For Best New Chef Yoshi Okai, Japanese Tradition With a Punk Rock Update

The head chef at Otoko in Austin, TX incorporates Texas ingredients, kaiseki culture and his own musical sensibilities into a 3-hour sushi service.

“The second that I tasted my first bite at Otoko, Yoshi Okai’s restaurant in Austin, I knew that I was looking at a Best New Chef.”

Strong words from Food & Wine’s Restaurant Editor Jordana Rothman, describing one of the most inventive and irreverent omakase spots in the country today.

Okai, who hails from Kyoto, is what Food & Wine Editor in Chief Nilou Motamed describes as a “rock and roll sushi chef.” He’s a punk musician—and Austin, his longtime adopted city, is the perfect place for him to flex his musical muscles after restaurant hours.

For Okai, these dual passions have always been intertwined. He started cooking professionally, drawing on his experience back in Japan working for a family catering company after the breakup of an erstwhile punk project many years ago. “I came to realize that cooking is very similar to music,” he says. “And since my music career didn’t really take off, I decided to pour the same passion for music into cooking and becoming a chef.”

Okai’s food is refined and thoughtful, but like his music, it’s anything but quiet. His behind-the-counter energy is palpable, and the team doesn’t shy away from spectacle every now and then—”Once every three months,” says Okai, “we host an event where we bring the full tuna and cut the fish in front of 50 to 60 people....this gives me a lot of adrenaline.”

Rothman attributes some of this spark to Okai’s interdisciplinary approach to food, describing how “he talks about his cooking in sort of musical terms.” These confluences are what help him create and innovate while keeping his cheeky, rambunctious aesthetic intact—Rothman notes that “he’ll talk about how the Rolling Stones or The Beatles have this sort of core identity as musicians, but that they adapted very smartly over the years to new audiences so that they could stay modern.”

Okai, whose restaurant constantly teases out what a sushi experience can be—playing R&B through the understated 12-seat dining room, for example, or incorporating elements of Central Texas BBQ into his nigiri—“talks about his cooking in the same way.”

For more on our latest class of BNCs, check out the rest of the Food & Wine Best New Chefs 2017.

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