Omaha chef ditched ‘familiar trappings’ in his restaurants. Now he’s a James Beard Award finalist

May 26, 2023, 7 a.m. ·

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Chef David Utterback works the sushi counter at Yoshitomo in 2019 during a collaboration with chef Hiroyuki Sato. Yoshitomo is one of three restaurants Utterback, Nebraska’s first James Beard Award finalist, has opened in Omaha since 2017. Joshua Foo Photography for the Flatwater Free Press

The first thing a person notices when spending time with chef David Utterback is that he’s constantly in motion.

He rearranges the bottles behind the counter at his new six-seat high-end sushi counter, Ota, which sits next to his wildly popular Omaha sushi restaurant, Yoshitomo. He stacks and re-stacks boxes of ingredients. He paces. He tears open and sifts several bags of flour that he’s planning to use for a new dish, his version of tempura, something he’s hoping to add to the chefs tasting menu he’s become known for.

The movement is the same when he’s preparing for a night of service or running the sushi counter at Yoshitomo. And it’s appropriate, because Utterback’s career as a chef has also been one of constant movement – building his knowledge of the best sushi, mastering it, then breaking those rules and starting all over again.

Not so long ago, Utterback was a corporate chef, near the top of one of Omaha’s largest restaurant groups. Now, he runs Yoshi, a decidedly non-corporate spot with a menu unlike any other in Nebraska.

He was one of the first chefs to introduce omakase, a chef-driven, multi-course sushi tasting, to the state. He’s the first person in Nebraska to open a restaurant, Koji, focused on Japanese yakitori, grilled meat served on skewers. Now, with Ota, he’s running arguably the most exclusive dining spot in the state.

And this spring, Utterback, a one-time video game salesman, earned another first: He became Nebraska’s first-ever James Beard finalist for best chef in the Midwest.

The James Beard winners – the food world’s equivalent to the Oscars – will be announced June 5. Utterback will be buying his first real suit and getting on a plane to Chicago to be at the awards in person.

His journey to get here, which included a pink slip resulting from his own creativity and a risky bet on his own talent, has twisted and turned for more than a decade. He’s taking diners along for the ride.

“Getting rid of the familiar trappings of a sushi bar, like we did at Yoshitomo, forced guests into an uncomfortable place,” he said. “I rolled the dice, and I bet that we were too midwestern nice to get up and leave.”

The gamble worked.

Utterback had returned from a 2009 trip to Tokyo and was working as a chef at Blue Sushi Sake Grill, part of the Omaha-based Flagship Restaurant Group, when he decided he was going to have his own omakase.

He set up a corner of a counter at Blue in Omaha’s Old Market, with four seats, and he sent out some emails to let people know they could walk in.

Two people showed up: Utterback’s friend and tattoo artist, Devin Ferguson, and his wife, Sarah Ferguson.

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Customers line the sushi counter at Yoshitomo in Omaha’s Benson neighborhood during a private dinner in 2019. Despite dropping some of the familiar elements of a traditional American sushi restaurant, including the neon green blobs of wasabi, Yoshitomo has proven wildly popular. Joshua Foo Photography for the Flatwater Free Press

“We got there at 9 p.m. on Sunday,” Ferguson remembers, “and Dave said ‘Thank God! I have been here for 72 hours doing nothing’.”

Ferguson remembers it differently than Utterback. “I know that from his perspective he shakes his head with embarrassment, but I became an instant superfan.”

Ferguson remembers the experience of having a chef’s total attention, something he’d never felt. Utterback had already begun building his knowledge base of where all the ingredients came from and what made them special. Ferguson knew other people in Omaha would want the same experience.

Utterback kept running those dinners at Blue, even as he ascended to corporate sushi chef.

Then he started running a steady side gig of pop-up omakase dinners at restaurants his friends ran: Le Bouillon; Au Courant; Hook and Lime; the now-closed Ugly Duck Ramen.

Then Blue let him go, after 12 years. The reason? Too much time spent on pop-up dinners.

“I was blindsided, hurt and terrified,” he said. “Looking back it was the right business decision at the time. I wanted to go left and the ship was headed to the right.” (For the record, Utterback said he’s “still quite friendly” with the owners of Flagship.)

He kept his pop-up dinners going because they were now his sole source of income. And because he knew he needed to get better.

“I knew that the fish and the techniques, they were just not there,” he said.

He had a realization during that period: He didn’t want to work for someone else. He wrote a business plan, and started shopping it around.

“No one bit on it, until my buddy, who is also the guitar player in my band, put his parents' house up against a small bank loan,” Utterback said. “Then I found the closed Subway in Benson.”

The shuttered sandwich shop was a mess, he said. “The basement was flooded. Wires were hanging from the ceiling. They had just left all the Subway sauces in the walk-in cooler and turned it off.”

That night, Utterback said he signed up for five zero-percent interest credit cards.

Yoshitomo opened its doors in October 2017. Utterback didn’t have a sign, a staff or an inch of wiggle room.

“At any given time I’d have a couple hundred dollars in the bank account,” he said. “It was really scary.”

Guests came in with an idea of what a sushi restaurant is, because most American sushi restaurants do things the same way.

“We have ritualistic eating habits,” he said. “You know, rubbing chopsticks together, wasabi in the soy sauce, miso soup. I just, I hated that. I wanted to be the opposite of that.”

First he took the bottles of soy sauce off the tables. Then he took away the pickled ginger and balls of wasabi. He thought people would be mad.

Nothing happened.

They got rid of the traditional, well known sushi rolls and replaced them with rolls Utterback created. It forced diners to ask questions, change their expectations, become adventurous.

All that time, Utterback was scouring Instagram, looking at other sushi counters and glimpsing the products they used. He started ordering from some of the higher-end producers he found online or learned of through other sushi chefs.

“It’s come from lots of long, drawn out intense investigative work,” he said. “No one taught me. As I started doing my own omakase, and learning how to do actual Tokyo style sushi techniques, those translated into the restaurant.”

Eventually he took those omakase dinners on the road to St. Louis and Kansas City, where he met chef Nick Goellner, who runs The Antler Room. Goellner recently hosted a pop-up izakaya night with Utterback in Kansas City. He also traveled to Omaha specifically to eat at one of Utterback’s omakase nights.

The Kansas City chef says it’s hard to source ingredients, like some vegetables, in the Midwest. He can’t imagine what it’s like to source the main ingredients in sushi.

“The main product he’s using is seafood … that can go bad very fast and needs to be treated very delicately,” Goellner said. “To open a place like that with the quality of ingredients he uses is a big gamble.”

During an interview as the Beard Awards neared, Utterback said he’s supposed to be working on some new dishes for Yoshitomo. But instead, he can’t stop thinking about the tempura he wanted to make for the omakase menu. He worries aloud about skyrocketing fish costs that have forced him to raise his prices. He’s been spending a lot of time, he says, thinking about “Yoshi 2.0.”

Yes, Dave Utterback is thinking about breaking the restaurant that helped him become a James Beard finalist.

“I get bored very easily. And once I get bored of it, I think that everyone else is, too. So I need to break it,” he said.

The newest idea? No more sushi rolls, at all, on the Yoshitomo menu. It hasn't happened yet, but he’s thinking about it.

Goellner said what makes Yoshitomo great is that every time a diner visits, it’s consistent, and Utterback never seems to get caught up in his own environment.

Often – too often, Goellner thinks – chefs say they can’t do something creative, something singular, in a city like Omaha. Utterback doesn’t think that, Goellner said. Instead, he thinks: How do I make an awesome sushi restaurant?

“To be able to forget all the noise about who lives where and how hard it is to get this or that, that takes a lot of guts,” Goellner said. “That is what makes it spectacular.”

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