Derek Feldman didn’t want to go into food. Not initially. He loved sports, studied sports management, graduated with the intention of going into the business of sports. But then he got sidelined. Put up in the hospital with an illness that would set him back for the better part of two years. It was a fortuitous hiccup, one that would lead to the work he is known for today. After getting out of the hospital, he was confronted with the realization that he didn’t know what he wanted to do anymore. So he booked a flight to Southeast Asia and backpacked his way around. He came back to the States, then turned around and did it again. When he returned for the second time, he had a plan: hospitality.
Since his traveling epiphany, Feldman has quickly cut his teeth in the New York City restaurant scene. In 2016, he opened Sushi on Jones, a compact six-seat sushi spot in the Bowery Market that serves up a legit omakase experience for just $58. (Only caveat: you have to be in and out in 30 minutes. No big deal.) The following year, Feldman opened up Uchū, an intimate and glossy 10-seat omakase joint on the Lower East Side, which, we must add, is just a two-minute walk from SIXTY LES. Unlike Sushi on Jones, this is a place you can settle in and stay awhile. And you’ll definitely want to. Chef Eiji Ichimura, previously of the celebrated Ichimura at Brushstroke and Ichimura, runs the counter, where you’ll find him sliding delicious dish after delicious dish down the blonde wood bar.
For Feldman’s latest project, Don Wagyu, opened this year, he splits the difference between luxury and speed. The fast-casual FiDi restaurant delivers a special Japanese sandwich called wagyu katsu sando, wherein thick slabs of pink beef are pressed between thin slices of toasted white bread. Diners can opt for decadence on a sliding scale: there’s an American-Japanese version for $28, a Miyazaki option for $80, or a $180 Ozaki beef for those feeling spendy. Which, considering its proximity to Wall Street, some certainly might be.
Feldman might not have gone into sports, but there is certainly something athletic in the way he has approached his work. He swings for the fences, and he does not slow down running into home. Below, Feldman takes us into Uchū to talk gluten-free sandos, monthly steak runs, and taking cues from Japan when it comes to quality ingredients.
Where’d you grow up?
Great Neck, New York.
Was your family into food at all?
No, not at all.
What was your favorite meal as a kid?
My grandma’s stuffed peppers.
What restaurant did you frequent in those early years?
I pretty much just grew up going to the local Italian joint called Bevanda, and we would go to Peter Luger’s location in Great Neck one Sunday a month.
Why do you think your backpacking trips through Southeast Asia pointed you in the direction of hospitality?
My trip to Southeast Asia helped me to find myself during a time in my life where I was very lost. The hospitality in Asia was like no other I’ve ever experienced in different parts of the world — from the way I was treated as a customer to the different types of cuisine I ended up falling in love with. It didn’t matter if I was at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant or a five-star resort, the hospitality was always consistent, which really drew me to a career in this field.
What was your first impression on your initial trip to Japan?
My first impression was “wow.” Every area I traveled to, I was more and more blown away. The food was by far the best I’ve ever had. The amount of respect they have for their culture, the ingredients, and the amount of care they put into each and every dish really impressed me.
What was your most memorable sushi memory there?
During my first trip, I landed at 3:30 in the morning and was experiencing jet lag, so I decided to check out a sushi restaurant across the street. The restaurant was nothing special, but it was serving omakase for $26. It was some of the best fish I ever had. That’s where the idea of Sushi on Jones came from: high quality omakase that’s also affordable.
Where you expecting Sushi on Jones to be as successful as it was?
I had hopes it was going to be successful – I didn’t know it was going to happen as fast as it did. Omakase at that price point didn’t exist yet in New York, and I knew that if I could bring it to the city and go through the amount of volume needed to get the price of the fish down, the concept would take off. That’s part of the reason why we chose Bowery Market, because I knew it was the right location for a model like this.
What was the impetus for the Uchū concept?
I wanted to create an experience that had two different offerings in one restaurant. Although Uchū opened after Sushi on Jones, it was my first idea for a restaurant concept when I returned from Southeast Asia. I wanted to open a restaurant that made you feel transported into a Tokyo-style restaurant. That’s why we named it Uchū, which is Japanese for universe.
When did you try your first wagyu katsu sando?
I never tried one in Japan due to my celiac. One day at Uchū, I was recipe testing with chef Samuel Clonts, and he made a wagyu katsu sando using gluten-free bread and gluten-free panko crust – it was amazing. That was part of my inspiration for opening Don Wagyu, along with being able to offer something so popular in Japan that hasn’t really been done in the United States before.
How important is the quality of meat you make for your own?
Much like Japanese culture, we focus on only the finest ingredients. It wasn’t easy getting our current wagyu provider to sell us the quality of beef we were looking for, but we got really lucky and are fortunate to have one of the only dedicated restaurants doing wagyu sandos. It was also important to me to make sure that we provided gluten-free options at Don Wagyu. We have a fully dedicated fryer for gluten-free flour and panko crust, so anyone with a gluten intolerance can indulge in the same quality as a regular sando.
Best piece of fish you’ve tasted so far at Uchū:
Chef Eiji Ichimura gave me a six-week-aged toro belly tuna – I still have that taste in my mouth.
Whiskey you’re sipping on at the bar:
To be honest, I’m just getting into the Japanese whiskey game. There’s a huge range of Japanese whiskeys out there, and we’re very lucky to have a large variety at Uchū (more than 100 different bottles), so every time I’m sitting at the bar, I try something new to expand my palate.
What’s the hardest part about running a restaurant in New York City?
Finding the right staff is so important, and also so challenging. They are an extension of your brand, and without our chefs and staff, it’s difficult to have a successful restaurant.
And what’s the most rewarding?
The most rewarding part for me is seeing how happy people are when they sit down at our bar and take their first bite of our food. I love watching the silence that falls upon them and the smiles that form on their faces. I also genuinely love hosting and serving people. There’s a sense of gratification that I get by bringing together a great group of people and sharing a quality meal. It’s truly priceless.