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

People

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.

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

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.

7min read
Culture

The Middle East And North Africa Are Brimming With Untapped Female Potential

Women of the Middle East have made significant strides in the past decade in a number of sectors, but huge gaps remain within the labor market, especially in leadership roles.


A huge number of institutions have researched and quantified trends of and obstacles to the full utilization of females in the marketplace. Gabriela Ramos, is the Chief-of-Staff to The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an alliance of thirty-six governments seeking to improve economic growth and world trade. The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.

To realize the possibilities, attention needs to be directed toward the most significantly underutilized resource: the women of MENA—the Middle East and North African countries. Educating the men of MENA on the importance of women working and holding leadership roles will improve the economies of those nations and lead to both national and global rewards, such as dissolving cultural stereotypes.

The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.

In order to put this issue in perspective, the MENA region has the second highest unemployment rate in the world. According to the World Bank, more women than men go to universities, but for many in this region the journey ends with a degree. After graduating, women tend to stay at home due to social and cultural pressures. In 2017, the OECD estimated that unemployment among women is costing some $575 billion annually.

Forbes and Arabian Business have each published lists of the 100 most powerful Arab businesswomen, yet most female entrepreneurs in the Middle East run family businesses. When it comes to managerial positions, the MENA region ranks last with only 13 percent women among the total number of CEOs according to the Swiss-based International Labor Organization (ILO.org publication "Women Business Management – Gaining Momentum in the Middle East and Africa.")

The lopsided tendency that keeps women in family business—remaining tethered to the home even if they are prepared and capable of moving "into the world"—is noted in a report prepared by OECD. The survey provides factual support for the intuitive concern of cultural and political imbalance impeding the progression of women into the workplace who are otherwise fully capable. The nations of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Jordan and Egypt all prohibit gender discrimination and legislate equal pay for men and women, but the progressive-sounding checklist of their rights fails to impact on "hiring, wages or women's labor force participation." In fact, the report continues, "Women in the six countries receive inferior wages for equal work… and in the private sector women rarely hold management positions or sit on the boards of companies."

This is more than a feminist mantra; MENA's males must learn that they, too, will benefit from accelerating the entry of women into the workforce on all levels. Some projections of value lost because women are unable to work; or conversely the amount of potential revenue are significant.

Elissa Freiha, founder of Womena, the leading empowerment platform in the Middle East, emphasizes the financial benefit of having women in high positions when communicating with men's groups. From a business perspective it has been proven through the market Index provider MSCI.com that companies with more women on their boards deliver 36% better equity than those lacking board diversity.

She challenges companies with the knowledge that, "From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies."

Freiha agrees that educating MENA's men will turn the tide. "It is difficult to argue culturally that a woman can disconnect herself from the household and community." Her own father, a United Arab Emirates native of Lebanese descent, preferred she get a job in the government, but after one month she quit and went on to create Womena. The fact that this win-lose situation was supported by an open-minded father, further propelled Freiha to start her own business.

"From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies." - Elissa Frei

While not all men share the open-mindedness of Freiha's dad, a striking number of MENA's women have convincingly demonstrated that the talent pool is skilled, capable and all-around impressive. One such woman is the prominent Sheikha Lubna bint Khalid bin Sultan Al-Qasimi, who is currently serving as a cabinet minister in the United Arab Emirates and previously headed a successful IT strategy company.

Al-Qasimi exemplifies the potential for MENA women in leadership, but how can one example become a cultural norm? Marcello Bonatto, who runs Re: Coded, a program that teaches young people in Turkey, Iraq and Yemen to become technology leaders, believes that multigenerational education is the key. He believes in the importance of educating the parent along with their offspring, "particularly when it comes to women." Bonatto notes the number of conflict-affected youth who have succeeded through his program—a boot camp training in technology.

The United Nations Women alongside Promundo—a Brazil-based NGO that promotes gender-equality and non-violence—sponsored a study titled, "International Men and Gender Equality Survey of the Middle East and North Africa in 2017."

This study surveyed ten thousand men and women between the ages of 18 and 59 across both rural and urban areas in Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and the Palestinian Authority. It reports that, "Men expected to control their wives' personal freedoms from what they wear to when the couple has sex." Additionally, a mere one-tenth to one-third of men reported having recently carried out a more conventionally "female task" in their home.

Although the MENA region is steeped in historical tribal culture, the current conflict of gender roles is at a crucial turning point. Masculine power structures still play a huge role in these countries, and despite this obstacle, women are on the rise. But without the support of their nations' men this will continue to be an uphill battle. And if change won't come from the culture, maybe it can come from money. By educating MENA's men about these issues, the estimated $27 trillion that women could bring to their economies might not be a dream. Women have been empowering themselves for years, but it's time for MENA's men to empower its women.