Food & Drink | May 13, 2022 8:00 am

Meet the Chef Behind Austin’s Toughest Reservation

Ambrely Ouimette serves a creative 17-course tasting menu at the 10-seat Sushi|Bar

Chef Ambrely Ouimette
Chef Ambrely Ouimette
Liam Brown

Ambrely Ouimette was always interested in food. Some of her earliest memories date back to childhood, when she’d cook traditional dishes with her Ukrainian grandmother. “She was an amazing cook and a big influence for why I got into this field,” says Ouimette.

Her foray into the industry began at age 12, when she used her older sister’s work papers to score a job in a restaurant washing dishes. As a young teen, she sold hot dogs in New York. And by the time she was 16, she was training with sushi chefs at a seafood restaurant outside of Boston.

Today, the 31-year-old is the head chef at Sushi|Bar, an omakase restaurant in Austin whose 10 seats are some of the city’s most coveted — reservations for the month sell out less than a minute after opening, and the waitlist boasts thousands of diners. Getting to this point wasn’t easy; it’s a tale of navigating pirates, overcoming gender bias and carving out a niche in a profession that prides itself on tradition.

Ouimette compares her time at that Boston-area seafood restaurant to being the only female on a male-dominated pirate ship. “In the kitchen, everyone was loud and always swearing, but then I’d look over at the sushi chefs, and they were so clean and quiet. It was like watching ballet,” she says. For six months she asked them to teach her their ways, but they refused. “They were not keen on teaching a 16-year-old girl, but I kept showing up with my $12 knife I bought at the Asian market down the street.” After a while, they let her clean the sushi bar and make wasabi, eventually taking her on as an apprentice because of her commitment and desire to learn.

By the time she was 17, Ouimette was working for a restaurant group to open big, high-volume concepts on the east coast. She then consulted as a sushi chef in San Diego before moving to Denver to open Matsuhisa, the acclaimed restaurant from chef Nobu Matsuhisa. “This place was really focused on the craft of it, not just pushing out sushi to hundreds of people per night,” says Ouimette. “This was a big turning point in my career, and it really solidified that this is exactly what I want to do.”

Ouimette joined Sushi|Bar in early 2021. At first, she was brought on to consult and train the staff at the Austin restaurant, which is hidden within Bento Picnic, but she quickly took the helm as head sushi chef. 

Blue Fin, red miso, Everything bagel spice, fresh wasabi, house made 'nikiri' soy
Blue Fin, red miso, Everything bagel spice, fresh wasabi, house made ‘nikiri’ soy
Liam Brown

“This is the first time I’m not standing behind a male chef,” she says. “Many times, the men didn’t want to teach me and make me better. I’m in a position now to be the mentor I never had.”

Historically, sushi is a male-dominated field. This remains true particularly in Japan, but also stateside, where female chefs have made slow inroads, but the majority of sushi restaurants are still led by men. Tradition is partly to blame, but so are a couple of asinine old myths, like that women have higher body temperatures, which negatively impacts their handling of fish, and that a woman’s period throws off her ability to taste.

Ouimette hopes that her position helps to unravel some of those long-seated misconceptions and inspire more women to enter the profession. “It’s a lot to overcome. It’s frustrating and disheartening at times, but hopefully there will be more and more female sushi chefs. As long as women keep encouraging each other, there’s nothing that can stop us.”

With three seatings of 10 diners each night, Sushi|Bar is an intimate experience, where Ouimette and her staff’s skills are front and center.

“People are watching you closely, so you have to be on top of your game. There’s no room for error,” she says. But she loves the intimate format, where she can focus her attention on each dish and each diner. Those dishes include unique accents, like nigiri complemented by ferments, salts and koshōs, to put Ouimette’s personal spin on the omakase format.

“Traditional sushi is a beautiful thing, but often sushi is similar from place to place, and I don’t want to operate inside that box,” she says. “I like to infuse my own flavors to do something different, and those differences are what make people so excited and keep them coming back.”

That’s provided they can get a reservation. To help your chances, Ouimette suggests putting your name on the waitlist for multiple nights because there’s always a possibility that someone cancels. And follow the restaurant on Instagram to learn if tables open at the last minute.

“It’s worth the wait, I promise,” she says.