A Q+A with Oona Tempest of Sushi by Bae

As a young non-Japanese woman, Oona Tempest’s rise from art student to top sushi chef has been remarkable—and well-deserved. In a short time her dedication and skills propelled her from apprenticing under sushi master Toshio Oguma of the famed New York restaurant Tanoshi Sushi to getting her own acclaim as the lady behind New York’s Sushi by Bae popup omakase counters. This month marks the opening of her permanent sushi bar in New York City and Tempest chatted with us about her journey.
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Oona Tempest

Rachael Ray Every Day: Tell me what brought you to New York and how you broke into the sushi business.

Oona Tempest: I came to New York when I was 17 for art school, and I completed my studies at the School of Visual Arts under visual critical and multi-disciplinary studies (VCS). While I was finishing up my schooling, I was waitressing at Tanoshi, a well-known sushi restaurant on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, which is where I met head chef Toshio Ogum. Because I had been doing different mediums in school in the multi-disciplinary program, I just saw sushi as this other art form that I hadn't experimented with yet. I was so entranced by it because it had aspects of performance art, sculpture, and even darkroom photography, with the vinegar marinade and its sensitivity and the timing involved. It even involved science and math—it touched all these points; everything I loved rolled into one.

I begged for an apprenticeship and Toshio-san made me promise to finish school and renew my lease so that I would actually be a realistic employee for at least another year. He also made me promise to make sushi my real profession, to take it seriously and not waste his time. He's a very serious person, he was very serious about, 'If I'm going to teach you this, then you need to do something with it,' because it's a lot of work to teach someone, especially at his level. So that was kind of how it started.

How long ago was that?

That was 2014.

And so since then you've worked at a lot of restaurants.

Since then I've sort of moved around to different restaurants, and David Bouhadana's (of Sushi by Bou, Bae’s brother omakase counter) and I have known each other for a really long time—like since I was apprenticing. Back then he was the only other sushi chef that was around my age that also spoke my language—also funky and different, and we just became fast friends. It was cool and inspirational because I was like' 'Well, if he's doing it then I can too.'

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How did you meet him?

Back in the day Tanoshi and Sushi Dojo (where Bouhadana worked), were around the same price range for kind of similar quality fish with a more relaxed atmosphere, so we just naturally had the same kind of regulars who were like, 'Hey I think you would really benefit from meeting this other person.' We became friends because we were like, 'Oh my God, you do sushi; oh my God I do sushi too.' It was just like, 'Oh my gosh I found another unicorn!' So that was that.

What were some of the hardships you've encountered as being a young non-Japanese woman in this field?

In the beginning, because I was new, I was scared and nervous. There was also lot of doubt about me. When I was still in the early days of working under Toshio Oguma, my sushi master, people would refuse to sit with me. If anyone did refuse, he would say 'Well if you don't trust her, then you're also saying you don't trust me because I put her here. You don't have to eat here, you can get out.' Through that I gained a lot of confidence in myself.

I was raised by a single mother so she always really ingrained in me that if you want to do something, then you just do it and nothing should really hold you back because of anyone’s personal opinion.

What’s the story behind opening up Sushi by Bae?

I just loved sushi, I wanted to be a sushi chef again, especially after Oguma passed in October 2018. I got really scared about forgetting what he taught me, because I was doing kaiseki at the time for a bit.

What is Kaiseki?

It's seasonal cooked Japanese food, very traditional. The restaurant I worked at was amazing, but I just really felt this urgency to get back to doing what got me on this path to begin with. I had a heartfelt conversation with the right people and now I'm here.

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What sets your restaurant apart from other omakases, or other sushi restaurants?

You guys have to tell me. All I'm doing is what I know, I'm doing what I've been trained to do.

I really like to kelp-cure my golden-eye snapper. I don't know. It’s a gut feeling, it's my art and I have a ton of ideas, and I'm really excited to see how it will change because I know it will change a lot. This is first time I've gotten to work with fish boxes instead of a sushi case, so that's very exciting.

Also, I do love working for myself. Its absolute creative freedom and I definitely realized this year that I need that in order to thrive. I can get by without it, but I'm not really living the way I want to live. I feel most alive every morning if I have creative freedom.

It's hard being a woman in the food industry, and then again being a female, non-Japanese sushi chef. You're forging your way in this world, which is incredible.

It comes from the training that I got. I always give credit to Toshio-san because he was the one in the beginning that was like, 'I don't care if you're a boy or a girl, or if you're black or if you're white or you're whatever, because if you really love sushi then I'll teach you.' He was more of front-runner than I am in a way, because I wouldn't be where I am if he hadn't taught me how to do all this stuff.

So where do you want to be in 5 years? Where do you see yourself going?

I don't know right now. I'm 26 so I'll be 31 in five years. I'll either have a million cats, or a kid, or a couple of restaurants, I have no idea. I’ll just see what happens.

Q: It’s all good whichever direction you take.

Yeah, I'll just see what happens. I used to be like 'I want a Michelin Star' but after losing Toshio-san, who I was very close to, he never cared about those sorts of ratings. I think [not caring] is very important to me now just because I'm a lot happier without feeling like I'm chasing that. I'm just doing this because I love doing it without trying to fit into a certain box that gives those awards. I'm in my own box and I love it, and its great and as long as the restaurant is busy then I'm feeling very content. I just have so many ideas for what I could do here.

What are some of the ideas?

The first thing is soup, a couple of soups. I love making soups and broths, so I've been saving fish heads and fish bones and stuff to get a good collection of things and I want to start running that once I figure out a way to have a helper who can be doing that in the back. Once that stuff gets figured out, that's what I'll do first.

Any other ideas?

Some of it I'll just keep it to myself, but I have lots of ideas. Seasonal fruit desserts and the soup are the first things that I want to get on the menu and get going.

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Sushi by Bae is located at 118 E. 15th Street in New York City.