By Robin Chotzinoff
Photography by Marc Brown
With a chef’s knife and five spare minutes, Tyson Cole can make a bunch of green grapes look like a handful of gemstones. That transformation is particularly important today because he’s cooking for his three daughters, ages 2, 5 and 8. And, unlike his customers at Uchi (in Austin and Houston) and Uchiko, they tend to be suspicious when green things are piled on a plate.
“The eight-year-old eats earth tones, breaded things,” Cole says. “The five-year-old eats fruits and primary colors. The two-year-old’s somewhere in between. But,” he says, his concentration building as he hovers over the cutting board, “I’m going to cook something all three will like.”
To repeat, the recipient of the James Beard Foundation’s 2011 Best Chef: Southwest award is cooking for three consumers who, by his own admission, “never want to eat. The key word is snack.” Not exactly high stakes, but as Cole stares down at the grapes, his body language evokes an Olympic diver in the moment before he bends his knees and flies into the air. (Meanwhile, a steelhead trout fillet, well oiled, is already on the grill, skin-side down.)
As a kid, he says, he was something of a picky eater himself. “I liked my mother’s spaghetti sauce with pork chops, creamed chipped beef on toast, tuna casserole,” he says. “I wasn’t very adventurous. I never tried any of this Uchi stuff till I was twenty-two.” And then only because, while studying architecture at the University of Texas, he found work washing dishes at a Japanese restaurant and gradually became obsessed with Japanese culinary culture. He would eventually apprentice under Chef Takehiko Fuse at Austin’s legendary Musashino Sushi Dokoro, learn Japanese and study the art of sushi in Japan.
It’s not a craft you forget, he says, even when you no longer spend most of your working life behind the sushi bar. He enjoys the varied responsibilities of owning and operating restaurants and wouldn’t go back to his old day job. “But do I miss working with the knife? I miss the knife every day,” he says. “Malcolm Gladwell says you need ten thousand hours doing something to be a badass at it. I definitely have at least that much. Well, the good thing is, we have three restaurants, so I can jump back in when I want to.”
At home, where his line-cook position is secure for the foreseeable future, he jumps in four or five nights a week—taking up the slack for his wife, Rebekkah, a culinary-school graduate currently devoting her time to raising and shuttling kids. Sometime between five and six in the evening, Tyson usually produces a healthy meal—often fish, fruit and vegetables, plus aromatics and citrus he grows himself.
“I have a screamingly high metabolism,” Cole observes. “I eat four or five times a day. In Japan, eating rice, fish and miso for breakfast was a revelation. I realized all that stuff we call comfort food is really un-comfort food.”
Tyson uses the base of his knife to peel a single grape into a ribbon of fruit. “I have pictures of my daughter when I first started cutting grapes this way…she had grapes all over her body.”
The steelhead fillet emerges from the grill, its skin crackling. Cole deposits it on a raised bed of chopped strawberries. Fish and fruit glow with thin coats of olive oil. “Olive oil on everything,” he confirms. “And my favorite: white balsamic,” he says, producing a pocket-size bottle and squirting it liberally over the plate. “Acid. Acid is the key to all good food. Don’t be afraid of acid.”
TYSON COLE'S GRILLED STEELHEAD TROUT WITH STRAWBERRIES, GRAPES, OLIVE OIL AND WHITE BALSAMIC
1 whole fillet of steelhead trout, skin on
Sea salt and fresh-ground black pepper, to taste
4 T. extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
Fresh lemon juice, to taste
1 pt. fresh strawberries, cut into bite-size pieces
4 oz. green grapes, cut into quarters
1 oz. aged white balsamic vinegar
Prepare a charcoal or gas grill to medium-high. Remove the pin bones from the trout fillet and season it well with sea salt and pepper. Generously brush the trout with olive oil—making sure to rub in the oil on the skin side. Place the fillet, skin-side down, onto the medium-hot part of the grill. Let the fish cook for 2 minutes without moving it. Place a fish spatula under the fish, gently lift and move it—still skin-side down—to a cooler part of the grill. Continue to let the fish cook for 5 more minutes—checking periodically for charring on the skin.
Remove the fish from the grill and let rest for 2 minutes. Finish the fish with lemon juice and olive oil. Season the berries and grapes with sea salt and drizzle with olive oil and white balsamic. Serve the trout with the berries and grapes. Serves 2 adults and 3 small grape lovers.