Badass Women: Sushi Chef Oona Tempest

Join Nooklyn as we feature awesome women who are blazing trails in NYC.

From the instant I met Oona Tempest on the second floor of Jue Lan Club in Flatiron, I could sense her energy and dedication. I greeted Oona as she was sitting at the bar of Sushi by Bou, which is home to her restaurant-within-a-restaurant cheekily named Sushi by Bae. With two phones in front of her (one work, one personal), she was working out the final details of her upcoming Valentine’s Day omakase menu. Music blared throughout the dimly lit space — too early for customers — and freezing rain was falling in pellets outside of the window behind her, making for a quintessential New York picture. We exchanged lamentations about the horrible weather before jumping into a conversation about Oona’s journey from artsy kid in a seaside Massachusetts town to renowned young NYC sushi chef.

In her early twenties, Oona already has a slew of achievements under her belt, from being listed in Zagat’s 30 under 30 “Rock Stars Redefining the Industry” in 2016, to working at Michelin-rated sushi restaurants, to starting her own restaurant brand that she operates almost entirely independently. She’s undoubtedly a force to be reckoned with and emanates passion and drive in a way that only the young and eager can.

From Art Student to Sushi Apprentice

Oona credits her family history, upbringing, and education in shaping her as an independent thinker. Her mother, a multimedia artist, unexpectedly became a single parent when Oona’s father passed away while Oona was still in diapers.

“She was superwoman. She taught me a lot about problem-solving,” Oona says in retrospect. “She had so many obstacles thrown at her, but always had a solution. She was very good at dealing with everything life would throw at her. I credit my mentality, work ethic, and overall ability to be in this crazy industry to her, because she was also a single, working woman.”

Thinking further back in her ancestry, she recognizes that on both sides of her family, her great-great-grandparents arrived as immigrants to NYC — Jewish on her father’s side and Irish on her mother’s. “From family stories that I was told as a kid, I know they were super hard workers. They started with nothing and ended up being financially stable enough to move out of the city,” Oona recalls. “I was taught about the importance of having a good work ethic in order to survive in life, because you never know what’s going to happen, like what happened with my father. My mother would jokingly tell me that her mother was told, ‘well.. You’re a woman, go ahead and learn, but go to college to find a husband. Then you won’t have to worry about work.’ But then what happens if your spouse passes away? You have to be adaptable.”

Oona remembers dreaming of becoming a marine biologist until she realized standardized testing was not working for her, and that she was more keen on pursuing a creative field. On her way out of high school, she attended a college fair in Boston and was accepted by SVA in New York on the spot. With a scholarship in hand, her fate was sealed.

At SVA she changed her major from photography to multidisciplinary studies, allowing her to dabble in different mediums but with a focus on writing and critical theory. She started getting more and more interested in Japanese art and history through her studies, and serendipitously landed a gig at Tanoshi Sushi on the UES where she was living at the time.

“Tanoshi is split up into two dining rooms — a casual, comfortable lunch spot with cooked food, and a dinner-only sushi restaurant. A friend of mine worked at the lunch spot, and I ate there a few times. Eventually, one of the waitresses asked me to cover a shift for her, and it became permanent,” Oona describes. “The waitress asked if I wanted to take her place, and of course I did it. It’s an adorable place.”

After working as a lunchtime waitress for some time, she shifted over to the sushi side of Tanoshi, which is led by respected chef Toshio Oguma. Here she found that her interest in Japanese art and her work were starting to merge in a complementary way. Little did she know at the time that this would turn into a life-altering passion for sushi.

“I remember the first time I walked into the sushi side of the restaurant to get an extra plate. All of the chefs were working diligently, and it was completely silent. I just stood there in awe. If you walk into Tanoshi during prep, you can hear a pin drop. But it shows its authenticity. It made me really want to work there.”

Oguma-san made it a point to keep his staff engaged in the sushi-making process. On Saturday nights, he would invite them all to the kitchen to use the ingredients and fish they didn’t use during the week. It was during these weekly staff hangouts that Oona started to get serious about learning.

Once she started training formally as an apprentice at Tanoshi, the intensity picked up. “I did nothing but sushi for about four years. All of my friends were like, where did you go? I would always say, I’m working, I’m working, I’m working from now until I don’t know when! I’ll see you in a couple of years.”

Oona’s training didn’t stop at the restaurant. At the end of each day she would take some rice home and practice making gunkan — “battleship sushi, little rice balls wrapped in seaweed with salmon roe inside.” She would make hundreds of pieces after work at night before going to bed, because she knew that Oguma-san expected to see improvement every single day.

“He would test me every day. He was invested in his apprentices, and as someone who takes his job so seriously, he’s not going to give you two seconds unless you are extremely dedicated.”

Moving Out on Her Own

After four years of working at Tanoshi Sushi and dedicating herself to the craft, Oona and Chef Oguma reached a mutual understanding that it was time for her to go out on her own. Oona’s friendship with sushi chef David Bouhadana, who is now her business partner and close friend, had blossomed during her time as an apprentice. While Oona had been at Tanoshi, David was working at Sushi Dojo. “When I was just starting, knowing David was out there was inspiring to me. It made me feel like, since he was doing this, I could too,” Oona says. “He was just this figure of someone similar to me who had gone through something similar and now had his own restaurant. I owe a lot of who I am to his existence, before we even knew each other. So when we finally met, we became fast friends because we could talk about all the crazy things that you go through as an apprentice.”

After leaving Tanoshi, Oona was approached by Michelin-rated Sushi Ginza Onodera in Midtown and worked for a while in their intense kitchen. She then joined David at his omakase outpost at Gansevoort Market, before he opened Sushi by Bou inside Jue Lan Club. Here, Sushi by Bae was born.

What started as a pop-up is now an ongoing $100 omakase offering that is completely separate from (but coexists with) Sushi by Bou. For Sushi by Bae, Oona orders her own fish straight from Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo, makes her own rice, soy sauce, and vinegars, and handles all of her own reservations — it’s truly a one-woman culinary operation.

Sushi as an Art Form

Oona’s makes Edomae style sushi, which is based on pre-refrigeration curing methods. She uses salt, miso, kelp, and poaching techniques to cure the fish. And while she does her share of experimentation, she focuses on using traditional fish species that were available in Tokyo during Japan’s Edo period.

While her art practice has taken the back burner as she’s focused on her culinary career, Oona’s artistic background still plays a significant role in how she presents her sushi. “I think about color a lot when I put my menu together. When I’m ordering fish for the week, I know I have this many white fish, red fish, blue fish. It helps me put together each piece,” Oona explains. “It was really funny, two days ago a customer took photos throughout the meal and then put together a collage. And he said wow, did you mean for it to be in this gradient? And I actually did! Very rarely do people catch it.”

Describing her approach further, she discusses her use of the senses: “Color, texture, form, and flavor. That is also why you want people to eat with their hands. First you get sight, then you get texture, then you get smell, and then taste. And the sound comes from the environment of the restaurant. But all of those factors are what make up a good experience.”

Oona does want to get back into art, but explains that she exhausts all of her creative energy while working. People sometimes express shock that she no longer makes art regularly. Her response: “Creativity is like a sponge. I have so many ideas in my head for things that I wanna do, but I just can’t right now. Art is always something I can go back to, but sushi doesn’t work the same way.” She explains that sushi chefs are called shokunin in Japan, meaning dedicated artisans. “It’s all about repetition and routine, in a religious way. Even Oguma-san would always say his religion is sushi.”

Breaking Barriers

Though she’s asked about it often, Oona has never really thought of her being a woman as a barrier to entry into the sushi world, which has historically been dominated by men. She mentions that starting her career in New York City instead of in Japan was fundamental in this regard. “New York is a place of misfits. Everyone from all over the place is doing whatever. I’ve been here for almost ten years now, and I don’t want to go back home. I love it here. I love every little aspect about New York,” she says. “I didn’t even think about it being a gender issue at first, and it wasn’t on my mind at all. Because at Tanoshi we were a cluster of all different types of people. The chefs were multiracial, the staff was from all over the place. And Toshio would teach anyone who wanted to learn. So he really deserves all the credit — I was just joining the group. I owe him my entire life.”

She continues: “My fears weren’t based in my gender, and actually I wasn’t even scared at first. I wasn’t scared until people started asking if I was. And then I was like wait, should I be scared?”

However, she has noticed sexism in the sushi industry as a whole, primarily in the way that other people in the industry have approached her. In her experience, there can be a lack of understanding of why a woman would even want to become a sushi chef. “I had people ask me, ‘why are you making sushi? You should get a husband and have an easier life — you’re working too much’,” she says. They were saying it out of concern, so she never said much in response. “They would ask what I’m going to do when I have kids, and that’s so not on my mind. I love my job, I have fish babies and I have two cats at home. Thank you, but no.”

New York Living: A Day in Oona’s Life

Oona resides in a compact Manhattan apartment that is close to the restaurant, though she feels like she essentially lives at work regardless. As someone who works around the clock, convenience is key. Her brimming workday typically starts around 10:00 in the morning and goes until midnight. She walked us through a typical Tuesday through Saturday of her life:

9:00 AM-10:00 AM: I leave home and arrive at the restaurant in time for deliveries.

10:00 AM-3:30 PM: Prep the fish. That’s getting it all in (fish deliveries come in three times a week — which means it’s amazingly fresh), scaling it, gutting it, slicing, curing, and marinating it, and preparing to open the restaurant. It’s also sharpening knives, preparing vegetables, catching up on reservations, and looking at things that need to be fixed up around the shop.

3:30 PM-4:30 PM: Quick, hot-second break. Everyday is different, and some days I get longer breaks than others. It all depends on how much fish there is to prepare.

4:30 PM-6:00 PM: Back to work! I start making rice, which is done in about 45 minutes. Then, I’m doing direct dinner service preparation, which is focusing on exactly what I am going to serve for the night, whereas most of the day I was prepping all of the fish I got in.

6:00 PM-11:00 PM: Dinner reservation slots are at 6:00, 7:30, and 9:30 PM. On average, I serve 10–16 people per night.

11:00 PM-12:00 AM: Clean up, and hopefully I head out by midnight. Then get ready to do it all over again!

When asked what she does with the minimal free time she has on her Sundays off, Oona replies: “I like to sleep. And not see any humans. I need to recharge my battery, because I’m an artistic introverted person that has a very extroverted job. Which I love! But you’re not gonna find me at a bar dancing on my day off.” We both laughed. She does enjoy the social interaction she gets from serving customers in an intimate space, because it allows her to strike a balance between art and human connection, but that time to regroup is vital.

Looking Back, Thinking Ahead

When the topic of plans for the future came up, Oona’s response is incredibly understandable and humble: “There’s so much that goes into each week, so I just take it one at a time. Having customers continue to come is a blessing every single day. So as long as it’s busy, then that’s where my focus is. It feels like being a schoolteacher in the way that you are responsible for all these other people. My job is to make sure that they are enjoying their time with me. And that’s a lot of pressure.”

She did mention that she is eager to train more one day, in preparation for whatever comes next in her career. “If ten years from now I have my own real restaurant, that’d be great. But I have to get through next week first. The road of sushi is very, very long, so that’s way down the line. You never know, and life is so unpredictable.”

I asked Oona for any words of wisdom she might have for other young people looking to pave their own way in today’s world. Her response is powerful and can be applied to virtually any type of person or field.

“Be persistent. Don’t doubt your worth or your strength, which everyone says, but it’s important because you’ll have people that will look you square in the eye and tell you that you’re stupid, that you’re no good, and so on. But anyone can say that — it’s so easy to put people down but it does not mean anything. I’ve had all those words said to me but you just can’t care. You have to care about what you actually enjoy doing and what you want out of life,” she begins. “Ultimately, you determine your life path and you determine how far you will go. And you do have to be pushy, you have to be the squeaky wheel, because if you’re not, no one will listen to you.”

Especially for women, she notes: “You just have to not think about anything else besides your goal. Focus on your goal, don’t get distracted, and don’t get your heart broken. Don’t worry about relationships while you’re in the throes of what you’re doing. Have personal life be secondary and put your heart into your work. You need a lot of passion and you need a lot of persistence.”

I asked if she feels like these lessons took a while to learn. Her honest reply was that she thinks she has always had this fire inside. “I really believe in the power of the mind and that was what got me far when I first started.”

Oona hopes that there might be people who look at her in the same way and are motivated to create their own success. “No one is going hold your hand. No one is going to make it easy for you and it’s not going to be easy. But you don’t want it to be easy. And it’s going through all the struggles that make you tougher,” she says. “But take care of yourself at the same time!”

All photos by Moiz K. Malik.

Let us know what you think of Nooklyn Stories and share your thoughts with us by posting on our Facebook page or tweeting us @nooklyn! Read more exclusive content on Nooklyn.com.