- Matthew Odam American-Statesman Staff
What happens when you team two of the most distinguished and celebrated chefs in Austin’s history and put them under one roof? We’re about to find out.
Aaron Franklin has partnered with Uchi founding chef Tyson Cole to become part of the team at Loro, a Japanese smokehouse from Uchi’s parent company, Hai Hospitality, that is slated to open late in the first quarter of next year at 2115 S. Lamar Blvd.
Longtime friends Cole and Franklin casually discussed the idea of the smokehouse about three years ago, but it was earlier this year that the idea of a partnership first arose, a light-bulb moment Cole credits to his partner and Hai Hospitality founder Daryl Kunik.
While the two chefs’ areas of expertise may seem disparate — Cole working with raw fish and Franklin mastering smoked meat — the Uchi founding chef sees obvious parallels.
“I had an epiphany years back. If you look at it, the meat thing, specifically barbecue, it’s kind of just like sushi,” Cole said. “When it’s the best barbecue and the best sushi, it’s cut a la minute. It’s sliced right then before you eat it.”
Franklin echoes the sentiment: “I think the way the two of us cook is pretty synonymous. We do almost the same thing, if you think about perfecting one thing over and over and over.”
Loro, which was announced at the beginning of the year, will center around grilled and smoked meats, with the culinary team applying the Uchi style and flavor profiles to meat dishes and inventive sides.
Franklin, who has long been a fan of Uchi and Uchiko, shares Cole’s enthusiasm for this unique new partnership that essentially amounts to a James Beard Voltron, with both chefs having taken home Best Chef Southwest honors from the esteemed organization, Franklin in 2015 and Cole in 2011.
“The first thing is that those guys are so hugely inspirational. The level of precision and the amount of integrity that those guys have is incredible,” Franklin said. “If I was ever going to do anything, those guys are the only people I’d ever go into cahoots with on something like this. I’d never open another barbecue place, but it doesn’t mean I can’t do something else that’s really exciting and fun.”
Cole first started toying with the idea of trying something new about seven years ago, with the smokehouse idea percolating about three years ago. The Uchi team kept a Green Egg smoker in the backyard at the South Lamar Boulevard restaurant and used it to experiment with dishes, some of which, like brisket nigiri, made their way onto the specials menu of the restaurant Cole opened in 2003.
“Some of our best specials came off of that. And we thought there’s a concept on its own,” Hai Hospitality president John Baydale said.
Franklin and Cole are spending time in the Uchiko and Franklin Barbecue kitchens tinkering with menu research and development. For Cole, the new restaurant offers a chance to do something that puts a different spin on something that is familiar.
“It’s going to be familiar but unique. Unique sides, unique selections of meat,” Cole said. “The game changer is going to be the way it’s served, the sauces we’re going to make and what we’re pairing it with and how it all fits together. Hopefully it’s an amazing experience and food that people have never had before.”
Franklin has long had a predilection for the light, acidic flavors found in the dishes at Uchi and Uchiko and taps into his trademark enthusiasm and humility when discussing the opportunity to work with the Uchi/Uchiko team.
“I’ve looked up to those guys for so long. I’m excited to learn. I think it’s going to be great. I’m super excited to get to know those guys a little bit better and actually learn how to cook,” Franklin said.
What can diners expect Franklin to bring to the table at Loro? Franklin says the restaurant, which will likely use all post oak, will taste like Central Texas. And the chef, who will spend time working in the kitchen at Loro once it opens, intends to apply the same simple seasoning and complex fire principles he’s crafted at his East Austin barbecue restaurant.
“I think the biggest thing is going to be the clean flavors of the smoke. Not a whole bunch of over-smoked things. Just really tastefully done. The more delicate side of smoking,” Franklin said.
In addition to experimenting with a new format and cuisine, Loro will also offer a new challenge and opportunity for Cole, as Loro will be the only restaurant in the Hai Hospitality family that serves lunch. Preparing more food for more people at a lower price point are pieces of a puzzle that Cole and company will sort through during the R&D process. As the team continues to hone its vision for Loro, the one recurring theme is excitement.
“Putting two people at the strongest point in their discipline together is a rare thing,” Baydale said. “It’s going to be a lot of fun putting these two mad scientists together, and we’re just super excited.”