What’s Kept Chef Manabu Horiuchi at Kata Robata for a Decade? Freedom.

“The Japanese see a young chef and think lower quality. Americans see a young chef and don’t care. They want to eat the food and then be the judge. It’s nice for me.”

By Gwendolyn Knapp June 25, 2019 Published in the July 2019 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Image: Barry Fantich

By age 6 Manabu Horiuchi, under the tutelage of his mother, Noriko, had already mastered the egg omelet, which he cooked in the family’s kitchen in Shizuoka, Japan, overlooking Mount Fuji.

“The most beautiful mountain in Japan,” Horiuchi reminisces, taking a moment to sit down at a table inside Kata Robata, his beloved Upper Kirby sushi restaurant, which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary.

Horiuchi's mom, a chef at a nearby retirement center, taught him many dishes at home, for fun. By 11 he was making her traditional chawanmushi, a warm, silken egg custard with chicken, shrimp, and shiitake mushrooms. He liked to cook for his older brother, Satoru, and his father, Akihiko. 

“Just easy stuff,” Horiuchi says. “Dinner on weekends.”

In high school Horiuchi went to work part-time for his mom, who turned out to be more intense in a professional kitchen than she was at home, making her children's school lunch boxes or serving them natto, the fermented bean paste that Horiuchi calls “Japanese soul food.”

“She was boss,” he laughs. She would only allow Horiuchi to chop vegetables, peel potatoes, and wash dishes. But he made enough money to dine out from time to time. One weekend his older brother brought Horiuchi to a sushi restaurant. “I don’t remember why we went there,” he says. “Sushi was something you only ate on very special occasions. My family never went. It was too expensive.”

His first bite was hamachi—creamy Japanese yellowtail that melted on the 17-year-old’s tongue, changing his life forever. “I said what is this? What is this!?” Horiuchi soon had a plan. He would become a sushi chef. “Then I can always eat sushi.”

The next year, 1994, he enrolled in the prestigious Tsuji Culinary Institute in Osaka, two hours from his hometown, where he learned the basics of Japanese, Chinese, and Western cooking, and worked at night, again chopping vegetables and washing dishes. He dined out as much as he could, but never on sushi—for that he’d sometimes buy small pieces of fish at the market to cut and taste at home.

After graduating with top honors a year later, he landed an apprenticeship under fourth-generation chef Mamoru Sugiyama at the prestigious Sushiko Honten in Ginza, Tokyo, a then-Michelin-starred restaurant that first opened in 1885.

There Horiuchi wasn’t even allowed to chop vegetables. He couldn’t speak to customers. He bussed tables and washed dishes for a year. Each morning at 5 a.m., his eyes barely open, he would follow Sugiyama's sous chef to the Tsukiji Markets to buy spiky urchins, slithering eels, and frowning amberjack. At daily tuna auctions, huge bluefins—highly regarded for their fatty toro (belly)—lined the floor like torpedoes, bringing in around $30,000 each.

There, says Horiuchi,  the sous chef "taught me what to look for, for the freshest fish.”  Bright red gills. Clear eyes. The plumper the fish the better. Of course, it fell to him to carry all of the bags.

By his second year at Sushiko Honten, Horiuchi was allowed to chop vegetables and cut fish—not in front of customers, of course, just to clean it. By his third year, at 23, he was allowed to make rice and easy sushi rolls. He could finally speak to customers.

While Horiuchi considers Chef Sugiyama a mentor to this day—and still has the knife the chef gifted him—he moved on to a higher sous chef position at a casual Japanese eatery in 1998. A year later a regular guest, the Consul General of Japan, offered him the chance of a lifetime: to come work as a private chef in Houston for a couple of years. “Houston?” Horiuchi remembers asking. “Close to Disney World?”

When he arrived in 1999, he spoke no English. The first people he made sushi for in America? Mayor Lee Brown, Barbara Bush, and James Baker. More VIPs followed.

Though his traditional Japanese cuisine and, okay, his crazy-deft knife skills are what brought Horiuchi here, it’s his openness to Houston’s diversity and foodways that has helped him to distinguish himself. “It takes 20 years to begin as a sushi chef in Japan,” he says. “The Japanese see a young chef and think lower quality. Americans see a young chef and don’t care. They want to eat the food and then be the judge. It’s nice for me.” 

In 2001, after his contract was up, Horiuchi gained a following at Kubo’s Sushi Bar in Rice Village, where he led the kitchen for eight years. In 2009 he opened Kata Robata, and today he is the most well-respected sushi chef Houston has ever seen. Not only has he cooked for "Beyoncé's mom," he's received three James Beard Award nods, no small feat in the Southwest region. But there’s no bravado about him, just a love of craft. He’s just as happy cooking up hotpot for his wife and their two cats, Chibi and Lala, in EaDo.

Kata Robata goes through 200 pounds of salmon per day, flying fish in daily from dealers in California, Boston, and the famed Toyosu Market in Tokyo. And while the quality of his sushi sets Horiuchi’s omakase apart, he also has created a menu that truly speaks to Houstonians—Texas akaushi beef skewers, jalapeño-topped hamachi, an occasional Indo-Pak or Vietnamese dish.

Then there are his wild renditions of his mother’s recipes—he tops her chawanmushi, for instance, with vibrant orange sea urchin—and the dishes he might slip to adventurous tables, such as natto, which is slimy like okra and smells like “when you come from the gym and take off your socks.”

“Many Japanese chefs cook traditional Japanese even in America, because of our pride,” he says. “But I just want to have fun. That’s my idea.”

Also his idea: Opening a tiny, upscale omakase restaurant in Houston, which he plans to do soon. “Chef’s choice,” he says. “Just small tastings.” Maybe his mother, who’s now retired, could come for a visit to try Horiuchi’s cuisine. His brother, now the CEO of a logistics company, did travel to Houston to try Kata Robata a couple of years back. “Oh, I didn’t know you were a chef,” Horiuchi recalls Satoru saying after trying the sushi. “Now you’ve proven it.

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