Katsuya Executive Chef Says We're Eating Sushi Wrong, Talks Argentinian Influences

Chef Katsuya Uechi is a big deal in the sushi sphere, and since 2012 his namesake restaurant Katsuya has been serving raw fish to Miami's well-heeled set. Located at the SLS hotel in South Beach, Katsuya is known for its pristine sushi and sashimi, and classic dishes such as crispy rice with spicy tuna; yellowtail sashimi with jalapeño, and miso-marinated black cod. That said, under the influence of executive chef, Jose Icardi, the restaurant has recently made several tweaks and updates to its menu in order to make it more appealing to the local market. 

Born in Buenos Aires, chef Icardi spent ten years working with restaurateur Stephan Starr. After two years at Starr's Buddakan in Atlantic City, he returned to Miami to work under chef Makoto at his eponymous Bal Harbour eatery (Also a Starr enterprise). For Icardi, the goal of revamping things at Katsuya was to remain on top despite the increase in competition. This means getting even better products with a focus on Japanese ingredients, many of which come directly from the Tsukiji fish market in Japan. For example, on certain evenings you can order what Icardi likes to call "super toro." Toro refers to meat from the belly of a tuna, and this "super toro" is very hard to catch he explains because it's taken from the best part of the fish's stomach. 

Moreover, to attract the South American crowd and pay homage to his heritage, Icardi has added more steak options to the robata grill. You can now feast on lamb chops, skirt steak, bone-in rib eye or dry-aged New York, as well as wagyu filet with foie gras. Another new meat addition is referred to as chicken karaage — sous vide chicken with Japanese potato salad, pickled cucumber, yakitori sauce, and micro red shiso. There are also increased ceviche options, as well as more noodle and rice dishes on Katsuya's menu. 

We decided to catch up with chef Icardi to learn more about the changes the Argentinian toque has implemented at Katsuya, and to find out what it is that Miamians need to know about eating sushi/sashimi the right way. Yes, there is a right way to do it, but don't worry —- Icardi and his team won't kick you out if you break the rules. 

New Times: What can you tell us about working with an acclaimed chef like Katsuya Uechi?
Jose Icardi: Working with chef Katsuya is some experience. He has been in the industry for so many years and he’s a samurai legend when it comes to sushi. Every time I talk to him about food, you can see the happiness on his face. He’s so involved in every single aspect of the restaurant which is really amazing; I’m proud to work with him.

Prior to joining Katsuya in December 2013, you worked at Stephan Starr and chef Makoto's Japanese restaurant, Makoto in Bal Harbour. Did your technique change a lot since you started working with chef Katsuya? 
Everything changed. He’s very particular about his techniques and about how to use the ingredients. Last year I had the chance to go to his kitchen in L.A. and the first thing he showed us was how to make miso soup and rice. And you say, "Chef, I know how to do this," and he says. "You have to start from the beginning." If you have good sushi rice and good miso soup, the rest is easy. For instance you need the right dashi and if you don’t wash the rice properly or you don’t cook the rice properly you’ll have problems.

What is your greatest challenge as executive chef at Katsuya South Beach?
Right now it’s to keep my customers happy. Customers for me are everything, and also my team. I have folks that are very passionate about everything and I have to keep them motivated with new products, new cooking techniques. And for our customers there’s a lot of competition around so we need to be improving all the time. We want to be one of the best sushi restaurants in Miami and it’s not an easy task.

You mention the restaurant is increasingly focused on quality which includes sourcing fish directly from the Tsukiji fish market in Japan, as well as locally. Can you tell us a bit more about this change and how it has been received so far?
The customers love it. We try to source the best quality, fish, meat, everything. It’s working really well. It’s rare to find in Miami.

What’s something that you think people don’t know or understand about Japanese cuisine, particularly sushi, that you think they ought to know?
The biggest thing is how to eat the sushi (nigiri). In Japan, when they make the sushi they don’t press the rice as much because everytime that they serve the dish you're supposed to rotate it and and dip the fish side into the soy sauce. But right here we’re pressing the rice so much because the customers also like to dip the rice into the soy sauce; you can dip the fish into the soy sauce but not the rice. Also, don’t mix the wasabi in the soy sauce. You can put it on top of the sashimi, but in the nigiri the wasabi is already in between the rice and the fish so there's no need to add any extra. 

How does your Argentinian heritage influence your cooking at Katsuya?
In Argentina we are known for our barbecue so here we have an amazing robata section and every time I serve something on the robata it pulls me back into my childhood. It’s amazing what cooking can do for you. The Argentinian chef is very decicated like the Japanese chefs. I remember my family cooking for hours and that’s something that’s similar. If you don’t have love and don’t love what you do, it’s impossible to please anybody.

What are your thoughts about the current culinary landscape in Miami?
Miami right now is the place to be. Every big cat wants to be in Miami. It’s a challenge for us the chefs to create new and exciting things for our customers. 

What is one dish at Katsuya that you’re particularly excited about?
It’s hard to say, I love everything. I have to love the food. If I don’t love what I produce I will not serve it, that’s my philosophy. I love the steak and the fish.

What are you most proud of career-wise?
I always say it's my ability to bring out emotion in diners. When customers come to me and say we had an amazing time it makes me very happy. To see my cooks getting better everyday makes me proud. To me they're not my cooks, they're my family.

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