This 24 Year-Old Sushi Chef Has Shattered The Culinary Glass Ceiling

This 24 Year-Old Sushi Chef

Has Shattered The Culinary Glass Ceiling

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It’s an aging concept, that of the male-only executive in the kitchen. Women, who have long been confined to pastry or serving in restaurants now find themselves dominating in the food and beverage sectors throughout the world. Whether they’re rockstar bartenders or beverage directors, or conceptual sue chefs, or kitchen executives, these sectors have been some of the fastest to knock down the gender barriers that have plagued the working world for centuries.

In Michelin ratings, women still have a ways to go, with only about 8% of the starred restaurants in NYC run by female chefs, something the guide’s director said they “can’t do anything about” when questioned on the gender discrepancies.

Michelins aside however, it’s the sushi industry that is the focal point here, which,  food-critics Zagat have described as “woefully behind in terms of gender equality.” At 24, Oona Tempest is one of the youngest female sushi chefs on the scene in New York, and has taken the industry’s engendered history to task with her quick rise to prominence in the Edomae sushi sphere.

“I had no idea I was going to be a chef,” laughs Tempest, who was an aspiring marine biologist before taking an art degree in New York. Given her proclivity for the creative, and her waitressing job at the time in Tanoshi Sushi, it became inevitable that the two would converge when one day, the head chef asked her if she would like to hold a knife. “I started as a waitress,” begins Tempest. “I learned about the differences in the fish, their history. what their seasons are so I could explain to customers the technical facts. Then my master invited me one night to try holding a knife, and it just snowballed from there.”

Oona Tempest

The fast-pace movement of NYC’s restaurant scene lends itself to a faster training progress than the traditions practiced in sushi’s home country. “In Japan an apprentice would start as a host or a dishwasher,” says Tempest. “Traditionally you would start cleaning the floor, and then washing the rice for a year or two, then cleaning or gutting the fish for a year or two, and the minimum (for the training) would be ten years.” For Tempest, the expedited process came by virtue of a few factors, the most important being work ethic. Under the supervision of her master, she worked almost 7 days a week, focusing only on one skill at a time. “So it looks like I got where I am really fast but really it was just because of the level of intensity I was trained at,” she comments.

“And of course this is ignoring the fact that first of all, you would not be female,” Tempest states. Given the patriarchal nature of Japan’s culture, this mentality has seeped into sushi restaurants throughout the world. Even with asian fusions such as fan-favorite Nobu, a female chef behind the sushi counter is a rarity, if not a non-entity.

It only takes one, of course.

Kelp Cured Fluke

Tempest’s quick rise through the ranks at Tanoshi gave her a resounding name for herself when she looked to make the next step in her career. Her most recent posting is at David Bouhadana’s Sushi By Bou, of which, she is Sushi By Bae(and yes, we absolutely adore the name).

“Traditionally you would start cleaning the floor, and then washing the rice for a year or two, then cleaning or gutting the fish for a year or two, and the minimum (for the training) would be ten years. And of course this is ignoring the fact that first of all, you would not be female.”

-Oona Tempest

Ishidai Sashimi

You’ll find Tempest’s sushi counter nestled away in the hip Jue Lan Club where you will sit down at her counter and watched her transform what looks like regular fish into a culinary experience that is sure to blow you away.

Tempest’s 90-minute Omakase is similar to a restaurant tasting menu, only a little more intimate. Omakase basically means “I trust you” in Japanese, whereby you give all inhibition over and allow the chef to do the choosing for you. In the last few years, Omakase and particularly Tempest’s style of traditional serving, Edomae, has been available in very few restaurants in the city, a trend which appears to be turning around.

“New York City is going through quite a sushi renaissance,” says Tempest. “Just this past summer alone, 10 new high-end Omakase restaurants opened up.”

The renaissance has begotten a rebirth of old style sushi – very simple, clean, no extra ingredients and very traditional – Edomae, which is an old form of sushi, is what sushi trends are now reverting to. To say you’re Edomae technically means you’re using fish from only the Tokyo region, but now it intimates that you’re using this old, simple style. All of Tempest’s fish comes from the biggest fish market in the region, Tsukiji, which is easily imported into New York because of great trading lines between the two cities, but also makes for a different day, everyday. Tempest relies on her imagination for each tasting menu, given the unpredictability of the fish coming in from abroad.

Given the spotlight that is now on the culinary arts to embrace the times, we’re confident Oona will soon be working with a team of female sushi chefs. But for now, we will continue to watch in awe as she keeps us drooling over her beautiful and delectable fish artistry.

Amy Corcoran

The Associate Editor of SWAAY: Amy is an Irish writer, avid foodie and feminist with an insatiable appetite for novels and empowering women’s writing. She has enjoyed calling Dublin, Paris and now New York her home.

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