LA Chef Ernesto Uchimura

(Originally published November 28, 2012 on Examiner.com).

NOTE: Chef Ernesto Uchimura left Plan Check in the spring of 2016

Nearly half of all American consumers eat a burger a week. With such a large consumer base, it’s no wonder why there are so many different burger concepts at various price points to satiate this hunger. From the value menu to haute gourmet cuisine, the Los Angeles region is well represented at all these pricing levels. Los Angeles also has a long history of embellishing the burger, in the past adding cheese and, more recently, up scaling the burger with better cuts of meat and different seasonings. At the forefront of this up scaling the burger trend, Plan Check Kitchen + Bar‘s Executive Chef Ernesto Uchimura continues to create recipes and utilize modernist cooking techniques to further innovate with what can be done to perfect this humble American comfort food as well as other items on his new restaurant’s menu.

French trained at Paul Smith’s College in Upstate New York, and with jobs working in various Los Angeles kitchens (including Napa Valley Grille, Meson G’s tapas style cuisine under the direction of Josef Centino, Opus and as Executive Chef at the closed Santa Monica’s Punch Grille), Uchimura’s training brings a different broader perspective to this burger concept segment. Born in Argentina to a Jewish Argentine mother, and a Japanese Argentine father, Ernesto Uchimura’s heritage also influences his approach to grilling meats, blending ingredients and creating what Uchimura refers to as “modern American comfort food” drawing from the influences of many of America’s immigrants.

After Punch Grill closed, a brief two month stint cooking burgers at a tavern, positioned Uchimura well for his next endeavor as executive chef for Umami Burger where he shared an appreciation for Heston Blumethal‘s techniques (as well as Blumethal’s book “Dashi and Umami: The Heart of Japanese Cuisine“) with Umami’s owner Adam Fleischman. Borrowing from the notion of Michel Richard‘s lobster burger, Fleischman had a concept for a gourmet burger, not nostalgic, but forward thinking with different flavor profiles utilizing umami to appeal to a slightly more upscale clientele to pair with wines rather than drink with soda. But since Fleischman isn’t a chef, a week before the first Umami Burger opened; Fleischman hired Uchimura who, in turn with Fleishman’s approval, developed this concept burger’s recipes and operation procedures. As Umami expanded, Uchimura scouted locations, established a commissary kitchen and further developed standards. However, after Fleischman joined forces with SBE, Fleischman decided to go a different direction with his management and changes were made.

Learning lessons, especially regarding business and negotiations, from his experiences with Fleischman,Ernesto Uchimura has now moved forward with a new business partner, Terry Heller on their new concept Plan Check Kitchen + Bar. Heller, who is in charge of sourcing financing and branding, provided the concept’s name inspired by the location’s proximity to the LADBS offices sharing the same block on Sawtelle at the end of Little Osaka not far from where Uchimura briefly attended a Japanese school as a young child.

Uchimura at Plan Check Kitchen + Bar isn’t just building upon what he developed in his prior gig atUmami; he’s taking it to the next level with further innovation like a true modernist chef with all of the layers of a burger and by taking a different menu approach. Moreover, he’s introduced other foods like donuts and fried chicken, each of which he sees as potential spins offs from the core concept for future concepts as the brand expands.

The meat blends are ground on location multiple times a day. This meat blend from two choice cuts is always changing based on product availability to get the best flavor, mineral content, texture, and right kind of intramuscular fat, a fat that adds flavor but doesn’t cause the burger to shrink as much as it does from other capped fat cuts. These blended meat grinds strands are kept parallel then cut across the grain when cut and formed into patties for a better and more even bite plus consumption. American cheese is home made with great tasting global cheeses to get both sharp tangy flavors, in addition to the melting properties that most consumers prefer. Crisp wafers made of cheddar add additional flavor and texture providing the correct balance of umami on the burger. Onions caramelized in chicken schmaltz draw upon Uchimura’s Jewish roots imparting comforting flavors. And, of course, the de-saturated ketchup leather, that has won admiration from critic Jonathan Gold, and solved Blumethal’s issues with a soggy bun, creates an edible moisture barrier between the meat’s juices and the bread.

Plan Check Kitchen + Bar’s core burger menu is limited to three items. This limitation allows for an emphasis on specials. Uchimura envisions expansion at forthcoming locations to include chefs who, with this specials emphasis, will have a creative outlet for their cooking talent. Unlike his prior burger gig, Uchimura doesn’t just want managers whose primary concern is production in control of the cooking line.

But the Sawtelle Avenue flagship location isn’t just about burgers. Other comfort items included on themenu include pot roast, fried chicken and donuts for desert. Plus the full bar features both savory cocktails and crafted beers to pair with the different flavors of these menu offerings. Paying homage to the Little Osaka neighborhood, a full line of Japanese whiskeys are also available. Thus the location functions as both a fast casual and a sit down gastro pub.

With leases for additional locations currently being negotiated, the brand Plan Check will be coming to other Los Angeles neighborhoods soon. As Uchimura sees the business plan evolving, the different food components of the brand allow for Plan Check spin offs like Plan Check Burgers, Plan Check Chicken and Plan Check Donuts as sit downs, fast casuals or QSR’s. Uchimura firmly believes that with better methods, ingredients and production, he can leap frog other concepts in these crowded food segments by providing a better- not run of the mill- product at a price point that is both affordable and aspirational. With the many lessons Uchimura has already learned don’t be surprised to see the brand grow and succeed not only in Los Angeles, but elsewhere as well.

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