Kyōten, Logan Square’s eight-seat sushi haunt that served some of the city’s most ambitious omakase, has been a small operation since it first landed in Chicago in 2018. An outpost of Austin, Texas’s popular Kyōten Sushiko, the restaurant has operated with a small staff of three, including chef and owner Otto Phan. That is, until March when the novel coronavirus lead to shuttered dining rooms across the city.
Now, Kyōten — an Eater Chicago 38 member — is nearly a one-man band: Phan has always managed both the culinary and business sides of the operation, but now he has just one assistant who travels to and from the restaurant by Uber, paid for by Phan.
The transition from an intimate and specialized sushi experience to packed up to-go bento boxes may seem dramatic, but Phan sees his small operation and skill-focused attitude as a boon during tough financial times: “Some chefs feel hobbled by having to do takeout — I don’t,” he says. “Quite frankly, I don’t need the best ingredients to make great sushi. There’s a skill level and a craftsmanship level that I’ve fortunately worked on and mastered and invested in over the years. I can make delicious food without needing the creme de la creme of everything.”
There are some drawbacks: at this stage Phan is the restaurant, and he has to vigilantly protect his own health and wellbeing. There’s also a limited number of boxes he can reasonably produce, especially while maintaining the high level of craftsmanship that sets him apart from other sushi spots in Chicago. “I can’t just have the restaurant continue on while I go on vacation,” he says. “But I can survive coronavirus — I can survive five coronaviruses, to be honest.”
The boxes, available on Tock for pickup, serve several purposes — they allow Phan some flexibility, featuring a $120 “chef’s selection” of nigiri, oshizushi, rolls, tamago, and soup that varies slightly from week to week. He’s even offering a California roll that stars rice mixed with akazu, a rare and prized aged red vinegar that takes around a decade to properly produce. “This would be incredibly sacrilegious in the high end sushi world, but... being sacrilegious isn’t something I care too much about these days,” Phan acknowledges in a Facebook post. He also donates $20 from each box to the Chicago Community COVID-19 Response Fund, and says he’s happy to be able to promote a charity rather than ask for donations to a GoFundMe. Unsurprisingly, the boxes tend to sell out quickly.
COVID-19 has brought about some changes for the restaurant. Phan says his priorities have notably shifted toward “survival mode,” after six months of what he refers to as “frivolous” spending. He was in the midst of a design upgrade for the restaurant, and was bringing in wild Japanese fish while charging $220 per person for about 20 bites. In comparison, Omakase Yume charges $125 for 17 courses, while Mako offers 25 courses for $175. Both are Michelin starred).
Phan thinks of bringing in high-end ingredients as part of his pursuit of his craftsmanship. Now he’s thinking more about finances and securing the restaurant’s future. He remains confident and upbeat, even referring to himself as the “luckiest chef in the world.” As an independent restaurant, he makes every decision. “I have every intention of making this restaurant better past coronavirus,” he says. “I’m very fortunate to be in a position not just to shoot for that goal, where most people are just trying to survive. I’m planning for the future.”