When Uchi opened last June, the debut was easily the most highly anticipated of the year. A five-star review followed two months later, putting the modern Japanese restaurant in rarified company with only two other Dallas restaurants: FT33 and Lucia. In mid-December, it was named The Best in DFW New Restaurant of the Year for 2015.
So it came as a shock the Monday after Christmas when news broke that its talented chef de cuisine, Nilton "Junior" Borges, had left the restaurant. "We gave Junior the opportunity to resign" is the way John Baydale, president of Uchi Restaurants, characterizes what happened that morning.
"It was a little surprising, for sure," says the 34-year-old Brazilian-born chef, who moved to Dallas with his wife Heather nearly two years ago to open Uchi with Tyson Cole, the highly lauded Austin chef. "I wasn't intending it to be so short."
Both Baydale and Borges say the parting of the ways was the result of a difference in philosophy. "Junior is incredibly talented, and his biggest focus was on his craft," says Baydale. Instead, his company wants leaders focused on developing culinary teams, he says. The group plans to open Top Knot -- a small plates restaurant upstairs from Uchi featuring Asian and Mediterranean flavors, with Angela Hernandez as chef de cuisine -- sometime within the next six weeks. And a push to open restaurants outside of Texas is "on the horizon."
When the 172-seat Maple Avenue restaurant opened, Baydale's group had already seen great success in Austin with Uchi and the spinoff Uchiko, with Cole earning a James Beard Award for Best Chef Southwest in 2011. A second Uchi debuted in Houston in 2012; then the group set its sights on Dallas. "They took me out of New York to come to Texas to be the chef," adds Borges. "That was the plan -- to be part of a great company."
By all accounts, Uchi's highly inventive, ambitious menu was a collaboration between Borges, Cole and other Uchi chefs. "While it clearly expresses the Uchi aesthetic, the Dallas menu is fresh, dynamic and ambitious, with Borges' considerable talent deliciously on display," I wrote in the August review.
On Monday, Uchi Restaurants announced Borges' replacement: Jeramie Robison. Robison has most recently served as executive chef at Shinsei; in 2013 he was chef de cuisine at Uchi in Austin. His resume also includes an executive chef position at Cinq at Colombe d'Or in Houston and stints at the Mansion on Turtle Creek (under John Tesar), Fishtail in New York and Tesar's in the Woodlands, just outside Houston.
"Our food is a collaboration from our chefs across our group," says Baydale, "as well as the sous-chefs and the line cooks of our restaurant in Dallas. They're the people creating the food. Jeramie is incredibly talented as well, and I'm very excited about what he'll bring to his staff."
Borges, meanwhile, is looking ahead, toward an opportunity for "more creative freedom." He says he and his wife -- a manager at Filament, Matt McCallister's new restaurant in Deep Ellum -- don't want to leave Dallas. "I wanted to be able to eventually open my own restaurant," says Borges. "I've been writing my business plans and looking for what's the best move now. I've achieved the things for the restaurant that I wanted: the stars, the award for restaurant of the year. But I want things for myself, too."