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Gotham Gigs: Fish Illustrator Finds Her Calling as Hip Sushi Chef

By HILARY POTKEWITZ

Oona Tempest didn’t set out to break gender barriers in the sushi world. When she started learning sushi techniques five years ago, she didn’t even know that female chefs were a rarity. “It never crossed my mind,” Tempest said.

She was working as a waitress at Tanoshi Sushi, on the Upper East Side, putting herself through art school. The restaurant had just been favorably reviewed in The New York Times and everyone was feeling the pressure of the spotlight. To learn more about sushi, Tempest would stay after closing time, asking head chef Toshio Oguma hundreds of questions while he and the other chefs practiced knife work.

“One day they asked me if I wanted to try—almost as a joke,” she recalled. She immediately loved the combination of art, science and skill. “It came naturally to me,” she said. “I have good dexterity.”

Oguma agreed to train her only if she met certain conditions: “I had to finish school, renew my lease in New York and pledge my life to sushi,” Tempest recalled. She dived in, apprenticing with Oguma for about four years.

In 2016 she was included in the Zagat “30 Under 30 Rock Stars Redefining the Industry.” Last year she teamed up with controversial chef and restaurateur David Bouhadana, formerly of Sushi Dojo, to launch a pop-up eatery at Gansevoort Market.

Bouhadana had appeared on the same Zagat list in 2014, and neither he nor Tempest is of Japanese descent. “We’re both alternative faces trying to make it in the sushi world,” Tempest said.

The pair moved in November to a permanent location inside the Jue Lan Club in the former Limelight in Chelsea.

At one end of the sushi bar, Bouhadana offers his 30-minute, $50 omakase—a chef’s choice, prix fixe menu—dubbed Sushi by Bou. At the other end, Tempest serves her 90-minute, $100 omakase experience. In a playful nod to pop-culture terms of affection, her menu is called Sushi by Bae.

Tempest’s journey from art student to sushi chef isn’t a total fluke. Her mother, a health-conscious artist, raised her on a mostly pescatarian diet. Her father, who died when she was a baby, was an avid fisherman who was known for winning local fishing derbies.

Although Tempest never knew her dad, she said she shares his deep connection to the sea. “Fishing was my father’s passion,” she said. “I feel like I’m finishing 
his work.”

 

Oona Tempest

AGE: 25 BORN: Martha's Vineyard, Mass. RESIDES: Manhattan

EDUCATION: Bachelor’s in visual, critical and multidisciplinary studies, School of Visual Arts

PISCINE PICTURES: Tempest has drawn fish for as long as she can remember. She studied illustration and graphic design in college, planning to become an illustrator of marine textbooks. Art is now a hobby. She designed some of the restaurant’s artwork, including the Sushi by Bae logo—a fantasy catfish.

ONE-WOMAN SHOW: Tempest has no assistant. She handles reservations, inventory, deliveries, Instagram posts, menu planning and food prep. She makes and ages her own vinegar and soy sauce and often works 16-hour days. “I’m waiting for that little girl to walk up to me one day and say, ‘Teach me!’”

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