Five Minutes With Otoko’s Chef Yoshi Okai

by Rhonda Jenkins on January 2, 2020 in Food+Drink, Austin,
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Austin’s punk rocker — turned sushi rockstar.

Austin, Texas—-the capital of the Lone Star State, the Music Capital of the World, is now fast becoming a culinary capital. In 2019 alone, it was home to no less than eight James Beard Award semifinalists.  

One much-revered chef in the city is both a sushi master and punk rocker. While respecting the customs and traditions of Japanese sashimi, as is so often the way of Austin, he somehow manages to balance that while staying true to his rocker personality, genuine huge smile and antics that draw people in. Keep reading to learn more about the energetic and talented chef of Otoko, Yoshi Okai.

Chef Yoshi came to Austin because of the music scene, and wanted to be a punk rockstar. Luckily for us, he ended up as a sushi rockstar instead. Courtesy photo

How does creating sushi align with creating music, in your mind?

I always say that music and cooking are basically the same. Just be yourself, have your own style, but don’t go overboard. Be cool like David Bowie! Maintain your style but keep evolving sounds and flavors to what people need at a particular time.

Tell us about your tattoos. 

I have so many! The Poison 13 tattoo was one that I got when I was in a sad place. Mike Carroll, the singer of Poison 13, an Austin-based band with Tim Karr, Bill Anderson and Chris Gates, was very sick, and I felt the need to get the tattoo as a symbol for him to get well. His music, and the live music scene, was one of the reasons I moved to Austin. He died two weeks before I could go visit him. I can’t say enough about how much I loved his music.

Chef breaks down a sustainably sourced blue fin tuna at the 2019 Hotluck Fest. He can accomplish this, and have you quite literally eating from his hand, in less than an hour. Photo courtesy atxlovelist

Was Otoko’s concept made for you or you for it? 

The concept was created because sushi rice temperatures have to be warm not cold, so we need to have a very small space to serve sushi to our guests at Otoko. In an ideal world, I’d make sushi for two guests at a time to give them the best omakase experience! But 12 is a good compromise. 

What of your many accomplishments are you most proud of?

Being named Food and Wine Best New Chef 2017 is one of my proudest! I’d been working so hard for that achievement, and the opportunity to meet so many great chefs from all over the United States and beyond. The honor keeps me working harder and being more creative! Also, I’m proud to be a good leader for my team.

What goals or plans do you have for the future?  

I want to be like Jiro Ono and get to be really old, like 80 years old, and still making sushi. He only makes sushi, no rice making or fish cutting, somebody does that for him. I want to keep masking sushi for people who have had a bad day or haven’t smiled in a long time! Everybody is happy after they put sushi in their mouth!

Serious and zen are the words when Chef creates the intimate omikase experience at the 12-seat Otoko inside the South Congress Hotel. There is always a waiting list for reservations. Courtesy photo

What is your favorite sake?

I love Tatsuriki Sake from Himeji City, Hyogo. Honda-San (Kaicho) was such a sweet person; he invited me to his sake brewery in Japan and treated me like a VIP. I’m a big fan of his and somehow he was a big fan of me! Sadly, he passed away last year.

What is the most difficult and or oddest ingredient you have had to work with?

I don’t know everything, and so I’m always trying to find new and crazy stuff to cook. Come find out how it turns out at Otoko!

Is there anything you’d like for people to know about you that you think they may not know?

I drink sake, Japanese whisky, tequila, mezcal! Ha kidding! I have a cool car—a 1951 Studebaker Commander. I also love plants and flowers because my family owned flower shops in Kyoto and I grew up around them.

If you were to have sushi besides your own, which sushi chef would you choose?

Sushi Iwa in Kyoto.

Otoko, 1603 South Congress Avenue, Austin, TX 78704

Make your reservations now, there is usually a 4 to 6 week waiting list.

Cover: Yoshi Okai, the master chef behind Otoko, located in the South Congress Hotel. Photo courtesy atxlovelist

Rhonda Jenkins is the TLM insta ninja and a wannabe photographer who loves to meet and interview all of the amazing people that make Austin such a rad city.