New Sushi|Bar Chef Focuses Japanese, Celebrates Ukrainian, Showcases Excellence

Itamae Ambrely Ouimette cooks up some raw delectations

Chef Ambrely Ouimette melts bone marrow onto unagi at Sushi|Bar (Courtesy of Sushi|Bar)

First, let's arrange all the pieces – as if this article is a sort of sushi creation itself, a journo omakase presented for your newsy delectation.

Sushi|Bar, that fish-forward speakeasy ensconced within the elegant Japanese home-cooking emporium of Bento Picnic on East Cesar Chavez, started out in California. The concept was brought to Austin in December 2020 by its originator, Phillip Frankland Lee (also the man behind L.A.'s Michelin-starred Pasta|Bar restaurant), who has now parted ways with that specific location, opening similar venues in Austin and beyond with his wife, pastry chef Margarita Kallas-Lee.

And now Sushi|Bar Austin's run by a woman named Ambrely Ouimette, who's been in the industry since she was a teenager and has worked alongside the likes of Nobu Matsuhisa in Denver and whose Ukrainian heritage continues to inspire her career. And who, knife-wielding, does things with raw fish and fermented sauces and an array of arcane enhancements that will knock a citizen's most jaded taste buds on their maxillofacial ass. Whether using fermented pineapple to spike a slice of kanpachi, dusting pieces with smoked cinnamon to add unexpected depth, or melting bone marrow to drip upon perfectly seared unagi, she's got moves that carry tradition into new territory. That's a good thing, and highly recommended.

Note: Sushi|Bar's open seven nights a week; but you'll need to make reservations, often far in advance, although Ouimette swears that getting on the waitlist might score you a place in the intimate 10-seater even sooner.

So, who is this chef that everyone's clambering to eat the creations of? And how'd she earn her skills and achieve this plum position?

Ouimette began her professional culinary journey near Gloucester, Massachusetts, in the oceanside area where her family vacationed in her childhood. "I started working at this restaurant when I was just 16 years old," she says, "and I was working in the back of the kitchen. You know – shucking oysters and doing garde-manger, just starting at the bottom there. It was an open kitchen, and there was a sushi bar. And you know how kitchens are: You watch these guys, and they're all running around and swearing, smacking each other's butts – just being totally gross, you know? But I was watching these sushi chefs, and they're not like that. They're just kind of dancing in that place, and you're watching them be so organized and so quiet – it's almost like a ballet. And I fell in love with that. I knew I needed to be, like, outside of the pirate ship and get into the ballet with those sushi chefs.

"So I asked them if I could start working with them. I was like, 'Chef Nori-san, can I please work with you guys?' He said no. And I said, 'I'll do anything, give me any job. I'll work for free, and anything you need me to do, I'll do it.' So I started by cleaning the sushi bar, and I would make the wasabi and help them clean up at the end of the night. Then, after about six months, the lead chef was like, 'OK, you've shown that you really want this, so we're gonna start training you.' And they took me on as an apprentice. It definitely wasn't an easy start, nor has it ever been easy. I don't wanna play the female card too early, but it was definitely something to overcome – specifically in the sushi industry."

Our own city's place on the national sushi map came courtesy of Tyson Cole's innovative Uchi on South Lamar in 2003, which was followed by spin-off Uchiko in 2010. Také and Kayo Asazu's Komé brought approachable nigiri splendor to Airport in 2011 after establishing themselves as players with their beloved Sushi-A-Go-Go food truck. (Incidentally, Sushi-A-Go-Go has been resurrected, repping Komé in the Austin City Market food hall at the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.) After that, the local scene expanded with the places like Yoshi Okai's 12-seat Otoko in the South Congress Hotel, Kazu Fukumoto's eponymous venue on Medina, and the much-missed Kyōten Sushiko in Mueller – where itamae Sarah Cook ran the place until the pandemic shut it down.

Chef Ambrely Ouimette (Courtesy of Sushi|Bar)

And now, 15 years after her debut, having honed her craft and earned her scars through restaurants on the West Coast and the East Coast (and that Denver stint at Matsuhisa), Ouimette's the executive chef of Sushi|Bar Austin – initially recruited from her pop-up business in Portland, Maine, due to her skills, personality, and a bold #femalesushichef presence on Instagram. Oh, let's consider the not-online aspects.

"Chefs often have that person in their lives when they were a kid, who would always cook," says the affable itamae, whose Ukrainian grandmother ticks that box. "She and her family left Ukraine long ago – they'd been practicing Judaism, and it was, ah, frowned upon in the area, and they ran away and landed in the United States when she was very, very young. She's an absolutely beautiful woman – and the best cook in my entire life. Just, the potato pancakes and sauerkraut and pickles and beets, it was so exciting to me as a child – and it's 100% why I'm doing what I'm doing now."

While her style is largely informed by traditional sushi practices, those familial influences suffuse Ouimette's ethos within and beyond the kitchen. "My style and the way I present the food is a little bit different," she says. "The traditional form of sushi is my passion, but I also grew up cooking Ukrainian and Italian, and I went to culinary school – which is European-based, and mostly focused on French cuisine – and I bring those influences to my food as well. We have a comfortable atmosphere, and the chefs and myself love meeting new people and introducing new food – there's nothing pretentious about the space."

After partaking of Sushi|Bar's 17-course omakase, served up in the elegant Bento Picnic niche by a team of genial professionals glad to share their own stories and hear those of guests while the curated bites are being sliced and assembled and torched and sauced and sprinkled, we're glad to corroborate that assertion. And to report that there's nothing pretentious about talented chef Ambrely Ouimette, either.

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