It's a rather common thing for a chef to travel and try to get exposed to as many cultures as possible, but Tim Cushman's story seems to go one step above most others. The guy has cooked everywhere. That fact seems to provide the best window into understanding O-Ya, the Japanese restaurant Cushman opened with his wife and partner Nancy in Boston about five years ago. In that time, the restaurant has become one of the nation's most important, with accolades that include Frank Bruni's declaration in 2008 that it was the best new restaurant in the country. In part one of our interview, Cushman talks about his varied experiences leading up to opening O-Ya and where he falls on the purist versus progressive debate.
Judging from what I've read about you, you have an extremely diverse background — you've traveled and worked everywhere and actually almost became a professional guitarist. Can you run through some of that, especially the things that contributed to making O-Ya happen?
I grew up in a small town outside of Boston, and the original house I grew up in had a coal oven to heat the house. It was right on the Charles River. We grew up very rustically and hunted and went fishing. I think that kind of bred food into me. We never had any money, so we couldn't go out or do anything like that, so we would just cook at home or grill outside, even in the middle of snowstorms. That laid some of the groundwork, I think.
Probably one of the biggest food events of my life was in the early 70s, when I was living in Boston. I met a Mexican girl who ended up being my girlfriend. She took me to a Mexican restaurant that had salsa, and there was cilantro in it. I was blown away. I had never tasted anything like it. I talked to the owner of the restaurant and he told me where I could buy it. He pointed me in the direction of Chinatown, where I found it. I made salsa every day for like a year. The funny thing is that O-Ya is just blocks from there. I actually spent a good chunk of a year with the girl in Los Angeles, and we'd cook with the family and roast goats in the backyard.
I ended up coming back to Boston. I was playing guitar somewhat regularly but decided to get more serious about it. I had gone to high school in the sixties and saw lots of bands like Hendrix and Led Zeppelin on their first album tour; I was really into the whole sixties thing and the great bands. I was in a band when I came back to Boston, but after we broke up, I went through the whole application and got into the Berkeley College of Music. It was during that time that I worked at a restaurant in Faneuil Hall that was doing pretty basic things.
When I was done at Berkeley, I moved back out to Los Angeles with nothing lined up and no money. That's where the music business was happening, so I went and lived on Manhattan Beach. To get a bit of money, I worked at a place called Courtney's. I didn't want to cook professionally yet, since I was there to play, but I went from being a dishwasher to becoming kitchen manager at Courtney's. I gave them a two-year commitment, and the chef-owner was really encouraging and let me be creative. He actually encouraged me to go become a line cook at Trump's, a pretty innovative place in West Hollywood. That was a life-changing job. The chef there was Michael Roberts, and he ended up being my mentor.
What was special about it?
There were no recipes in that restaurant, just good cooks. We were doing ceviches and all this farm-to-table stuff — we would picked nasturtiums from people's gardens — and it was very Californian. It was a great cultural mix in the kitchen, which came through in the food. I stayed there for about four years.
What happened after that?
I then worked for Roy Yamaguchi, who doesn't credit enough credit. He was doing sashimis with shiso and jalapeño even before Nobu. That was also a very international kitchen: Roy had been trained in French cooking, and then at family meals, every day would be something from a different culture, basically.
Then I moved to Chicago to work at a Southwestern restaurant, but that didn't work out too well. That ended up being a good thing, because I ended up working with Rich Melman at Lettuce Entertain You. I was a corporate chef and helped him open a bunch of places all over the world. For each one, I'd have to travel, and I ended up learning a great deal from each visit.
One of the places I opened for Melman was a diner in Los Angeles. There was a Japanese company that really liked it and wanted to bring the concept to Osaka, and I ended up having to set that up. At the end of that, they set me up with an interpreter and I was able to stage all over the country. Then, when I came back, I set up a restaurant in Chicago with a raw bar, where I really was able to play with ceviches and do creative things with raw fish. I also went to cooking school in Bangkok and traveled all over Asia, Italy, and France.
And how does O-Ya come to be?
I had always had the restaurant idea in the back of my mind. After I left Lettuce Entertain You, I started doing consulting, which really took off. I was helping a bunch of mainstream restaurants out — places that did all kinds of different food. I seriously learned about the business and organizational side, which is the real challenge. Nancy, my wife, who I had met while in Chicago, ended up getting a job offer in Boston. I had been away from home for eighteen years, and my mom was getting old, so we decided to move back.
We had looked around other cities to open a restaurant, but we happened to find a building that fit perfectly with what we wanted the restaurant to feel like, but that was after a few years of searching. It's an old firehouse that's about 100 years old and has this great natural patina and vibe. I thought it worked.
When we finally were moving in, we had so many challenges. We had no investors — we put our house down as collateral for the bank — and it took a really long time to get a liquor license. We got delayed often because we didn't have a million bucks to give the court. We just did it the hard way, lobbying and going to hearings. It finally happened, though, and we opened prepared.
How'd it go initially?
We were really slow for the first year. We did no advertising or PR, because no one knew who we were anyway; no VIP parties or anything like that. There was just one an article and interview when we were gearing up to open, so we were full for about the first three days. That was it. There was zero business. We would do only ten covers on a Saturday night.
When did it start to get better?
It was Frank Bruni, who wrote that article in the New York Times where he said that O-Ya was the best new restaurant in the country. And that same month, I got Food & Wine's Best New Chef. Our bank was about to call the loan, but that saved us. It was just so challenging leading up to that, because it was difficult to keep the staff motivated. We made no cuts whatsoever during that one-year march. That Bruni piece — there are still people that come in and ask to eat what he had. We thanked him profusely and told him that if we ever have kids, we're going to name them after him. It had so much influence, and it still does. It was gigantic, and now we've had a wait list even night since then.
Now let's talk about your food.
I call it California Japanese. The style of food is really all the influences from the restaurants I've passed through these past thirty-three years. I like bold flavors. The way the restaurant is designed, almost everything on the menu is designed to be one bite. The menu is actually too big, as we have close to 100 items on it every day. There are like twenty-five nigiri and sashimi, and then there's tons of cooked food. We have two different tasting menus which don't have set items on them. We'll adapt them to each person and will accommodate tables where one person wants a tasting menu and the rest want à la carte. There are so many different flavors involved — it's a great mix of textures, too. It can be intense, and that's why we focus on the one bite. You'd get palate fatigue eating big amounts of some of the things we serve.
You obviously do creative dishes, bringing in foie gras and all sorts of non-Japanese influences into your cooking. Do you ever have trouble with the purist v. progressive debate that some people can be really passionate about?
Well, what we do is based on the edomae, the original sushi, where everything was marinated or heated in some way. What we do combines that and the Peruvian quick marinade methods. We'll offer traditional sushi and sashimi in addition to the more creative stuff that draws from all of my experiences. We like them both here and are proud of both. I have to insist that our foundation is traditional; it's the rice. If something creative clashes with the rice, then we won't pursue it.