The Knives Come Out
Tim Cushman’s O Ya is a national sensation, a “gustatory safari” that has critics slobbering over its “stunningly creative dishes.” Decidedly less impressed are rival local chefs, who are starting to quietly (and not so quietly) fling some pointed accusations in Cushman’s direction.
Barbara Lynch balances a cocktail glass in one hand, leaving the other free to punctuate a tale she’s weaving of kitchen hijinks. Flanked by publicist Sarah Hearn and Ben Elliott (who runs the catering division of Lynch’s No. 9 Group), the grand dame of Boston’s dining scene commands quite an audience around her leather-sofa perch, especially given the star wattage of this second evening of the Food & Wine Classic, a culinary Cannes that draws the foodie elite by the hundreds.
Tonight the lobby bar at Aspen’s Little Nell resort is in full swing, with A-listers at every turn: Bobby Flay, Jacques Pépin, David Chang, and Daniel Boulud, among others. Over at the couches, Lynch nails the punch line, and her entourage whoops with approval. Moments later, Top Chef host Tom Colicchio strolls past, nodding in her direction.
Amid all the glass-clinking and posturing, nobody’s paying much attention to the tall, curly-haired fellow at the edge of Lynch’s mostly Bostonian circle, observing the action. As Lynch launches into her next bit, he downs the last of his beer and nudges his wife, and the two quietly make their exit. Lynch glances up at the couple as they go. She’s the only one who seems to notice.
Though Lynch is a center of attention tonight, she’s not the marquee attraction. The headliners are the 10 recipients of Food & Wine‘s Best New Chef awards, the magazine’s annual nod to the brightest new talents on the culinary scene. The award has grown into a keen predictor of success since its 1988 inception, as recipients, relative unknowns, have gone on to become leading lights in the industry. (See the aforementioned Boulud and Colicchio, both past winners.) A young Gordon Hamersley won in 1988, and subsequent honorees have included Todd English (Olives, 1990) and Tony Maws (Craigie Street Bistrot, 2005). Lynch herself won in 1996, a bumper year for Boston that saw not one but two local winners—the other was Radius‘s Michael Schlow.
This year the winners have come to Aspen from restaurants in Chicago, Manhattan, Napa Valley, New Orleans, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Seattle, and Waterbury, Vermont. And one in Boston: a small Japanese eatery called O Ya, whose chef, Tim Cushman, has quietly slipped away from Lynch and her entourage and out the door with his wife.
The next time he makes an appearance, it’s to bask in the spotlight, at a glitzy party held the following night in a gleaming function space with views of the Aspen valley. Clad in chef’s whites, his towering figure is illuminated against the nightscape as a stream of fans make their way over to pay respects. As Cushman revels in this latest triumph—just one of a dozen awards he’s received from food critics nationwide—some 2,000 miles away, back in Boston, a coterie of angry chefs sharpen their cleavers in utter contempt.
Stealth has been a hallmark for Tim Cushman and his wife, Nancy (an advertising professional turned sake sommelier), at least in one respect: O Ya seemed to appear out of nowhere. In a town where restaurants, especially upscale ones, debut to noisy fanfare, the Cushmans opted for the soft sell. Tucked away in a quaint old firehouse on an all-but-anonymous Leather District side street, the 37-seat restaurant was eerily quiet when it opened in March 2007. Save for a few friends and a curious neighbor or two, the place sat empty for weeks.
Gradually, the local food press caught on. At first there were the benign write-ups in publications like the Improper Bostonian, which marveled at O Ya’s precious menu, including items like “wild Tomaya Bay himi buri hamachi belly with yuzu-soy-marinated sea urchin.” The vertiginous price points—which put that hamachi belly at $24 for what amounted to two bites—got even more attention.
The first legit review came from the Herald in May 2007, when critic Mat Schaffer gave O Ya an “A,” his highest rating. Later that month, the Globe‘s Devra First ventured a similarly positive spin. Soon, the O Ya juggernaut was spiraling forth.
In June, the restaurant received all four stars from the Phoenix; in August, a rave review in these pages, coupled with two Best of Boston awards (and two more this year). By December, the national press had caught the bug, with Food & Wine counting Cushman’s Okinawan-style pork among the country’s 10 best dishes. In January of this year, the Globe followed up its somewhat measured initial take with a positively rapturous valentine: “The food is not food. The food is art. Every piece should come with a gilt frame around it—and you’d probably want to eat that, too…. The harmonies are intense, vivid, surprising. (Can you put a frame around a taste?) You will cry. You will moan. You will hold future booty callers to higher standards of satisfaction and imagination…. Dinner here is an authentic, expertly guided gustatory safari.”
As the over-the-top accolades roared forth, the crowds poured in. In February of this year, O Ya began accepting reservations for the first time. The once-empty restaurant had become a sensation.
A month later, O Ya enjoyed its biggest press coup of all: Following a nationwide tour of recently opened restaurants, New York Times dining critic Frank Bruni compiled a list of the 10 best new U.S. restaurants outside of New York. At the top sat O Ya, which Bruni deemed “dazzling.” On the Wednesday the Times article came out, O Ya received 350 phone calls, Cushman says. A few weeks later the restaurant received another call, this time from Food & Wine with the Best New Chef news.
Clearly, Cushman’s food was making an impression. (Since March, the place has been booked two months out.) Particularly striking was that such a dizzyingly upscale place was thriving at precisely the time when the local restaurant scene was trending downscale, with casual spots touting entrées for $19 and less. In light of the prevailing industry wisdom, charging double digits for a single bite of sushi smacked of unbelievable hubris.
How was Cushman getting away with it? As O Ya’s star rose, curious peers stopped by to get a taste of the magic. Local luminaries English, Schlow, Lynch, Lydia Shire, and Chris Schlesinger each paid a visit; Boulud and Susan Spicer popped in from out of town. By spring 2008, it seemed as if every chef in Boston had checked out—and was talking about—Cushman’s Leather District phenomenon.
And then, as imperceptibly as Cushman and O Ya had started their spectacular ascent, the backlash began. The fraternity of Boston chefs was turning against him.
O Ya’s sky-high prices had drawn tut-tuts from the beginning, with the Globe‘s First noting that “the intriguingly named lobster cone…goes for the dear sum of about $5 a bite.” But whereas the press was in virtual lockstep regarding O Ya’s superlative food, there were rumblings among Cushman’s peers that neither the cuisine nor its master lived up to the hype.
The chefs I spoke with elaborated on those criticisms, dissecting O Ya’s menu bit by pricey bit. The results weren’t pretty.
“This is not a French temple of gastronomy,” says one local chef, who didn’t want to be quoted by name while bashing a peer. “The guy’s got maybe three or four types of fish—count them. And he charges how much for a di
sh? I’d rather go to Oga’s,” the high-end sushi spot in Natick.
Cushman’s culinary technique also comes under scrutiny. In Michael Schlow’s view, Cushman leans too heavily on the same two tricks—the blowtorch and truffle oil—which he says obscure the purity of the fish. “I understand and appreciate why he’s doing it, but it’s not always to my taste,” Schlow says. “The most beautiful part of sushi and sashimi is how exposed the food is. In some cases, O Ya’s creations have one or two more ingredients than I want.”
The accusations get worse. Much worse. Compared with full-on spying, a heavy hand with the truffle oil seems but a quibble.
“He’s been deceiving people for years,” says Ken Oringer, who refuses even to step foot in the place. According to Oringer, Cushman spent the two years before opening O Ya scoping out his sashimi bar, Uni. “Twice a week he would call and ask to have menus faxed to him. We thought, ‘Hmm…this guy’s a little weird.’ I mean religiously, every Friday, he came in.”
Did anyone ever, you know, ask him what was up? Of course, says Oringer. After all, with just 21 seats—a third of which are at the sushi bar—Uni’s intimate environs are hardly conducive to slipping in and out under the radar, especially when you’re a regular. But Cushman had an alibi at the ready. “He told [the staff] he was an out-of-work musician,” says Oringer. Which sounded plausible enough: After all, Cushman kind of fit the part—a guy in his early 50s, messy hair, wearing T-shirts, sweatshirts, jeans. “Sort of the Belichick look,” says Oringer.
The ritual never wavered. Cushman, says Oringer, would arrive by himself and sit at the bar, inches from where the sushi chef stood preparing the restaurant’s intricate raw-fish masterpieces. Eventually, his wife would join him. “He wanted to know what went into every dish,” says Oringer. While many curious patrons gravitate toward the bar seats—where running commentary from the chef is just part of the experience—Cushman’s interest seemed intense by comparison.
A lot more intense, says Oringer. As soon as the first dish was served, Cushman would pull out a notebook and start scribbling details about the food. He would ask the chef how it was prepared, what ingredients were used, and so forth. He continued recording observations as the meal progressed. Oringer says that not once during all this dialogue with Uni’s sushi master did this “out-of-work musician” happen to mention that he worked in the industry.
When O Ya opened, Oringer’s sushi chef and a waiter from Uni headed over to check out the competition. “When they saw who was in the kitchen, they were like, ‘Holy shit, that’s the guy!'” Oringer says. “This guy we befriended, who’d been eating at the restaurants for at least two years, who said he was an unemployed musician, was now the owner of a Japanese restaurant? I’m still shocked.”
Cushman, it turns out, was pulling the same routine at Oishii in Chestnut Hill, where he was also a regular. After watching this stranger take notes at his sushi bar, chef-owner Ting Yen confronted him. “[Cushman] said he was doing a job, basically in New York, to come up with a menu and ideas for people who were opening restaurants,” says Yen.
When Cushman suddenly stopped visiting, Yen thought nothing of it—until O Ya popped up on the scene, he says. “To find out [Cushman is] doing a very unusual sushi style, just like what I’ve been doing for nine years—I’m not happy about it, but what can I do?”
Before he was being gushed over by critics and seethed about by fellow chefs, Cushman was a small-town kid growing up “kind of poor” in Millis. He lived with his mother, who was a teacher, and his father, who did “odd jobs” for a living, in a converted summer shack by the Charles River. Dinnertime found him picking from his mom’s leftovers. Cushman credits her with teaching him early on how to make dinner out of almost nothing, as well as how to enjoy lots of flavors in small portions.
And Cushman did, in fact, train as a musician, graduating from Berklee College of Music in 1980 with a degree in jazz guitar (he says he still plays in a blues band called Blue Cheese) before taking off for Los Angeles, where he forwent the path to rock stardom for a paying job as a prep cook.
Cushman worked in L.A. for eight years—at one point under the French-trained Japanese chef Roy Yamaguchi—before moving to Chicago, where he scored a corporate chef position with an up-and-coming restaurant group, Lettuce Entertain You. His job, he says, was to design menus for the group’s properties and spend time in each newly launched kitchen. During his first project, he met one of his mentors, Nobu Matsuhisa (of Nobu empire fame), who then owned a restaurant across the street from where Cushman worked. After dining there several times, he asked Matsuhisa to let him work in the kitchen, and the two cooked side by side for about a week. Later, Cushman was sent to Japan for another project, where he studied in the kitchens of other Japanese chefs.
Eventually, Cushman started a restaurant consulting company, and he and his wife, Nancy, nurtured each other’s love for Japanese cuisine. Soon they were talking about opening a restaurant together. After a move east in 2000 (Arnold Worldwide had recruited Nancy to Boston), they started laying the groundwork. First up: field research.
“We would eat everywhere,” says Cushman. “We were trying to get a sense of what was happening here, and we wanted to pinpoint what it was in a high-end restaurant we needed. But we also wanted to make sure we weren’t duplicating or copying what anyone else was doing.” Whether the cuisine was Japanese, French, or Italian, Cushman did the same thing he did at Uni and Oishii, he says: He asked questions and took lots of notes, a habit he picked up as a restaurant consultant.
Cushman keeps those notes, random scraps of paper that date as far back as the early ’80s, loosely organized inside about 60 cardboard filing boxes at his house. “I have notes from every city and every restaurant I’ve ever been in,” he says. “I’m a student of food. If I’m in a restaurant and try something new, I want to know what it is.” Constantly looking for dishes to put on his ever-changing menu, he still goes to the boxes for inspiration. But not to copy another dish directly, he adds quickly: “That would be redundant.”
Put the menus from Oishii, Uni, and O Ya side by side, and Cushman’s assertion doesn’t seem off base. Indeed, no two dishes are identical. And in a town where garden-variety sushi joints that trade on California rolls are the norm, the similarity of the exotic ingredients and sophisticated techniques is striking yet unsurprising. After all, torching, yuzu, and house-made ponzu are simply parts of the vocabulary of modern Japanese cuisine, a well from which any upscale-sushi chef would be expected to draw.
On the other hand, there’s the occasional dish that might seem a little too close for comfort. Uni pairs tuna tataki with foie gras, a pear liqueur reduction, and rhubarb coulis. O Ya’s got a seared scallop paired with foie gras, a vin cotto reduction, and shiso grapes. Two different dishes, two different descriptions. Stylistically, however, it’s an identical formula: torched seafood + seared liver + reduced sweet wine + fruit garnish.
Confronted with accusations, Cushman admits that, no, he and his wife never did tell anyone who they were. But it wasn’t some nefarious scheme, he insists. Instead, he says, they were trying to protect their secret. “We were really paranoid. This is a v
ery fragile business, and it was just Nancy and I taking the risk. We didn’t want to jinx it,” he says. So paranoid, in fact, that they made everyone from their landlord down to their staff and purveyors sign confidentiality agreements. No one outside of this circle, not even the community of chefs Cushman was about to enter, would know what they were up to. “I’m not one to trumpet my arrival,” he says. “I thought it would be strange to announce myself. If I did, I might have told them I was a chef, but I wouldn’t give away my business plan.”
“When you have that much on the line,” says Nancy, “you just…don’t…talk about it.”
“[The chef] creates magic as he labors over each dish…. [Especially] impressive was the Santa Barbara sea urchin in a green-apple wasabi foam, held together by a white nori crust. Anago tempura, freshwater eel in a light batter served with a velvety shirred egg in its shell and seasoned with green tea salt, followed. The flavor was extraordinary.”
Food writers, not unlike fashion scribes, are programmed to obsess over the new, the next, the percolating trend. After rhapsodizing over the menu at some hot chef’s new boîte, a year later the next “It” chef is crowned, and the previous darling falls off the radar, cast aside like last season’s hemline. Though the passage above reads as though it could have been clipped from one of the many stories heaping praise on Cushman and his magic sushi, it is almost five years old. In fact, it’s from a 2004 New York Times rave by Nina Simonds about Oringer’s Uni.
That year, Uni was the king of Boston’s raw-fish scene, and Oringer was the toast of the town. Although Oringer has kept media interest alive by opening a tapas place (Toro, 2005), then a steakhouse (KO Prime, 2007), then a taco joint (La Verdad, 2007), Uni—his still-excellent upscale sashimi restaurant—has since been largely ignored by a food press distracted, as ever, by the next new thing.
Which brings up the question: Is it just envy that’s fueling resentment toward Cushman? Is it simply hard to sit back and cheer on the next rising star?
“Absolutely not,” says Oringer. The deception, he claims, is the heart of it: “If [Cushman] would’ve told me, ‘I’m planning on opening a Japanese restaurant,’ we would have a completely different relationship. I would have said, ‘What can I do to help?'”
“He wasn’t telling the truth,” agrees Yen. “If I go out and have a question about a dish, I say, ‘Would you like to share your recipe or the ingredients you’re using?’ And I tell them who I am. Chefs have rules. One is that they respect each other. That’s it. [What he did] doesn’t make anyone respect him.”
The way Schlow describes it, the clan of Boston chefs takes some real finessing to penetrate. “Look, it’s not even a responsibility [to introduce yourself] in this town,” he says. “It’s just the right thing to do. Pay a little homage. Tell them you’re opening a restaurant. Especially if you want to be accepted.”
Not everyone seems to own the same playbook, though. According to Lynch, doing your homework on other restaurants is part of the job. “I think every chef goes into restaurants and takes copious notes—even if it’s on how not to do things,” she says. “I write things down, too. [Cushman] probably sat there and had 22 items and wanted to remember them all. Maybe he was thinking, ‘Ken has that, so I’m not going to do it in that order.’ I don’t know. Having someone take notes on your food, quite frankly, is an honor.”
In that same 2004 New York Times piece hyping Uni and Oringer, Simonds went on to give props to Lynch, Yen, and Jasper White, heralding a “raw-bar renaissance” in the city. On the face of it, the article reads as a tribute. But on closer analysis, the tenor of the story—letting the city folk know that, believe it or not, there’s some good food to be had out in the provinces!—becomes emblematic of a fraught relationship with the national food press that is distinctly Bostonian and, perhaps, highlights an even deeper source of animus toward Cushman.
Before the 1990s, the local dining scene, famously, was largely ignored by the rest of the country. With only a handful of three- and four-star restaurants here, the number of brilliant chefs, too, was small. Among them: Shire, White, Hamersley, and Schlesinger—who had all cooked with one another at some point. Through the ’90s, this elite group joined forces to raise Boston’s culinary standards, and any local chef worth his fleur de sel had worked with, or under, one of them.
Yet even as these pioneers were striving to catapult the city out of the gastronomic dark ages, they were being skewered by the national press. In 1997 Boston’s food scene was described as going “beyond idiosyncratic to the fringes of derangement” by GQ‘s Alan Richman. His takedown, “The Boston Glob,” targeted these same founding chefs who were taking pride in elevating the city’s standards. (According to Richman, English was the worst offender, turning out dishes with overwrought ingredients and ridiculous portions, inspiring his lesser imitators, of which Boston had many, to do the same. “His style is not haute cuisine, but a heap of cuisine,” Richman wrote.)
Since then, acknowledgment of Boston’s culinary worth from the national press has amounted to little beyond one-off mentions and individual chef awards. Even Bruni’s paean to O Ya, heady though it was, came with a fairly significant caveat. His list of the 10 best new restaurants, remember, included only those outside New York City. Left unsaid, but conveyed loud and clear, was the message that only with such a handicap would these restaurants have been worthy of mention at all.
In the face of that dismissive attitude, the handful of chefs who have managed to make a splash on the national scene formed a tight-knit group. Like any community united against a common enemy, they eye outsiders with suspicion.
Indeed, the arrival in the ’90s of chefs like Schlow and Oringer, who hadn’t worked at any of the forefathers’ restaurants, raised eyebrows, recalls Annie Copps, a senior editor at Yankee magazine (and one-time food editor for Boston). “When they first came around, Ken was suspect, Michael was suspect, even Todd [English] was,” she says. But introductions quickly smoothed over any backlash. “I remember meeting Michael for the first time,” says Schlesinger. Christopher Myers, already a fixture within the city’s restaurant elite, brought him around for an introduction, he recalls. “And I remember meeting Ken for the first time. He knew my friend Jim Burke [former chef of Waltham’s Tuscan Grill]. So everyone had an entrée into the group.”
Lynch, for her part, says she can’t understand what all the fuss is about. “They all complain that we’re not the dining destination other cities are and then someone comes in and does it well and it’s all ‘boo-hoo.’ What’s that about? Who made them the sushi kings?” she says. Her view is the more, the merrier. “All I ask is, just open a good restaurant.”
Nancy Cushman wedges her way in between two diners seated at O Ya’s dark-wood bar, setting down a miniature champagne flute filled halfway with a silky, caramel-colored sake. Like magic, a server appears behind her, delivering the plated sliver of chocolate-drizzled foie gras nigiri it’s being paired with. It’s a bustling weeknight in late August, and there’s not a sp
are seat in the house.
A soundtrack of B-side classic rock plays faintly overhead, occasionally drowned out by a group of cooing diners watching the sushi masters shimmy velvety swaths of fish off pristine lobes. As one of the chefs wields a tiny crème brûlée torch to brand two strips of hamachi with a crusty lace pattern, there’s an audible gasp.
Tim Cushman stands in the kitchen doorway, one hand on his hip, holding a towel. Focused on the food, he examines every plate as it leaves the kitchen, his eyes darting to the diners’ faces to gauge their reactions. All looks good.
Cushman’s own face reveals little of the turbulent year and a half since O Ya’s opening—neither the dazzling plaudits nor the intramural contempt. Outwardly, at least, he remains ambivalent about what to make of all that has transpired since his arrival on the scene. “There was no deceit intended—it was just my business sense,” he says. “I realize I was naive to what I was coming into here. But I wouldn’t change the way we did what we did.”