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Tim Cushman on Fusion, Intimacy, and the Future

Photo: O- Ya

In part two of this interview with O-Ya's Tim Cushman (see part one here), the chef talks about how you can be creative without doing fusion, how you shouldn't expect Nobu at his restaurant, how his food has changed, and his plans for the future.

Tell me more about the rice.
I spent years developing it. There are two different types: a fresher one and a older one that differ in size and dryness. They offer a different texture, and it's very traditionally based. Everyone has their own version in Japan, but we take care to balance out the texture, the temperature, and the sweet-sour element from the vinegar. That is the most important element to me, since it's the jumping off point to everything. Then I'll work on being creative and introducing the flavors that I like, after we nail that down.

What would you say to someone going to the restaurant expecting a Nobu or Morimoto clone, since what you do is creative Japanese?
I think the main difference is just that it's the flavor combinations that I like and the techniques and the consistency.

What's an example?
One example is a tuna dish with a Republic of Georgia sauce on it. It's kind of like a pesto, because in the Georgian area they use a lot of fresh herbs like basil, parsley, cilantro, tarragon, as well as nuts, dill, and dried fruits. So I make a pesto out of all those herbs, walnuts, walnut oil, dried apricots, and I add in the Japanese floral element of yuzu. All of those flavors go back to my experiences, and I don't think you'd find it anywhere else on raw fish.

You know, Morimoto once said something about how he couldn't imagine staging in a French restaurant or something like that because he was so used to Japanese techniques. In my case, since I've had experiences all over the map, that wouldn't be a problem for me, so I try to bring that all into the experience.

Also, it's an intimate space. I'll do the music mix every night, for instance, and it changes every night. Where else can you go listen to Jimi Hendrix and then jazz and then island music and then bluegrass and eat foie gras sushi? It doesn't feel like a club in here.

You probably get this question fairly often: what are the advantages and disadvantages to being an American cooking this food? There are of course people like Tyson Cole who excel at it, but it's so steeped in tradition.
What I tend to say is that I've had some of the best Italian and French food of my life in Japan, cooked by Japanese chefs. It just depends on where your heart and soul is. I guess the challenge is the image, maybe, but I don't think anyone will decide to not come into the restaurant because I'm not Japanese.

I do have lots of Japanese and Japanese-trained chefs working with me, because I want as much tradition in the restaurant as possible. I don't want this to be a fusion restaurant.

Can you talk a bit more about the intimacy you were going for?
Actually, what the restaurant is — what Nancy and I wanted to do — was have a casual restaurant with no white tablecloths. We have chopsticks, but there's silverware on there already. We want to be very accommodating. What Nancy and I noticed years ago was that you could go to a lot of very formal restaurants that took a lot of planning to go to, but we wanted to have something that was of that quality but way more relaxed. We're very laid-back people.

Our counter isn't a traditional sushi counter, it's more like a bar in a tavern. What we wanted people to feel is as if they were traveling in the countryside and staying at an inn with a tavern. You can come in here by yourself and have one bite of sushi and a beer, and we are more than fine with that. Now a lot of restaurants have gone in that direction.

Would you call it an American restaurant or a Japanese restaurant, or does that question not matter to you?
I don't think it ultimately matters, because there are so many different flavors. But we do call it contemporary Japanese, because that is at the heart and foundation of it.

How has the food changed since you opened?
When we first opened, the menu was half the size. Prior to opening, I worked on and documented about one thousand different ideas. Then we whittled it down to our favorite hundred and picked about fifty of those that we could execute consistently. Now, it's almost doubled. Also, there are constantly new items being rotated in. I will assign the staff specific projects to develop new ideas. There are so many ideas in my head that I don't think all of them will ever go into the menu. It's constant, whether it's a new tofu preparation or incorporating tea for the springtime.

That said, now that we've been open for five years, we have items on the menu that we can't take off. And, like I said, there are many people that come in and ask for exactly what Frank Bruni had when he came in. And we have a traditional section on the menu that's specifically designed to feature traditional Japanese dishes you might not find at other restaurants in the States. We have this somen dish, for example, that comes in a broth and has a poached egg and big fin squid tempura. You rarely see that.

We never change the menu seasonally, which they don't do in Japan either. They sort of just go with the flow and incorporate the seasonal changes into the menu.

The focus is to have just a few bites for each thing, so you can have the fix. And also, we do use modern techniques, but we're very careful not to be cute about that. This is supposed to be a flavor show and not a magic show. It has to make the dish better, whether it's molecular or natural.

We have a very basic kitchen with a grill, oven, six burners, and a frier. The big deal here is the knife skills. The techniques are pretty basic, but the goal is always flavor.

How has Boston treated you? Do you think you would have hit it out of the park easier in another city?
I think it would be successful somewhere else, but we love Boston. We are on a wait list every night. Our biggest thing is the consistency of this place. We never throw something new on the menu unless it's been crafted or worked on for a really long time. That's the key to making this work in a small city. Also, we're only 37 seats, so the restaurant is small, too. We couldn't fill 200 seats. But at the end of the day, the city has been very receptive.

What goals and plans do you have for the future?
I think the country and the world are just in the beginning stages of exposure to Japanese food. The biggest thing with a restaurant is not being yesterday's news. So with this style, we can just move with the times and adapt as we move along. We're not trying to be trendy, either, though. I'm sure that five years from now, this place will have evolved, but at the same time, a lot of these flavors are timeless. We're constantly looking for ways to improve ourselves, which kind of makes it restless. We just added way more quality wine to the menu, because we realized that people wanted it, and things like that will cause us to change and work at it every day.

It's about coming in every day and convincing people constantly that it's worth their while.

You'd consider opening something else?
It would be very possible. I've had so many experiences and I wouldn't want to do anything trendy. It has to have longevity. If the right opportunity came along and we could partner up with the right people, we would absolutely do some more. At this point, though, we're perfectly content with O-Ya. I have a ton of ideas.

Can you talk about any of the ideas?
I wouldn't want to jinx it!

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