The Knives Come Out
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.