The arrival of Uchi in Dallas was one of the most highly anticipated restaurant openings of the past year. Executive chef Tyson Cole is renowned around the country for his unique and fresh approach to Japanese cuisine, and the James Beard Award winner has set his sights on building a raw fish empire in Dallas.
At the head of the kitchen in Dallas is chef de cuisine Nilton “Junior” Borges, a Brazilian-born chef who honed his skills in some of New York’s best kitchens. Borges was working in Brooklyn when Cole and Uchi whisked him away to Texas at just the right time. We sat down to talk with Borges about his pre-Uchi life, learning Japanese cuisine and how the simple-sushi-loving Dallas palate has grown up.
What was your culinary background before Uchi?
I was born and raised in Brazil and grew up with food. My grandmother was the whole cliché of cooking on Sundays, so it was always around. I moved to New York City 14 years ago, and I had never really worked in a kitchen. I studied nutrition in Brazil, and I knew I didn’t want to do that, but one day on the subway I saw an ad for cooking school. My mom asked me why I didn’t do that, so I started researching and watching cooking shows and teaching myself how to cook.
Eventually, I got into a kitchen and worked. I couldn’t go to cooking school at first because I didn’t have any money, so I started working at this place called Diner and Marlow & Sons in Brooklyn. That really shaped my career, because they were very farm-to-table. We wrote the menu every single day. That impacted my career from that point on, and I eventually came back to work there after a few other places in Brooklyn.
I worked at A Voce, and we got a Michelin star when I was working there with Missy Robbins. Then came an opportunity to work at Colicchio & Sons as Tom Colicchio was transitioning the restaurant from Craft Steak to the new concept, and I worked there for almost two years. When I left, I opened a Mediterranean farm-to-table restaurant where I worked for two years before I came to Dallas to work at Uchi.
So, how did you decide to make the jump from New York City to Dallas?
It’s kind of a funny story, actually. I was working in a restaurant, and I got a phone call from Central Market. They asked me to come to Texas for this event they were doing called Passport: Brazil. They wanted me to teach Brazilian classes, even though that wasn’t really what I was doing. But they offered to fly me down, put me up in a hotel, so I came through for a tour of Austin, Houston, Dallas and Fort Worth.
When I got to Houston, after my class, I asked the chefs where I should eat, and they suggested Uchi. I didn’t know much about Uchi, but I’d heard of the restaurant before. I went there and sat at the sushi bar by myself, and the chef at the bar was awesome. After the second dish that I got, I took a photo and posted it on Facebook. A friend from New York reached out and asked if I was in Austin, and I told him I was in Houston. Five minutes later, the GM comes out and asked if I was Junior. I said yeah, and realized that my friend knew the GM and the guys at Uchi. They took such good care of me and I had an outstanding meal, but I also met one of the chefs who was working there, and we hung out throughout my trip.
We kept in touch, and a few months later, he came to New York. At that point, I was thinking about leaving. I had been there for so long, and I didn’t know where I wanted to go, but I was open to possibilities. That chef from Uchi came to visit my restaurant, and I told him how great of a time I’d had in Texas, and I started to kind of feel out what was out there. He told me that Uchi was planning to open a restaurant in Dallas within the year and asked if I wanted to apply. A month later, all the executive chefs from Uchi came to New York for an event, and they ate at my restaurant. After their meal, they told me it was the best they’d had in New York City for the whole trip. I hung out with them for the next four or five days, and at the end of the trip, they invited me to Austin to check out the restaurant and hang out. I came to visit, and that was pretty much it.
So ... this all started because of a Facebook post?
It did, as much as I don’t necessarily like social media. Sometimes it gets too crazy, but yeah, I guessed it worked for me.
To be told that you prepared someone, particularly a chef's, best meal in New York City is a pretty big compliment. Did that make you skeptical? Like maybe those guys liked you a little too much?
It was weird, but that was their first stop. When they finished, they told me that the dish they had was the best thing they’d eaten all year. They went to all these great restaurants after, and I would meet up with them after work. At the end of the trip, they were still raving about that meal. At that point, I was really flattered. These are people who know food and are exposed to so much. If they’re saying that, they don’t have to say that.
There’s no need for them to compliment me. If they do, it’s because they mean it. As a chef, one of the most important things for me is to impress my peers. When someone in the business understands and thinks something you’re doing is fucking outstanding, that drives me to work harder and be better. I will never settle.
What was your experience with sushi before coming to Uchi? It seems really intimidating to approach Japanese cuisine without much time behind the sushi bar.
It was intimidating. I had never worked in a Japanese restaurant before. When I first started cooking, I worked for free for six months at one of Sony’s executive dining rooms. It was all the celebrities and CEOs and artists. It was pretty crazy because this was 13 years ago, and it was an interesting operation because those executive dining rooms don’t have a budget. They can get the craziest, best ingredients. The most expensive things that you can’t even dream of.
It was awesome to be exposed to such high-quality ingredients in the beginning. But that operation had a sushi bar, and that was the only experience I really had with Asian ingredients. It was so long ago, and most of my career had been spent doing this farm-to-table, off-the-cuff cooking. When I came to work at Uchi, it was a little intimidating at first, but I also understood the restaurant isn’t necessarily a traditional Japanese restaurant.
There’s a big understanding here of what I was bringing and being able to absorb and learn the restaurant. I can bring different techniques and experience to the table. At the end of the day, it was just understanding the fundamentals of cooking and developing flavor profiles while also understanding what “Uchi food” is — the spice, the salt, the sweet, the acid.
How would you describe Uchi food? What does that vision mean to you?
It’s playful. It’s light. It’s delicious. It’s interesting. It’s fun. Sometimes when people try certain things here, they just say, “Holy shit, this is so good.” I think that’s because it hits a lot of different senses. The dishes are spicy, really sweet. A lot of our food has lots of acid, it’s well-seasoned, so the result is a very balanced dish. Then you have the aesthetics — our plate-ups are really cool and represent the feel of the restaurant.
Coming from New York, how would you say that the palate here is different, especially when it comes to sometimes "strange" raw fish?
It varies. Sometimes you find people who are looking for the staples that they know. Here, you’re gonna sell the hamachi, you’re gonna sell the tuna and the salmon. But we just had a monkfish liver. Is that something that’s going to be too forward? But we noticed that it actually sold really well, more than what we expected even. It’s all about how you deliver the message. I explained to my servers to sell this as the foie gras of the sea, and how we prepare it is different. We take the impurities out. It’s very smooth and has this umami to it. Then, people start to get it.
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Overall, it’s not as adventurous as New Yorkers, but at the same time, you would be surprised at how much people are willing to try. Of course there are things that aren’t going to sell. I’m not going to try to do lamb kidneys or anything like that. But this is a city with a lot of well-traveled people, a lot of transplants who got exposure to more food. If you’re going to do something weird, my thought is that you’ve gotta make sure that it’s good. You have to make sure it tastes good. You shouldn’t mask that flavor and add a bunch of shit on top of it, but you have to make sure that it is clean and well-seasoned and you hit all those notes that are going to make people love it. I don’t agree with making things weird just for the sake of being weird.
What about the role of chef de cuisine? You have plenty of room to learn, but do you have enough creative freedom when you’re building upon the vision someone had for their restaurant?
In certain ways, yes. We have to be respectful of what was already created before me and understand what the restaurants are all about. Every three weeks, we’re coming up with new and different specials. That’s where I get to play and influence my team and teach them what I think Uchi food is. I can create, but I create within this realm that Tyson Cole has created. That can be a kind of creative freedom, but obviously it’s different than when I’m writing a menu every single day.
I think this position helps give you a little bit of restraint, and you’re forced to look at a different kind of operation. Here, I’m not just creating, I’m also running a kitchen. There’s a lot of staff to manage. We’re super busy every day. There are a lot of moving parts here. The position is not just about creating food, but also about running an operation ... I have the experience and exposure of creating and being a good cook, and now I can learn how to run a large, busy restaurant. Eventually, I’ll be able to marry all those things in the future.