Today we’d like to introduce you to Ambrely Ouimette.
Hi Ambrely, we’re thrilled to have a chance to learn your story today. So, before we get into specifics, maybe you can briefly walk us through how you got to where you are today?
I was born in Greenwich, Connecticut and raised in Hudson Valley, New York. My earliest memories are all tied to the kitchen and food: growing up on a small farm miles from a traditional grocery store harvesting from a family garden; my grandmother instructing me how to hold a knife before she could see over the kitchen counter; watching cooking shows; learning the basics of cooking, baking, and realizing both the joy and necessity of providing meals for family and friends. In a household with Italian and Ukrainian roots, Sundays were spent cooking feasts to be enjoyed around the table, sparking my lifelong love of feeding people. It was difficult to work on the farm but so rewarding, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. We created a little self-sustaining oasis from nothing. I lied about my age to begin work in a pizza shop when I was just 14 and haven’t stopped working since.
During culinary school at SUNY Delhi, I learned to refine my craft and think on the fly during my time on the culinary competitive team. I found my passion in food was deeper than I knew, but I wanted to work. When I left, I took a job as a line cook at a busy seafood restaurant. Maybe it’s the poet in me or maybe the romantic, but it didn’t take long for me to recognize the grace and calm in the chaos I saw from the chefs in the sushi bar. It ignited a lifelong passion and deep-rooted sense of belonging that has lead me to spend over 15 years shaping my own vision of what sushi is.
It took months for me to be accepted as part of the sushi kitchen -proving my worth for the opportunity to assist, showing up early volunteering to help prepare wasabi, wash rice, and clean after service. I taught myself how to sharpen my knives in the traditional manner with whetstones, a technique that required hours of practice to master. I was finally promoted to apprenticeship, a yearlong training under the guidance of Chef Norio Ishii. Working with Nori-san helped to push both my personal and artistic boundaries. After this experience, I moved around chasing different dreams through some of the country’s most renowned seafood-focused kitchens, including Toro (New York City) and alongside the renowned Chef Nobu Matsuhisa (Matsuhisa Denver) and Chef Jason McLeod (Ironside Fish & Oyster), growing my understanding of the importance of seasonality and perfect seafood.
I spent years being trained traditionally, but my style has evolved to become uniquely my own: I want all of my guests to feel they are part of an intimate experience in an exploration of contemporary and unexpected flavors in a lively, inviting atmosphere. I want to create a collaborative atmosphere where the sushi blends the traditional art of sushi and my personal passion for unexpected flavor combinations and expressive interpretation.
Most recently, I helped to launch Sushi|Bar in Austin, TX, and helped onboard and educate staff for the Los Angeles and Montecito locations – the latter earning a Michelin Star in 2021. In 2021 I was named Executive Chef of Sushi|Bar ATX, where I redefined the 17-course, Omakase-style experience to be a departure from traditional stylings, featuring contemporary nigiri enhanced with a collection of personally crafted ferments, salts, koshōs, and unique condiments. All of these touches are my way of bringing my personal story and recalling back my upbringing, whether in Hudson Valley, Maine or travels in Europe. I’m dedicated to creating a hospitable space for more women to enter and feel welcomed from which they have long been shunned. My life’s work is to propel a sushi-interested sisterhood, providing a solace that I fought long to achieve.
We all face challenges, but looking back would you describe it as a relatively smooth road?
One of the most difficult challenges I faced when I came into the sushi world was relearning everything I had previously as a chef. Being trained traditionally throughout my youth with a western/European approach to food means the knife work is massively different. With sushi, not only is it entirely new equipment; everything from the shape of the knife to the direction of slicing knife cuts is different. I’ve also found that one of the recurring obstacles for me as a chef is repetition in daily routine. For chefs, repetition is soothing in most ways, it’s a constant reminder of how to better your daily organization and mise en place. It’s how I stay infatuated with my craft. The challenge is staying inspired in that repetition. Sushi is about respecting the tradition, perfecting the tradition. Certain fish always goes with ginger scallion, another fish, a specific technique — no exceptions.
As I learned, I was constantly being written off or not taken seriously for suggesting a break of that tradition. Watching a master sushi chef is like watching a ballet, every single moment has been practiced and repeated until it’s meticulous. The great challenge of my career will be to honor the tradition, the art form, the craft that takes years to master while also pushing myself creatively, continuing to challenge my customers’ palette and to inspire my coworkers. The industry has very strict guidelines on how to become a well-respected sushi chef, and there’s sort of a linear process to moving up. While sushi is an art form that needs to be learned, respected, and honored, I’ve found my style along the way and am dedicated to breaking out of the tradition box to bring my unique experience to the counter.
Another challenge I hesitate to mention carving out a place for myself in an industry that is and has historically been male dominant. I want to be known as a talented chef, not as a talented female chef. The kitchen has sometimes felt like a ‘boys club’, but I’ve always resolved to see this as a hurdle I can overcome. I find that taking my emotion or energy from what I’m feeling into my work helps. I’ve dealt with it all: disrespectful comments, being ignored, getting treated poorly by coworkers because the day prior, I performed well. It was/is a never-ending cycle, and some days it’s exhausting. It took years for me to learn to not get distracted by the noise. Why get distracted over something that I can not control? What I can control is the way I respond. I am a female chef. Hear me roar!
Alright, so let’s switch gears a bit and talk business. What should we know about your work?
Executive Chef at Sushi|Bar Austin, a contemporary take on omakase dining that revolutionizes the genre with an edgy infusion of full sensory experience. At Sushi|Bar, we provide an intimate exploration into the future of sushi, featuring ingredients served on fish flown in from the world’s best seafood markets paired with an array of house-made condiments, resulting in unexpected flavor profiles. We’ve got 10 counter seatings and new wave of 17 courses. We strive to create an unforgettable and exclusive dining experience here in Austin, TX.
Networking and finding a mentor can have such a positive impact on one’s life and career. Any advice?
I don’t believe mentorship is one-sided. It’s two people who commit to learning from and pushing one another. You can’t find a teacher if they are not willing to teach and you can’t find a student if they are not willing to learn. I have had one mentor in my professional career who I owe so much to. Chef Nori-san gave me a chance and took me under his wing as his apprentice. He trusted me and I trusted him. For years we were referred to as a double-headed dragons. He helped me because I loved the craft and saw a lot in me when at times, I couldn’t see myself. Many sushi chefs are very secretive with their lessons and techniques, and it takes years of training. You have to really want this job and put your soul into it to succeed. I encourage people to seek out someone that inspires you and learn from them. I hope to be a mentor to others in their craft as I continue on this journey and they on theirs.
- $300 pp
- Website: https://www.exploretock.com/sushibaraustin/
- Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/ambrely_marie/?hl=en
Chef in Chefs clothes (black shirt and chef apron) credit all LIAM BROWN. Remainder of images – credit: Ambrely Ouimette