Niki Nakayama dishes out ‘modern kaiseki’ with a JA twist

Chef Niki Nakayama. photo by Zen Sekizawa

Niki Nakayama may not be a celebrity chef like Gordon Ramsay or Masaharu Morimoto, who have appeared on television cooking shows for years, but Nakayama is an acclaimed chef in her own right with two Los Angeles restaurants, n/naka and n/soto, under her helm. Kaiseki cuisine at n/naka is a multi-course menu that she custom creates each day, with ingredients she sources locally, and cooks and assembles them to serve in her sold-out house. The other restaurant, n/soto, serves more casual Japanese street-food inspired fare that is cooked and served by chefs she hires and trusts to come up with creative dishes.

Chef Niki Nakayama, wearing her white chef's uniform, poses in front of a commercial kitchen.
Chef Niki Nakayama. photo by Zen Sekizawa

Nakayama is a darling of food journalists and social media for her creative “modern kaiseki” food, which combines the values of traditional Japanese cuisine with a Japanese American cultural perspective. It’s rooted in traditional cooking, but she brings her Japanese American flair and expands the traditions as she sees fit. She’s been a judge on an episode of Ramsay’s series “MasterChef” as well as on “Top Chef: Los Angeles.” She was the subject of a Netflix “Chef’s Table” documentary. And to top it off, she now also teaches an online Master Class about kaiseki, the Japanese style on which she has stamped her own culinary creativity.

When “Chef’s Table” contacted her, she was flattered that they would consider her for an episode of the series’ first season in 2015.

In the opening sequence of the documentary, she says over footage of her assembling a course of a kaiseki meal as if it were a work of art, “Cooking is the one thing that I feel I can completely trust what I’m doing. When I’m plating a dish my mind is completely shut off. It’s all based on feeling. ‘This has to be here; this has to be here. This feels right here. This looks right here.’”

She may have been flattered, but when she’s in the kitchen, she’s focused and unfazed. She’s a painter at her canvas. Likewise, when Master Class reached out during the COVID-19 pandemic about teaching an 18-part course about modern Japanese cuisine for home cooks using locally-sourced ingredients, she admits that she was again, flattered. “Of course,” she shrugs. “I’m flattered by everything. Sometimes I can’t believe people ask me for these things.”

Abalone Spaghetti. photo by Zen Sekizawa

By now she has a rock-solid reputation with articles and videos galore that praise her talent. Yet, she knows she struggles with self-confidence. It’s the downside of a Japanese cultural value, of not tooting one’s own horn, of being humble. It’s a basic trait in Japanese society, but can hold back an artist in America. “I wish I just had that confidence all the time. But then I feel that on some level, of course I do have the confidence because if I try really hard and just keep working at it I’ll figure it out.”

She’s figured out plenty in her 47 years. Her success (and Michelin stars) is proof of that. But she also holds onto that lack of confidence as part of her cooking. She doesn’t want to be the kind of chef who throws tantrums in the kitchen and confuses confidence with mere ego. “That just feels very anti-Japanese,” Nakayama says. “I think it’s been the one thing that has always kept me grounded,” she admits to the upside before expressing the flip side: Accompanied by her life- and business-partner Carole Iida, Nakayama explains her career journey in the documentary as a chef growing up in Los Angeles and being trained both in a culinary school in Pasadena, Calif. and a sushi restaurant before going to Japan to immerse herself in traditional kaiseki cuisine under the tutelage of a chef at a ryokan, or country inn, owned by cousins. Upon her return to LA, she opened a sushi restaurant but closed it in 2008 and opened n/naka. The moniker is a mash-up of her name.

Scallop Tartare Carrots appears artfully plated on a black dish.
Scallop Tartare Carrots. photos by Zen Sekizawa

Nakayama and Iida present the Master Class together, and they have great, natural chemistry as a team. Nakayama expresses her expertise with Japanese culture and cooking, and turns to Iida for further explanations and discussion. The pair make for powerful role models, because it’s rare in Japanese restaurant culture to have women chefs (even though women do all the cooking and raise families at home) and to have an LGBTQ couple running a restaurant.

Nakayama says that early on, she decided to close off the kitchen with shoji screens so diners could concentrate on the food being served, not on who’s in the kitchen. Some Japanese men objected to the idea that women cooked their kaiseki courses and would even leave. She says that still happens from time to time.

But she focuses on her art, and just wants to please everyone who comes into her restaurant. Even the ones who would be aghast if they knew who was cooking for them.

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