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A Brief Introduction to Niki Nakayama
Niki Nakayama is the world-renowned chef, culinary personality, and owner of the award-winning Los Angeles restaurant n/naka. The youngest daughter of immigrant parents, Nakayama was born and raised in Los Angeles, where her family owned a wholesale seafood business. After high school, she traveled to Japan to pursue another love: music. She ended up in Niigata, a port city north of Tokyo, and worked at Shirakawa-Ya Ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn owned by her extended family.
When she moved back to Los Angeles, Niki went to culinary school and landed a job at a high-end sushi bar in Los Angeles’s Brentwood neighborhood. But in 1997, she decided to return to the ryokan in Niigata, where she took on a formal apprenticeship in kaiseki under Chef Masa Sato, who trained her in the art of kaiseki over three years. The decision to do so set her on a path that would revolutionize the culinary world’s understanding of Japanese food and seasonal cooking at large while creating a unique dining experience for the world to enjoy.
Niki Nakayama and Kaiseki
Kaiseki is a traditional Japanese culinary art form that reflects the constantly changing rhythms of nature and is rooted in tea ceremony rituals. In this style of food, “seasonality” means more than spring, summer, fall, and winter. One tenet of the culinary philosophy is to appreciate each moment in time—whether it’s the number of days that a particular vegetable is at its peak or the number of weeks that yellowtail fish are at their fattiest.
- Beginnings: Japanese kaiseki was codified in the sixteenth century as a light meal consisting of rice, miso soup, and a few side dishes, like vinegared fish and simmered vegetables. The kaiseki associated with tea eventually created an offshoot, a multi-course meal now served at restaurants and ryokan like the one where Niki apprenticed in Niigata.
- Creating a new tradition: Kaiseki refers to the meal and the methodology used to prepare it. A kaiseki meal explores textures, temperatures, colors, and techniques; each course is meant to flow from one to the next, build on the last course, or take you in a new direction. Niki’s ability to reimagine the modern kaiseki meal—a traditionally male-dominated format bound by prescribed aesthetics and etiquette—has meant successfully adapting a centuries-old craft to reflect new techniques, values, and perspectives. “I consider myself someone who really loves what tradition stands for, but I also believe that tradition needs to keep moving with time,” Niki says. “Traditional places in Japanese history do not necessarily have space for women.”
- Highlighting nature: The intention behind kaiseki is to showcase nature’s best offerings in a particular location. Niki and Carole, her wife and sous chef, stay true to this intention, right in the middle of Los Angeles, a city where all cultures come together—which has meant incorporating new flavors and processes. Kaiseki should reflect wherever you are, whatever grows around you, and the thoughtfulness with which you treat your ingredients. It’s about the process and attention. “So much of Japanese cooking is all the various steps we take and the things that we think about when we’re working with an ingredient,” Niki says. “It’s always on some level ‘listening’ to the ingredient.”
N/naka by Niki Nakayama
After training in Niigata, Niki returned to Los Angeles and opened her own sushi restaurant in 2000. It was a successful venture but ultimately left her feeling depleted, so she sold the sushi business in 2008 to focus on her goal: opening her own kaiseki restaurant. Three years later, Niki revealed everything she learned in the hills of Niigata in a striking, revelatory new vision. She called it n/naka.
When n/naka debuted in the Palms neighborhood of Culver City in West Los Angeles, the food and its chef garnered rave reviews, including one from Jonathan Gold, the late Los Angeles Times food critic. Zagat ranked Niki’s venture as the best restaurant in Los Angeles, and she was featured on the acclaimed Netflix anthology, Chef’s Table. N/naka was awarded two Michelin stars in the 2019 Michelin guide.
In the kitchen, she’s joined by her wife and sous chef, Carole Iida-Nakayama. Together, they continue to forge an updated vision of a beloved Japanese cuisine against a Californian backdrop. The Japanese restaurant offers a renowned tasting menu that has featured everything from sashimi and sushi to bento boxes with abalone pasta. Ten years after n/naka opened its doors, Nakayama and Iida-Nakayama opened n/soto, an ode to the global influences on modern Japanese-American cuisine, expressed through elaborate, collaborative bento boxes created in partnership with other chefs.
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