Restaurateur and advanced sake professional Nancy Cushman, 46, is a busy woman. She and husband Tim opened the lauded Japanese restaurant O Ya in 2007 and Hojoko in 2015. Recently, they opened two restaurants at Time Out Market: Gogo Ya and Ms. Clucks Deluxe Chicken & Dumplings. In New York City, they run O Ya, Covina, and the Roof at Park South. There is also an O Ya in Mexico City. Later this year, the duo will unveil Bianca at Chestnut Hill’s The Street development.
“Bianca means white in Italian — it’s going to be a blank slate. We want it to be a place where you could come to eat anything with anybody, not Japanese or Italian. A New American neighborhood restaurant,” she says.
What’s the first restaurant that you ever visited in Boston?
I was visiting Boston with Tim, who’s from Boston, and we went to Biba — Lydia Shire and Susan Regis. I had sweetbreads for the first time in my life and loved them. Lydia has been pioneering forever. . . . She had an offal section of the menu so many years ago. That’s the one dish I remember from that day.
What’s one thing you’d like to fix about the restaurant industry here?
I would love to see higher wages paid to restaurant employees, but it’s a quadruple-edged sword. We can’t charge higher prices that guests won’t pay, yet the cost of living in Boston is so high compared with other cities. With restaurant wages, you’re forced to live farther outside the city. Then transportation becomes important, but it’s limited in time and scope. It’s this whole conundrum of all those things. I would love to see how we could pay higher wages.
What other restaurants do you visit?
We love Tiger Mama. Row 34. Always love Oleana. Those would be my top. And, actually, one 70-year-old train car diner restaurant called Red Wing in Foxborough. We live out near Gillette Stadium. Tim’s been going to it since he was a kid, and it’s a classic old nostalgic New England train car restaurant.
What’s the worst restaurant experience you’ve ever had?
This happened fairly recently in a city that shall not be named. It is not Boston. Tim and I were sitting at a bar in a nice restaurant, and we asked the bartender to talk to the wine sommelier. We saw the wine sommelier talk to the bartender, the bartender pointed at us, and [the sommelier] shook his head no. We know it’s because of the way Tim was dressed. His uniform outside his uniform is a flannel shirt. We totally got judged by the way we looked. I am 1,000 percent sure. He’s mistaken for a farmer all the time. . . . We told the bartender we saw the whole interaction. It was terrible. Lesson: Never judge a book by its cover!
How could the Boston food scene improve?
That’s a hard one. I think it’s a really great scene, but the liquor license is a barrier to entry for chefs and entrepreneurs. The process in particular needs to be looked at and solved for. It’s super prohibitive. . . . I think of people who could create jobs, and tax dollars, and all sorts of things in a community, and that’s what’s holding back so many people. It seems nonsensical.
What’s your earliest memory that made you think: I want to work in restaurants someday?
My first memory where food made my eyes light up was in 1993. I was in Spain, studying abroad. I was in Valencia, eating paella. The tiny octopus in there with the tiny legs was such an exotic ingredient to me, and it was such an exotic place to me at the time. I had this moment: Oh my gosh, this is what food can taste like. It was the first time since my Midwest meat and potatoes upbringing that made my eyes open wide. I’m from La Grange, Ill.
How has the restaurant scene changed since you first arrived in Boston?
I got here in 1997; I was in advertising. I think what’s awesome is how many great young chefs who worked under other chefs have branched out and done their own restaurants. Not just chefs, but bartenders and chefs. I think the bar scene has become as important as the food scene, and it’s really cool to see so many young aspiring folks, talented, taking the plunge and offering unique things to the city.
Name three adjectives for Boston diners.
Fun, open, but always tempered with the New England high expectations.
What’s the most overdone trend right now?
One thing that I see is making food for photography’s sake instead of for taste buds’ sake. Also take that with a grain of salt; I only have food photos on my phone. People would think I was the most depressing person and that I had no life if anyone ever found my phone.
What type of restaurant is Boston missing?
I’d love more authentic cuisine — I crave Thai and Vietnamese and Mexican food. They exist in pockets, but it would be nice to see more of those three cuisines, selfishly.
What are you reading?
A 73-page employee manual. I also love Oprah Winfrey. I find her so amazing from a business perspective, from a background perspective. She has a book called “The Path Made Clear: Discovering Your Life’s Direction and Purpose.” It’s a self-assessment book.
How’s your commute?
Well, it depends what city. It’s either one hour or four hours, depending on Boston or New York. Commute is an hour to my house to any of the restaurants [in Boston]. We live in Norfolk.
What’s the one food you never want to eat again?
I freak out about eyeballs in general. My eye doctor knows I pass out if he touches my eyeballs. I accidentally ate a fish eye once, and since then, eyeballs of any kind, I will not go near. They freak me out, completely.
What’s your most missed Boston restaurant?
Hamersley’s. Gordon, if you’re listening, where are you? Come back.
If you had to eat your last meal in Boston, what would it be?
Aw. I would actually want Tim to cook for me and make me a pepperoni pizza in our backyard pizza oven with a bottle of wine. Can I say that?