Tim Cushman '80
A Passion for Music and Sushi
Growing up during the sixties, Tim Cushman '80 took up the guitar and dreamed of being a rock star. Like many a Berklee student, he moved to Los Angeles to make connections and get his start in the business. And like many a hopeful musician, he found work cooking at a local restaurant to make ends meet. Unexpectedly he found a new passion: food. More than 25 years after his Berklee graduation, among food critics, gourmets, and ecstatic Gayot, Zagat, and Yelp reviewers, Cushman is a rock star in the culinary world.
To say that Cushman is the chef and owner of a good Japanese restaurant in Boston is a bit like saying that Kirk Hammett plays guitar in a popular metal band. Cushman opened his restaurant o ya in 2007 and received a gushing review from the New York Times food critic Frank Bruni, who named o ya the number-one new restaurant in the United States in 2008 (the best outside New York). Food & Wine magazine selected o ya as one of the top new restaurants in the world and named Cushman best new chef.
"I just got so fascinated with food, I took it for a ride," Cushman says, seated at o ya's "chef's counter," shortly before opening for business on a recent afternoon. Three Japanese chefs prepped behind the counter as Billie Holiday sang "Pennies from Heaven" and Amy London crooned "Come Fly with Me" over the house system.
While o ya's spectacular food is the star here, the music is more than background ambience. Online reviewers occasionally take note of it without even realizing Cushman's connection with music.
The Colors of Music and Food
"Music is very similar to food," Cushman says. "It appeals to a lot of the senses. I think in musical terms: harmony. Most food is dark or brightly colored. [With] dark, earthy flavors; minor chord. [With] bright food; sharp. It works like that - really," he says.
Cushman, who grew up in Millis, a small town 19 miles southwest of Boston, says he was attracted to music from a young age. He waited until he was 23 to enroll at Berklee, after several years performing in a band to save and borrow enough money for tuition. He made up the time by completing his degree in guitar performance in three years. "I was impatient," he recalls.
He was starting to make music industry connections in Los Angeles when he took a restaurant job. Within three months, he was running the kitchen. "Food ended up winning," he says. "It was just a new adventure."
As a mecca for musicians hoping to be discovered, California became a place of discovery for Cushman. He absorbed the diversity of its cultures - the sizable Japanese community in particular. He discovered his affinity for Japanese cuisine and culture. "How refined the Japanese are," he notes, relating how in Japan cab drivers wear gloves and the cab seats are lined with linen. "On the train, everybody is quiet and respectful toward each other. It's like they wake up every day and make the best of whatever they do."
Cushman's found that the restaurant business isn't so different from the music industry. Along with tenacity and talent, you need to make connections at just the right time. He did that by becoming a sous chef in the sashimi restaurant of the great Japanese chef Roy Yamaguchi and briefly apprenticing with sushi master Nobu Matsuhisa.
No Overnight Sensation
Cushman is also an example of how an overnight sensation is typically anything but. "It's really perseverance," he stresses. "I pursued food, and I just kept going and going. If I had done the same thing with music, I am pretty sure I'd be at a similar level."
His adventures in food took him around the world. As a corporate chef for the Chicago-based Lettuce Entertain You, he did research in Japan, Thailand, Italy, Mexico, and other countries to create menus for the group's new restaurant concepts. In 1994 he launched a restaurant consulting business, four years before he relocated to Boston with his wife, Nancy, o ya's co-owner and sake sommelier.
In 2007, people in Boston -and beyond - discovered Tim Cushman. Appropriately enough, o ya means "to discover" in Japanese. The restaurant is housed in a restored century-old brick firehouse on a seemingly hidden street a short walk from Boston's South Station. The unmarked entrance on the side of the building is a subtle but deliberate allusion to the restaurant's name. "We didn't choose the location; we chose the building," he explains.
The stylish yet calming space is where contemporary Japan meets historic New England. The 17-seat counter, where guests can watch the chefs prepare inventive and nontraditional sushi and sashimi, is made of recycled wood from barns in New Hampshire and Vermont. Ten tables line the wall on the opposite side of the smallish room. Cushman says he strives to make a customer's visit to o ya a multidimensional experience, with attention paid to atmosphere, lighting, music. For the complete artistic production, guests partake of omakase, the 17-course chef's tasting menu. It's wildly expensive - and popular.
For Cushman, running a restaurant is akin to putting on a show. "He takes charge of dazzling," Bruni wrote in the March 2008 Times review that put o ya on the map. "And does so with intricate, stunningly creative dishes grounded in, but not restrained by, Japanese tradition." Bruni raved about the "quality of the ingredients, the warmth of the service and the coziness of the setting."
O ya continues to be one of Boston's most celebrated restaurants. In the recent edition of Zagat, o ya received the extraordinarily high food rating of 29 and the spot was included in seven "top" lists for the city's restaurants, including those for food, service, and overall popularity. The price of success? "Expectation levels are superhigh," Cushman says. "It's a big responsibility to live up to those expectations and to exceed them. I climb the mountain every day."
Cushman is matter of fact about his food's wow factor. "I like to eat tasty food. It's what I would want to eat. I like to excel at things and I'm always afraid I won't, and that always pushes me to be the best I can be."
He and his staff are always working on new ideas and taking time to develop recipes. "It's like writing new songs," he explains. He tries to mentor his staff as well. "When you own a restaurant, there are many moving parts."
Cushman still tries to fit playing music into every day. "Even if I only play for 10 minutes, I'm fine. I love playing and never want to give it up." He and Nancy even have a five-piece band, Rock Shrimp. At a recent charity event they played Hendrix, and a heavy metal version of Simon and Garfunkel's "Mrs. Robinson." "We like to rock out," he adds.
All Styles Get a Seat at the Table
"I like all music. Country and bluegrass have some of the best guitar playing on the planet. But my favorite, I have to say, is rock." O ya features a variety of musical genres, and Cushman grows animated talking about his process for selecting music for the restaurant just as he does when describing the importance of rice to sushi.
"I do all the soundtracks here," he notes. "I'll start off the evening mellow, then change. If it's a really energetic crowd, I'll play Snoop Dog or real eclectic stuff like 'I Am Sushi'" (a techno song from the 1980s that he found online). In their online reviews, diners note that they enjoyed dining to the unexpected sounds of Elvis's greatest hits, Alan Jackson, Bob Marley, and the Allman Brothers.
There is a Berklee undercurrent to all this, he notes. "The great thing about Berklee is that everybody who goes there to study goes for a purpose. Everyone is very focused. It gave me a great sense of accomplishment to graduate. I knew if I wanted to get from point A to point B, it would take hard work and dedication."