(Written by Savannah Pickard)
If you call Benson your home, then you've probably seen him living the words, "sushi is life," behind the rail at Yoshitomo, maybe playing a show in his band, Carson City Heat, or perhaps even enjoying a drink at one of the many rad bars in the Benson neighborhood.
Sources have confirmed that Dave "Yoshi" Utterback is much more than just a sushi man, but I needed to find out for myself; so I sat down with the enigma himself earlier this week to talk a little bit about his journey and life as a restaurant owner and chef.
Can you fill me in on the time you've spent as a chef working your way to where you are now?
"I started out in my early 20s working a bunch of random management and retail jobs trying to, you know, find my way (in Omaha). I had always been interested in sushi and a buddy of mine had just gotten a job at Blue and he said he could get me a job there, too, so I put in an application. When I showed up and handed in my application, I was very poor, but I wanted some sushi. So I ate there but I tipped very badly and the waitress threw away my application. The chef that was working saw it and said, 'Who was that guy who just filled out an application!?' and the waitress was like, 'Oh, you don't want to hire him! He tips badly, that guy can't work here!' And after scolding her for throwing away my application, he got it out of the trash and hired me. So I like to say that my career literally started in the garbage."
"I ended up working for Blue for quite a number of years, worked my way from the very bottom to chef, then lead chef, all the way to their corporate chef. I was head of sushi for about 7 years, and then you just hit a certain point and you decide on if you are going to continue building someone else's dream or if you are gonna go and put work into your own. After 12+ years it was time to start working on my own dream."
What about the initial conception and rough timeline of creating Yoshitomo? How long had this dream been in the works?
"I'd started thinking about owning my own restaurant early into my career as chef. You know, every chef, every cook talks about the restaurant they're going to have. So starting at day one, you think, 'My restaurant's gonna do this, this, and this,' but you say you're gonna do things and how you're going to do them without actively working on it. It's just talk. The real nuts and bolts of working on this restaurant started last year in January when I left Blue. I'd left the company and my choice was, again, either go work for somebody else for another 10+ years, or go beg, borrow, and steal (not literally) money to open my own restaurant. A lot of things like the way we approach food and a lot of the design elements of the restaurant I've been thinking about for a decade, but that goes back to chefs talking about their dreams. The real work for this restaurant started about a year and a half ago."
Are there any dining experiences or even other restaurants that inspired you in any way?
"Yeah, yeah, I've had a couple of those meals. I had the opportunity to eat with the now celebrity chef, Jiro, about 9-10 years ago, and I was just a crappy line cook at the time and I didn't know that sushi could be that way. I didn't know that there was a high-end version beyond just charging too much for food, I didn't know there was, you know, a craftsmanship side to sushi."
"Shortly after that, I ate at a really great restaurant in Austin, called Uchi, which does a lot of what we're trying to do here. The meal that I had was a balancing act between approachable food and dishes while also pushing everything forward; pushing diners towards eating better fish, taking a lot of options away from them and focusing on the experience of dining. A lot of what we do here is inspired by what they've done over there."
As far as location goes, was opening up shop here in Benson an intentional choice?
"Yeah, I've been in the community since back when we all used to hang out in Dundee, and then everyone started moving out to Benson 7-8 years ago. Pretty much everyone in this neighborhood I know, we've been drinking and having good times together for about 15 years. You aren't going to open up a restaurant like this in Suburbia, your choices are downtown or midtown, and this is my home. My house is a couple blocks from here, all my friends are here, if we need something, we can go across the street and borrow it. Sushiyas (Japanese name for sushi restaurants) in Japan are really part of the community, everyone who frequents them is from that neighborhood. There isn't another neighborhood in the city where the growth and community is organic. At any given time I know around 50% of guests in the restaurant, and between everyone who works here, I'd say we know 75% of the people who walk through the door, and that's super cool."
I'm assuming there are a lot of struggles you've had to face while opening Yoshitomo, could you share some of them?
"Getting and keeping the restaurant open comes with a lot of hoops to jump through, you never know what the city is gonna throw at you. The plumbing inspector wants something, the food inspector wants something completely different, and no one can give you a set answer on how much everything going to cost. Basically, you just have a small bucket of money and by the time you get the restaurant's doors open, you hope you didn't have to sell the bucket, too."
"Also, coming from a corporate background, everyone has their own specific job. Mine was worrying about food and running the sushi bar efficiently. Now, I'm the only guy who can do 'owner stuff'. There isn't another owner to help with everything else that isn't food, it's pretty much just me. When we were opening I was the one mowing the overgrown grass and shoveling sidewalks, I don't get to worry about just running the rail. People walking in the door don't think about who has to keep the lights on, who has to make sure all the equipment is working, who has to keep this place from just falling apart and letting nature take over. In the corporate world there are a team of people working on all that stuff, but here, it's just me. It's almost like having your fingers in a leaky dam, you only have two hands and can plug up these holes today and the rest are just going to have to wait one more day and hopefully the whole thing doesn't fall apart by the time you can deal with all the issues. One day I hope I won't be the one who has to shovel the walk and I can just pay someone else $10 to do it, but right now we just really need that $10."
Where do you see Yoshitomo in 5 years from now? Are there any longterm goals you have in mind?
"The goal was always to create a small little group of restaurants, we're not talking a large corporate group of restaurants, but the idea was to use Yoshitomo as a diving board for more restaurants like it. I'm not interested in sticking bunch of Yoshitomos all over the place, that's just kind of boring. It becomes no different than a McDonald's at that point. I see us moving into some different concepts keeping the same ideas, service, and vibes the same, but mixing it up and doing smaller, more chef-driven restaurants. The idea is to kind of take this model, tweak it, get it working right, figure out the systems for other restaurants, and do it more."
"This all comes stems from the lacking of chef-driven restaurants. If you step back and look at the city, the cost of opening up a restaurant by yourself without any sort of big money help or angel investor is so high that chef's can't do it. That's why so many restaurants are just chains. Even the newer restaurants opening up pretend to be local, but they're not. They're funded by out of state money and just have the front of being local. The idea that we can stay in town an take chefs with passions and turn those into dining experiences for people in town rather than everyone waiting for the next California Pizza Kitchen to open up or some other giant corporate garbage. Someone's gotta be that guy who helps."
And that pretty much concludes my wonderful interview with Dave Utterback. I hope you feel enriched and learned a lot about the man who finally brought sushi to Benson, and maybe you even learned a little bit about yourself on this journey. Remember: don't be sad that it's over, be happy it happened.
I remember when I had to do an interview like this one. It was the my first time to interview someone, which is why I was so nervous. I rehearsed so much of my lines that I can still remember them to this day. It was a very scary moment, but it was also a career-defining moment for me. From what I can see, you did a great job with your interview, I can see a lot of potential in you.
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