An impish smirk stretches across his cheeks as Dustin Atoigue remembers his first foray into a kitchen. Growing up in Guam, one of seven siblings, he was tasked with helping his grandmother put the nightly dinner on the family table. Initially his assignment was singular and simple: scale and gut the fresh fish she served almost daily. “It wasn’t fun,” he confesses. “But I did it and soon after I knew that all I wanted to do was cook.”
Did he ever. After a few stints in local Guam restaurants, Atoigue left home at 18 to attend the Le Cordon Bleu culinary school in Los Angeles. He graduated and, by the time he was 22, landed his first executive chef job at Catal, a high-end eatery in LA’s Downtown Disney. By 24, The Ritz-Carlton caught wind of the rising star and brought him to their Puerto Rico property. He stayed on the island for five years, becoming a caterer to local stars and himself a bit of a celeb chef, then moved to Las Vegas, where he helmed several kitchens (like Stack at the famous Mirage hotel, where he says his menu is still served).
Now 31, Atoigue has opened more than seven restaurants around the world, which made him uniquely qualified to receive a certain call earlier this year from the team behind revered Master Sushi Chef Katsuya Uechi and his famous design partner, Philippe Starck, who were opening a South Beach outpost of their illustrious sushi chain, Katsuya by Starck. They wanted Atoigue to do the honors. “It’s not often you get to work for someone like Katsuya. There are only a few master sushi chefs in the world and he’s one of them,” Atoigue says. “When we met, he told me one thing: there must be no compromising on the food. It must be perfect.”
They are words Atoigue takes seriously every day. “If French chefs are famous for being picky and wanting everything a certain way,” he says, “Japanese chefs are that much more.” Which means the dishes his kitchen is now serving went through a rigorous two-month testing period in which each recipe was made over and over and over to make sure they were just right. It also means that while his title may be executive chef—a rank that for many means they supervise and don’t actually cook— Atoigue still steps into the line on many nights to sauté, roll and plate dishes himself. That’s earned him a nickname among his staff: “Mr. Can Do It All.” From making delicate sashimi platters to preparing intricate specialty sushi rolls to mashing the freshly made wasabi, Atoigue believes “it’s important to be able to work every position in the kitchen, to know how to do it all. How else can you teach people to do the jobs?”
With business now humming at Katsuya, Atoigue is also working on opening another Katsuya outpost at the American Airlines Arena by November. (Though it will be called Hyde, it will feature the Katsuya menu.) All in, it makes for long days and nights that stretch until 1 or 2 a.m. So what does a hungry chef eat after a marathon workday, when guests have left and the kitchen is winding down? “I go to the fryer and make myself a hamachi collar,” he says, referring to that impossibly tender and flavorful piece of yellowtail that once was discarded but that’s recently become the rage among enlightened eaters. Not a bad detail to know since the Katsuya menu makes this tantalizing promise to guests: “Do not hesitate to ask staff or management about off-menu treasures.” —BCW
Katsuya, SLS Hotel, 1701 Collins Avenue, Miami Beach; 305-455-2995; sbe.com/katsuya/south-beach.