There are so many elements of Oona Tempest’s early life that revolve around the sea, perhaps she was destined to become a sushi chef. She grew up in coastal Massachusetts, her father a dentist whose real love was fishing. He died when she was a year old, but she grew up hearing about his passion: He wrote a book on fishing in New England and he was a regular winner at local derbies.
And then there’s her last name, chosen by her parents, one that evokes the power of Shakespeare’s Prospero, who promised both “calm seas” and “auspicious gales.”
“They wanted to give me strength,” she tells me recently.
Though she is just 26, she has parlayed that strength into an impressive career in the New York City sushi scene, despite significant obstacles: She did not train in Japan, as most sushi chefs have; she has battled a chronic illness, one that has, at times, prevented her from keeping up the intense pace typical in the restaurant world; and, oh yeah, she’s a white woman in a world mostly populated by Japanese men. Her latest venture is the third iteration of Sushi by Bae, originally a pop-up that, as of May, finally has a permanent home—as permanent as restaurant locations can get, anyway—just off Union Square.
But before all that, she was an aspiring artist. She grew up watching her mother express her creativity through art, and “fell in love with photography from the second I could hold a camera.” (Anyone who follows her Instagram feed won’t be shocked to hear that.)
That early experience led to a scholarship to the School of Visual Arts in New York, where she remembers falling in love with her time in the darkroom. “It’s so similar to sushi,” she tells me on an unseasonably chilly late April evening, two days before the opening of the current location. We’re sitting just outside the new space, which she shares with her longtime friend, David Bouhadana, and one of a few locations of his sushi counters, called Sushi by Bou.
“When you’re marinating a fish in vinegar, you know, smaller ones, it comes down to, like, the second,” continues Tempest, who is petite, with short-cropped dark hair and in moments has an impish Mona Lisa smile. “There’s 30 seconds where you really have to pay attention to and watch how the meat changes color. It’s the same thing when you’re developing a print. You have to know when to pull it out of the developer. You have to watch how the tones come to surface.
I suggested another similarity: that the personal imprint the photographer/sushi chef puts on the fish is mostly invisible to the consumer. “Yes! And you only get one chance at it,” she says. “With film photography you have to think about how you’re going to go about each image. Kind of the same way you’re dealing with each fish, because you can’t mess up on one fish and start over.”
Toward the end of her time at SVA, Tempest began waitressing at Tanoshi, a beloved sushi spot on the Upper East Side that was known for the creative, boldly conceived nigiri its chef, Toshio Oguma, put out then for a relatively low price, and its decor, which is equal parts unique (a handwritten specials menu on the wall, an annotated map of fish migration routes above the counter) and low-budget (the less said about the bathroom the better).
“I’m just trying to do exactly what Toshio trained me to do,” she says. “My practice is just so much more important to me now because that’s all I have from that era.”
It’s all she has because Oguma died last year after a battle with stomach cancer. Though Tempest was in touch with him until the end, his passing has taken time to sink in. Ironically, she had made her first trip to Japan with Bouhadana just before Oguma died.
“By the time I got back from Japan things had changed a lot,” she says. “I just saw him change very quickly.”
Oguma had provided Tempest’s entry into going behind the counter—and served as her mentor, both supportive and strict. “He was really serious with me. He wouldn’t take me on full time as an apprentice until I finished school,” she remembers him saying. “‘Then you need to promise that you’ll do this as your life profession.’”
Oguma was big on punctuality, and so Tempest was “the first in and the last out.” Slowly, she learned the craft. Oguma specialized in the edomae style of sushi—a tradition that developed in and around Tokyo (Edo is the former name of the Japanese capital) in the 19th century. It involves a surprising amount of manipulation of the fish before serving.
“There’s all these different methods of curing,” she says, “with kelp, with salt, with salt and sugar, with different kinds of vinegar.” She reached a new level of animation discussing the techniques. “Everything I’m trying to do is to bring out or preserve flavors.”
Tempest had held tight to that approach. She uses cherry blossom leaves to cure ishidai (Japanese barred knifejaw) and white miso as a marinade for sakura masu (Japanese cherry trout). She also has embraced Oguma’s dedication to the performative aspect of the sushi counter: Oguma was always a welcoming and informative host; so is Tempest, despite her generally subdued demeanor. “It’s just sushi that you get to do that with. Where else does a chef have a stage like that? That’s really what I love.”
It’s also one way in which the lack of a language barrier—something you find at most high-end sushi restaurants—pays off. “I get asked tons of technical questions that maybe people would want to ask, but don’t, other places,” she says. “Toshio was also very fluent in English, so he was accustomed and taught me to be very open, answering all those kinds of questions. I’m trying to keep that alive I guess, from where I first was. It’s that spirit of Tanoshi was unlike anything else. He wanted the customer to be very informed, and I think that’s a fantastic thing.”
Being a white female chef, though, has presented its challenges. “In the beginning I had a lot of customers that wouldn’t sit with me. Mainly, they didn’t want to sit with a non-Japanese chef,” she says. Toshio “was always standing up for me. He was like, ‘If she wasn’t good, I wouldn’t put her here. You don’t trust her, then that means you don’t trust me.’ That’s the kind of thing he would say.”
Challenges of a different sort lay ahead. After three years at Tanoshi, Tempest went to apprentice at Sushi Ginza Onodera, a high-end Manhattan outlet of a mini-chain that began with a beloved Tokyo location. “It was just a completely different experience,” she says. “I loved their style. And I got to work with chef [Masaki] Saito [Onodera’s former head chef], who’s just absolutely a genius. An artist of a different form. I mean everything he did was exactly perfect, every single time.” (Saito is inarguably talented, though he comes off misogynistic in a recent profile in Toronto Life magazine—he is opening a restaurant in that city—incessentantly hitting on women and treating them poorly in the kitchen. A reminder, perhaps, that despite Tempest’s success, the sushi world has far to go in its treatment of women.)
Tempest was working 90- to 100-hour weeks (unusually for New York sushi spots, Onodera is open for lunch and dinner, meaning longer days for the staff) and things began to go downhill. “I was just really not feeling well and couldn’t function,” she says. “I thought I was exhausted just from the hours. Then I go to the doctor and I get the blood work back.” She was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s Disease, a condition in which the immune system attacks the thyroid gland.
Having to take a month off of work on doctor’s orders ended her time at Onodera. Enter —or, really, re-enter—David Bouhadana. Tempest and Bouhadana—both white, Jewish chefs (Tempest’s father was Jewish and her mother is of Irish descent) who had worked at beloved sushi spots with relatively low price points—had gotten to know each other through mutual customers when Bouhadana was at Sushi Dojo. “‘What do you mean you guys haven’t met yet?’” she remembers customers asking. “‘You’d have so much to talk about.’”
Bouhadana has stirred up controversy twice over. First, he was fired from his role as executive chef at Sushi Dojo after refusing to follow Department of Health regulations over wearing gloves. Two years later, Serena Dai at Eater wrote a scathing piece about Bouhadana’s habit of using a Japanese accent, despite not being Japanese. (Tempest’s only comment: “He does not speak with an accent. He’s fluent in Japanese.” Bouhadana offered regret to the New York Times earlier this year: “If I did offend somebody, I absolutely do owe them an apology.”)
Unlike Tempest, Bouhadana has both trained in Japan and opened restaurants. So in May 2017 they opened a small counter in the back of the Gansevoort Market on West 14th Street. His side was called Sushi by Bou, hers Sushi by Bae. There was something magical about walking through a cavernous, mostly deserted space (most of the market’s vendors were only open during the day) to a back corner, to be seated in comfy stools to enjoy a meal presented by a small woman wearing all black (gloves included). Like Tanoshi, the price point was modest and the vibe low-key.
It was so crazy,” Tempest remembers. “It’s such a unique experience to work somewhere like that, with so many restrictions. So many restrictions. Like no kitchen, no any sort of—nothing that resembled a restaurant.”
But the space didn’t really fit the concept and those restrictions became frustrating. Tempest (and Bouhadana, who now has multiple locations of Sushi by Bou) relocated that September to the Jue Lan Club (better known to many, me included, as “the old Limelight space”). A neon sign on the wall read “DON’T THINK JUST EAT” and there was a sake and cocktail list. It was “definitely the coolest place I’ve ever worked in,” Tempest recalls. But Tempest’s adherence to the lessons she had learned at Tanoshi remained in place.
And, perhaps in part because of that, her regulars followed her to the new location. “Which was a shock,” she says. “Things for Bae really took off at Jue Lan. Once I got there, that changed everything.”
Now, about nine months after leaving the Jue Lan space, and a brief stint at Shoji at 69 Leonard Street (a higher-end spot that owns three New York Times stars), those regulars have followed her again to the new Union Square spot. A few weeks after it opened, my wife and I visited the new Sushi by Bae. Tempest seemed happy and relaxed behind the counter. Despite a party of four showing up a half-hour late, she was very much on her game; she seamlessly caught them up to where we were in the omakase within a few courses, and gently chastised one of them for piling ginger onto his nigiri. We chatted briefly about the cat-themed dishware and a shortage of Akazu, the red vinegar prized as a flavoring for sushi rice.
The omakase was excellent, in part because Tempest is sticking to what has worked for her. Preparations are inventive, but there’s nothing fusion-y about what Tempest is doing. She is—and has always been—dedicated to serving sushi in a classic style, still channeling, in a sense, her great mentor.