There's no better time to be a sushi lover in NYC. From inexpensive L.A. transplants to super high-end omakase experiences, it feels like there's a new spot to enjoy top-quality raw fish opening nearly every day. Including Sushi By Bae, a tiny, four-seat omakase restaurant run by Oona Tempest in partnership with Sushi By Bou, David Bouhadana's 30-minute, $50 omakase in Gansevoort Market. Tempest—who apprenticed with Toshio Oguma at Tanoshi Sushi—serves a $100 omakase tasting menu of fish flown in from Japan (along with some Spanish tuna) from the intimate space located in the back of the market.
Gender parity in professional kitchens is a huge issue in the industry and one that's particularly apparent in the world of sushi. With some notable exceptions, women simply aren't present behind sushi counters, thanks in part to some ludicrously sexist "ideas" about why women are unfit to make sushi. And while Tempest and others wish they could be appreciated solely for their merits, at this time, it's impossible to ignore their status in a world so dominated by men.
We spoke with Tempest about the oddness of being "one of the few," the continued rise of sushi in NYC, and why feeling the fish is so important as both a chef and a diner.
You were serving at Tanoshi Sushi and were plucked from that role and brought behind the counter. Can you talk about what that experience was like for you? I was an art student and was loving that and while I was still in school I started waitressing, as many people do. I just got lucky with working at Tanoshi. While I was doing that, in order to be a server, you have to be informed of what you're serving, especially in a sushi restaurant. I just started to research the fish and that led to the history of the fish. My customers were really well-informed people and they would ask me questions and, at the beginning, I didn't know a lot of them. So I would look into their questions and it just sort of snowballed from there.
Was there a particular moment when you were asked to come back behind the counter and start actually handling the fish? Tanoshi's a really, really lovely place; chef Oguma's an extremely lovely person. He was very welcoming to all of the staff to experiment on Saturday nights before we were closed for the weekend to make staff meal, which means learning how to cut fish and hold a knife and things like that. I was allowed to play around but then it just felt really natural. Artistically, sushi is like sculpture a little bit. Sculpture plus knife work. It just felt very natural.
How long was your apprenticeship? It was about three years.
Is that an average length of time? My difficulty answering that is because I'm in New York City and my training is in New York City. In New York City, people told me that three years is a long time to stay anywhere and that you should be moving on quicker than that. But in Japan, an apprenticeship is a minimum of 10 years. It's a different system here. My master and I had a mutual understanding that people move on into the world.
Did you seek his approval to say, 'Go out on your own.'" Of course! No matter what happens he's my master, it's how it would be for anyone who goes through an apprenticeship.
How did Sushi by Bae come about? Well, David [Bouhadana] and I had been friends for quite a few years and we've been talking about trying to find the right time to work together. We just ended up being at the right place at the right time with an open amount of time before us. He was going to do Sushi by Bou and I was going to join him being the counterpart to that, doing the $100 omakase portion. And we thought, "Well what do we name it?" And we thought we could call it Sushi by Bae, that would be really cute. It was sort of a light-hearted idea.
What exemplifies the style of omakase that you're serving? I was trained in the edomae style, but again, in New York City, edomae is another one of those terms that chefs take very, very seriously, so I don't want to claim that I'm doing strictly edomae, because I'm not. I'm doing as close as I can with what I know. That style comes from the 1800s, Edo period, when there was no refrigeration so all the fish is cured. Whether it's vinegar, or kombu, or salt, or sugar, or cherry blossom leaves, or miso, or...you name it. There's all these different preparation methods that are used to preserve the fish, enhance the flavor. They're all pure; it's all one ingredient that's added, it's not a bunch of ingredients that we have today in the world when you think of adding flavors to fish or adding flavors to anything. This is just pure miso...kombu; that's it.
That preparation takes time, it's thoughtful. You have to really understand what you're working with; you have to understand the seasons, you have to understand the fattiness of the fish—or lack of fat—or shellfish, etcetera. I wanted to essentially just do what I know, in this project, because that's all you can do. I'm presenting the style of sushi that I've learned in my training so far between Tanoshi and Ginza Onodera and from snips here between that you gain through life experience. There are so many sushi bars in the city now, I'm just presenting one style.
You mentioned what you've learned "so far"; do you consider this a lifelong training and learning? Do you think that there's ever an end point or is it a constant learning process? Exactly, it's a constant learning process. One of the fears that anyone has going out on their own for the first time is, "Oh my gosh I don't have someone above me that's teaching me. How am I going to learn more? What am I going to do?"
But you find very quickly that you still are learning a massive amount just working by yourself. It's a whole different thought process. Organizational skills...what do you do if you get a fish and it's not good quality? Now I'm building my relationship with the person I order my fish from and now he knows exactly what to send me and what not to send me.
Do you consider this restaurant as a jumping off point? What are you hoping for long term? The long-term goal for any of us in this business is to have your own successful restaurant. That's the main dream. But as of right now, just starting this restaurant is like having a kid or something. Right now I have a five week old baby and I can't even think beyond taking care of it every single day!
Since you started your training and opened this restaurant, have you encountered skepticism because you're a woman in the industry? Yes. Although honestly, I experienced it, but it never really bothered me because I knew going into this that, a) I'm not Japanese and b) I'm female. I knew there were going to be these obstacles, so I was sort of ready for it. No matter what, at the end of the day, if I made you a delicious piece of food, I made you a delicious piece of food and that's what's important. I just want to make sushi.
Have you met other women in the industry? Is that a common thing in New York City or in Japan? I know there is a woman at Sushi Daizen right now. She's been doing sushi for years. Eri Sugimoto, a Japanese woman. I never actually got to speak with her, I just know of her.
It's probably hard to feel like you're representative of some bigger kind of thing. Exactly, that's a thing too. It's strange being one of the few. I'm sure that will change very soon in the future.
There are so many places opening now offering the omakase sushi experience. Do you see an upward trajectory of places like yours opening or people are just more aware now? Even in the past five years that I've been in this industry there's been a huge wave of sushi. It's beautiful for us. Yes, there's more competition, but not in a negative way. It's just like, "Oh my gosh, we're doing this weird silver fish and it's like...oh, everyone's okay with this now! We can do this now!" So it's really exciting for us as chefs because everyone wants to see what we can do and no one's holding back anymore. The more the better, I think.
People aren't just going out for spicy tuna rolls anymore, it's about really engaging with your food. To that end, when you're sourcing your fish, are you taking what's available or are you looking for certain types of fish you know you want? I get what's in season. So my fish man comes to me with a very long sheet of paper that says this is what is available from Tsukiji Fish Market right now that's in season. Based off of that list I prepare my menu for the week. All of our fish orders from Japan have to be made a week in advance. Every week it's a little bit different; one fish falls out of season, one fish comes into season. You just keep going on this cycle.
Do you find that education and a dialogue with the diners is as much a part of your work life as the actual physical creation of these pieces? Absolutely. I think that's what I fell in love with first back when I was a waitress, just getting to talk to customers about this cuisine that I really have a passion for. It's like for any person in the world, everyone wants to talk about what they love with someone else, it doesn't matter what it is. Everyone just wants to share their passion. For me it's great, it's half the fun.
It's such a unique experience to literally be one-on-one. A lot of chefs are in the kitchen and maybe don't get to speak with diners. But you have this great stage, this interpersonal relationship. Was that something you felt nervous about at first but maybe are more comfortable with now? It was different working with my master because he comes from very classical training. I was supposed to be more quiet. I was supposed to talk but it was a different atmosphere than here where I'm by myself. Obviously it's a bit more loose. As long as the customers enjoy it, I enjoy it. Part of my job is reading them. Some people don't really want to be talked to, just want to be on their date, enjoy their food, go home. And that's fine! Some people really want to talk to me, that's fine too. It's not up to me, it's up to them.
Photography is such a huge part of dining culture. Is there an etiquette you see people breaking in not eating something immediately? Should people be more aware that there's an expiration on this; if you're not going to eat it in the few seconds after you've created it, something is lost? Is that something you think about or is it just part of what happens now and you can't control it? It is something I think about. The most important thing for me is that my customers enjoy their experience, and if that means taking a picture, taking five pictures, they're more than welcome to. The whole thing is for them, it's not for me. What I will do is that, if the sushi sits there for too long, I'll take it back and remake the rice so that it's warm. They'll still get a delicious bite but they will have gotten their picture, too. I don't mind making that sacrifice because at the end of the day, it's for them, not for me.
Your business partner David Bouhadana has been very critical of the city's rules about wearing gloves while preparing sushi. Where do you fall on the issue? I'm right by his side for that. In Japan, you go and you see how the masters work there; we're doing the same thing here now. But our Department of Health does not know what their Department of Health knows. We work around it for sure. I wouldn't ever do anything that would put my customers are risk, that's absurd. We're chefs—the customers are the most important thing! I make food to make people feel better at the end of the night, that's the point, that's what we do.
Feeling the fish, feeling the rice and knowing the texture is such a huge part of what you do. Exactly. I do the majority of the work myself, but I do have people to help me scale fish and sometimes I have to run my finger over the back of the skin to find a scale. But I need to feel that, it's dangerous, I have to feel it. In conclusion, it's a matter of safety. I feel more safe not wearing gloves than I do wearing gloves.
How long does it take to prep for one meal service? It depends on how many fish I get in that day, but I usually come here between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. Standard day for a sushi chef. I do everything myself. I order my own rice and make my own vinegar, which is separate from Bou. I make my own nikiri soy—which is the soy that we brush over the fish—by myself. I make my own marinades, I have five different vinegars that I use for different fish. So all of that I'm handling, maintaining by myself. It's a wonderful, fun, one-woman show that is definitely a lot of work and keeps me very busy.
What is the etiquette for chopsticks versus hands? Is it just personal preference? I do really push the use of hands because you get a full sensory experience when you eat with your hands. You feel the warmth of the rice, you feel the weight of the fish, you feel the oil or you feel the skin. All of that knowledge immediately goes into you subconsciously before you eat it, so it makes it a little bit more tantalizing, more intimate.
You can use your chopsticks, too. It was traditional a long time ago for women specifically to use chopsticks. It was "more polite." If people feel more comfortable that way, that's fine. Whatever they're happiest with that's the end of it, but I do suggest using your hands so you get more going on.
How does your background in art play into your business? I used to just doodle this cartoon catfish all the time. We were trying to think of a logo for Sushi by Bae because Bou was this gorgeous fish. I was trying to think of what I could use and I guess I could use the catfish because I've been holding on to it. It's so funny but it reflects our whole leaping into this as a project between close friends and the energy of the market, which is this great place that we're bringing color and light into. All really positive vibes here.
Where do you fall on tipping? In Japan there's no tipping; in New York there is. Honestly, I don't think about it, I don't look at it; it's not about the money for me. As long as I can open the next day I'm happy...as long as I can be open and feed my cats I'm happy.
Sushi By Bae is located inside Gansevoort Market at 353 West 14th Street; sushibybae.com