not one of the first guys on the block to make sushi.

We’re a secret. We’re still somewhat of a secret as people talk about us. I come across people every week. It’s like, “Wow, I didn’t know that this even existed.” And so there were days where we had 10, 15 people come into the restaurant, and it was like that for a long time. And so you’re just hoping that you can cover people’s payrolls and buy the food, and then you’re kind of limited in the things you can do because the money coming in and out won’t allow you to make big changes. 

And on top of that, instead of me just making the food and being the chef, now I’m doing payroll and I’m doing accounting, and I’m taking care of all of the tasks where in previous restaurants and companies I’d worked for, there were people for that. There was an accountant, there was somebody who did all of these things. I made the website, I plunged the toilet. Up until last year, it was me scooping the snow in front of the restaurant. And so it’s hard for me to give that up now. Now I feel like I’m too attached to it all. So, yeah, it was a rough two years.

SBH: I still encounter people, not every day but regularly, who ask me about you, about Yoshitomo. And now the area of fascination is Ota. People want to know, how do I get a seat? What’s it like? How much is it? I’ve probably had a dozen people ask me about it because I was lucky enough to sit at your counter and write a different story, which is just about Ota and the experience. 

So you started off Yoshitomo and it was like razor-thin budget, and then it starts to become known. Then you start Koji. You introduce a whole second food to Omaha that no one knows about. And now you’re taking it to this next level. So I guess I’m curious, what’s the Ota crowd like? Who are the diners? Are they people who’ve already been here and know you and are like just jazzed? Are they new?

Utterback: Yeah. I mean, a lot of them are. For the longest time, it was just restaurant guests who we would sort of suggest this other experience. If you came in and you … seemed like you would enjoy it, we would recommend that. And those people would tell their friends and so on and so on. And we’ve really let the guests themselves help sort of fill the room with people who would also enjoy it.

SBH: Just total word of mouth?

Utterback: Right. Because you’re not going to tell your friends who you don’t think would like it.

Everybody in there is, “oh, I think this person would love this,” and they bring those people. So really, I almost can’t fail. Right. It’s just people like, I know this person would absolutely love this, and then they bring them. For a long time, it was that. I get a couple of people every week who have literally never been in any of our restaurants and just show up at the counter, which kind of blows my mind.

Severe: That’s the power of Yelp, which wasn’t there in Japan, but now people will just search and it pops up, and I got to go there.

Utterback: And now we’re getting people who are flying in for the experience, and that’s pretty cool.

SBH: That’s really cool.

Severe: I think there was a burger restaurant in Omaha years ago. Guy opened a second location. Both ended up closing. … Owners open the second location, you double your paperwork, and you double your staff, and you just can’t split yourself in two.

How have you made it work? Because you are, I don’t think you sleep, not that I know of, but you’re constantly in motion. How do you make it work?

Utterback: I don’t know if I’ve made it work yet. It’s still a struggle, and these restaurants are small, and we still can’t afford things that I need in the back end. We need a couple of more restaurants before I can afford to do that. Like, we don’t have a pastry chef, but one of our restaurants can’t afford one, and two still can’t afford one. But I think if we had a third between all three, we could afford one pastry chef. And so that’s kind of where we’re at. Our restaurants are so small. You have all the headaches of a restaurant and a bigger one, but you’re not getting the cash flow that you need, and so that makes it difficult. 

If I need to work on a menu for another location or here or in there, I can only do one thing at a time. So if I spend a whole morning running errands and doing paperwork and responding to emails, I really want to be working on menus and checking up on stuff and seeing how the staff’s doing. And so I don’t think I’ve solved that problem yet. It’s a lot of something’s on fire.

You need to go drive to the other restaurant and go put that fire out. But I’m getting better at allowing other people to take on more responsibility … and now I get more time to work on menus and tweaks. So I’m hoping if things go well and we can get another restaurant or two behind us, that I can start building an office of people who can sort of separate myself from those everyday tasks that don’t seem like they’re going to take a long time, but just eat up your whole day.

SBH: Yeah. When I was interviewing you, you were preparing to create a new dish for the omakase. So what’s the newest thing you’re working on? You said you want to break Yoshitomo.

Utterback: These ideas, they slowly simmer, and if you talk to the staff, sometimes they just got to be ready to pivot and move at any time. I’ll go back there, we’re going to do it like this. A couple of hours later, I’m like, I’ve decided completely against that. Stop doing that. We’re going to do something different. I just feel like if we’re building restaurants and we’re trying to create new experiences, I don’t want to build a whole new restaurant to create a whole new experience that I just want to try out. 

And so the idea is maybe kind of tiers. We’ve got restaurants that specialize in this kind of experience. Koji is certainly a restaurant that’s a little closer to the regular sushi bars that everyone’s used to going to, and so maybe all the sushi rolls live there and maybe Yoshitomo evolves to a point where we’re more fine dining. Right now, Yoshitomo is in this place where we’ve got kind of a foot in both worlds, and it makes us accessible. Right. And I think that’s a lot of our success.

Our success is you come in maybe with a low experience level, and you come in looking for that California roll. And then while you’re here, we kind of push you. We push you into a new place. And so I think us having feet in both worlds has been very helpful. But I think we’re getting to the place where the restaurant is full enough, where we don’t need to introduce people to what we do, to what we want to do. We want to give you a fine dining experience. We want to give you something new, and we want to make that accessible to people who would normally make reservations at that kind of restaurant. And so it’s a slow, simmering idea. Who knows if it’ll ever really happen. That’s a pretty big rug to pull out from the restaurant. The sushi menu, the rolls, they’re kind of the engine, and so it’s like, can the car run if I take that out and put something else in?

SBH: You showed me a list that you had of ideas that was like, how many ideas were on it? Like 100 or something. I mean, it was crazy. And so I think about that, and I also think about an experience that I’ve had over eating at Yoshitomo, which is you’re like, oh, here’s a thing I’m working on, and it’s happened at Koji also. And then I can think of hama toast as one example. The crab rice is another example, and the foie, the unagi  is another example. I’ve had so many different versions of those, I could probably go back and look at my phone and find like four different versions of some of those, like the Korean corn, the cheese corn.

Utterback: We’re working on a new one for that right now.

SBH: Right. When I wrote my review, I had a totally different version of it than what it is now. So, like, if someone were to read that and then they would go to order it, it would be a completely different dish.

Utterback: And I actually love that. That’s what I want. I come from a place where I made pretty much the same menu for 12 years, and, you know, as a cook … it just kind of gets boring. You don’t evolve. 

Severe: But you do it everyday. We only get to do it once a month. It’s hard for Americans in general to have things change on their menu.

SBH : Well, people get very attached. There are a lot of restaurants in Omaha that have not changed their menu in literally 40 years. They’re doing the exact same thing. But you do not subscribe to that.

Utterback: Yeah. And you see a lot of those restaurants after how many years they’re not doing so well. People age out of the restaurant, and the new people coming in don’t get it or appreciate it.

SBH: And tastes have changed. And I strongly believe that in the decade I’ve been writing about food in Omaha … the dining population of Omaha has drastically changed.

Utterback: Absolutely. They’ve evolved. They’re way more savvy, they’re having more experiences outside of the city.

SBH: And they’re looking for experiences like that here.

Utterback: Right. I like that things change. I want you to not be able to have all the things that you want all the time. Right. Being forced to try something new because the thing that you wanted wasn’t there is one of the secrets to our success. And even if it changes a little bit, it’s like your favorite band, man. You either evolve with the band or they just move on without you.

SBH: I mean hama toast I loved. There was one iteration of it that I loved. And it’s different now, but it’s still amazing. And I would still encourage anyone who hasn’t tried it to try it.

Utterback: That’s one that’s not like … all these things. We don’t stop thinking about them.

SBH: It’s not done.

Utterback: I had a version of toast at the Antler Room where it was just so crispy and perfect on all sides. I’m like, how do I figure out how they did that and make that hama toast like that, right? So even that, I think there’s still room for it to evolve and grow into a better version of itself.

SBH: And I think that’s really cool. That’s exciting to me as a diner in a way that even if I order something that I’ve had before, I don’t know if it’s going to be exactly the same. And I don’t know, that makes me feel really excited. 

Utterback: That wagyu bite, it’s a pretty signature item for a restaurant. I’m starting to see other people doing it. And that’s great. I do that stuff. All chefs do it. That’s how you know you really made it when somebody’s copying your ideas. That’s awesome. But even this morning, we just added an upgraded version of that to the menu. Right? And I just worked on it with the chefs. It’s like instead of domestic beef, now it’s a Japanese wagyu, same sea urchin butter. Now it gets a caviar on top, a kiss of caviar, and a bunch of black truffles.

One of the things, if you ask Jay (Yoshitomo general manager) or some of the chefs around here, I’m always asking, can we make it better? Can we take this thing? Can we make it better? Can we adjust? Nothing is set. We’re not just going to do it the same way forever.

SBH: I think the fact that you are self taught and that you don’t have that “this is the way” sort of burned into your brain for decades, allows you to be able to say, well, this is the best ingredient, and we’re using all the best ingredients, and we can make this bite, and it tastes really good, but what else can we do? How do we break it?

Utterback: When cooks come to work here, that’s also translated into literally how we cook in the restaurant. Since I don’t have any training, I didn’t spend that much time cooking in hot kitchens, and we don’t have a hot kitchen here. So, chefs come in looking to gain some experience and do this and that. … I have to set them down and be like, we make really weird food here. We use torches, microwave, toaster oven, smoker, sous vide induction burners. All the regular trappings of a regular restaurant, we just don’t have that. We don’t have an oven. So how do we execute some of these things that would be so easy in a regular kitchen, but here, it’s just a monumental task to get bread made. Like, you don’t make a giant loaf of sourdough in a small Target toaster oven. Right? So for us to even get dishes for us to get dishes on the menu in the way that we do and the quality level that we do requires some real gorilla cooking. We got to think completely outside of that frame of the normal restaurant.

And so you see it in the dishes, you see it in the cooking and the equipment here, we looked into possibly building out a kitchen here, and the price was so high that I’m like, how much enjoyment is that going to add to the guest here? Right? If us having an oven and a six range burner and a fryer, can we make better food than we’re making currently? And I’m not sure that we can. It makes some tasks easier, but I think it would also, in some ways, tamp a little bit of the weird creativity that we’ve got here. Right?

Severe: It’s like at a number of restaurants that are kind of stuck … in that little tiny kitchen.

SBH: Oh, I think of La Buvette.

Utterback: Yeah. If you go down there and you see the cook, it’s one guy and a camp stove against the world. And the fact that they make it happen every day is amazing. And it actually gives me a lot of hope that we can do something similar here. 

I always think of when I’m not sure if we can do something either personally or in the restaurant, I think of other people who’ve made it happen with less. Right? Like, are we going to be able to stay open? Are we going to be able to be successful? And I think of that little tiny Chinese restaurant where it’s just barely any people going, and they’ve been open for 20 years. I’m like, we can make it work. She can make it work. We can make it work. If they can cook for 50 people every night on a camp stove, we can make it work with our Target toaster oven.

Severe: A big part of your story, of course, was about the James Beard Award. What was that feeling? Like they narrowed down. And your name is there. Yoshitomo is there. What was that like for you?

Utterback: Amazing.

Severe: Were you waiting for the email to come?

Utterback: No, I had written even the semifinals off. So kind of the way these things have worked in the past is you’re either an annual nominee or semifinalist, and you’re kind of a semifinalist until there’s a new shiny thing and everybody wants to focus on that and you just kind of get left behind, or you’re one and done. 

SBH: And you were nominated in 2020, but then there were no awards.

Utterback: Right. But because last year we weren’t nominated at all, I had just figured that we were a one-and-done. And I was like, wow, OK. That was cool. That was a fun time that we had a couple of years ago.

SBH: I texted you that morning, you said you didn’t even know. It wasn’t even on your radar.

Utterback: No, I was hungover on wine, getting coffee at Starbucks … and my phone just starts blowing up from people going “congrats.” And I’m a little hungover. So I’m thinking, what did I do last night? What did I announce? … And it was the same for the finalist, actually, I was a little hungover on wine, getting some coffee in a drive-thru, and my phone’s blowing up again. And for me, when I look at these lists, especially over the last decade, restaurants that I don’t know if it’s impostor syndrome or something, but I never thought that we’re that restaurant. I go to the restaurants that are on that list, and when I have such an amazing time at those restaurants, they’re just amazing. And maybe it’s because I’m in this restaurant every day working it, I just never feel that we’re that restaurant for people. And so us making it to this finalist stage, I never thought it was even possible. It was just six years ago I was selling all of my stuff just so that I could put this thing together, so I could just have a job. And now we are where we are today.

SBH: So you’re going to the awards in Chicago, so you won’t be … getting texts of someone else telling you. You’ll be the first to know.

Utterback: I’ll either win in front of 2,000 people or there’ll be 2,000 people there watching someone else win. We’re cautiously optimistic. The odds aren’t in our favor. The history of these awards, there really hasn’t been a nominee until recently, outside of the three big cities in our region. And so if we did not win, nothing changes, right? Everything would stay the same.

SBH: What happens if you do win though?

Utterback: I don’t know. I’m a little worried about it … 

Severe: Because of how popular it can make you? 

Utterback: Yes. To be honest, since the pandemic that put a lot of my career and life back into focus. I started spending way more time at home. I made some pretty hard and fast rules, steady rules about when I would be home, how much I would work, how much I would let the restaurant and my career control my life.

SBH: And you did some really incredibly creative stuff during that.

I can tell you 100% honestly, I will never forget the day in 2020 that Dave himself showed up at our door and handed me my home omakase and a piece of paper to pull up on my phone a video of Dave telling me what each bite was. I think it was such a dark time, and it was scary. But I remember a few other chefs, a very small handful, like, delivering food to me, and I was just like, I almost wanted to start crying because it was, like, so cool to see you at my door there. You were, like, doing it.

Utterback: We were hustling. Yeah. I’ve been hustling for so long now. I just don’t know another way. Yeah. I’m just worried that with a win comes maybe some expectations that I’m afraid that we just can’t meet. Right now we’re the plucky little restaurant. New guests come in, they’re not sure what to expect, and then we over deliver. You came in looking for a California roll, and we just gave you Japanese wagyu, caviar and a black truffle. When you win, people are coming in expecting that as the base level, and they expect you to deliver consistently every day on that. And when you don’t, it’s hard for me to take that sort of criticism when we let people down. 

SBH: When I interviewed your friend from Kansas City who runs the Antler Room, who I actually met when we ate at an omakase here, he was talking about how what you do takes a lot of guts. It takes a lot of guts to not be so caught up in the headspace of, I’m in Nebraska, so I can’t do this, because it just won’t work in Nebraska because of every excuse. And that’s just not how you operate at all.

Utterback: Originally, it was right. It originally was, what will they let me do? What can I do? I want to do this, but can I do it? Will I lose guests? Because in the beginning, it was just all about filling seats. We got to get every guest we can into the restaurant. But as we started making changes, and I started getting away with more and more and more, now I’m at a point where I feel like I can do anything I want, right?

I can hand somebody any dish, no matter how crazy, and people are just willing to try it. It’s awesome.

We’ve got this thing that we were working on this morning where we dehydrated some kimchi that we had pureed, and they’re like the most delicious chips. They taste like nacho cheese Doritos. And so all morning it’s like, oh, I think I could serve these to a lot of people and they’d really like that. But five years ago, kimchi? No, they’re things that we wouldn’t even think of really putting it on the menu or featuring it …

Severe: I know you had a post on Facebook, this is probably four or five months ago, you were aging a piece of fish and it didn’t work. It failed. But I’m guessing that taught you the next time on how to make it, right?

Utterback: Yeah. We fail all the time. You fail every day. I have dishes fail every single day. When we’re done with this, I’m going to go work on some menu items. I’ve got three or four things I’m working on today. I would be surprised if any of them are winners, right? But they’re always kind of a step in the right direction and just being able to kind of look at things that you’re doing and actually self criticize and critique and just go, this isn’t good. So oftentimes we kind of get stuck in this idea that like, oh yeah, this art that I’m making is great when maybe it’s just not quite ready for people yet. And so not looking at a failure and going, wow, we can’t ever try anything like that again, and instead just kind of using that to (think) how can we tweak this to make it work the next time.

SBH: It looked like the tempura that you were sifting flour for did work out. I think I saw like a squash blossom.

Utterback: Very delicious.

SBH: So is that on the Ota menu right now?

Utterback: It was. I can’t get squash blossoms. And so this week that translated to like, tempura morales because those are in season. So those are really good. So, yeah, just having that freedom – in a normal omakase room, you would never serve tempura. That’s not a thing that you would do. But nobody knows any better here. I can do whatever I want, right?

Severe: So it’s Yoshitomo, it’s Koji, it’s Ota, it’s the wine bar?

Utterback: Yeah, I also own the wine shop down the street.

Severe: And that’s called? 

Utterback: Eleven Eleven.

SBH: And it has a really cool – I’m telling everyone now so it’s not going to be a secret anymore – but a really cool back patio.

Severe: So last thing, Dave the mogul. Is that eventually what you want, because you’ve said more restaurants would allow you to be able to do more. So what are you thinking? Like five? Six? Seven?

Utterback: The hope and the goal since the beginning has always been to be able to retire one day. Right. And that’s always the goal. Someday I can stop destroying my body 12 hours a day to just pay the bills. So we’re always kind of working towards that. I think the way that we get there is more restaurants, but more experiences. Not so much, here’s something that works so let’s just stamp it over and over and over. I think that one of the reasons why I get the freedom to do what I do is because we’re constantly trying to give new experiences and our city is really ready for that. Right? And so whenever I see another restaurant open up in town and it just kind of looks like another restaurant that’s already open in town, I’m just kind of thinking to myself, like, man, you have the opportunity to just do something a little bit different. And I get it. It’s kind of scary, right? I’m the guy who just purposely doesn’t do that. But there’s just such an opportunity with all these restaurants to really create something new instead of just kind of cannibalizing the business and the guests that are already here and the experiences that are already here.

If you’re just going to open the same restaurant over and over and over, like, why? Yeah, so maybe some new experiences, just try to get to a point where we can build up that back end, we can bring in some other chefs from out of town, we can improve the quality of our spaces and our experiences because we just have more to work with and it’s not a do or die situation.



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