2014 Los Angeles Rising Star Chef Niki Nakayama of n/naka

2014 Los Angeles Rising Star Chef Niki Nakayama of n/naka
May 2014

Born and raised in Los Angeles, Chef Niki Nakayama began her career at Takao restaurant in Brentwood, working under the guidance of Chefs Morihiro Onodera and Takao Izumida. Committed to exploring new techniques, Nakayama embarked on a three-year working tour of Japan, sampling her way through various regional flavors and immersing herself in the essentials of Japanese cuisine. A formative learning experience came during Nakayama’s time working at Shirakawa-Ya Ryokan, a Japanese inn owned by relatives. While there, Nakayama trained under Chef Masa Sato in the art of kaiseki, the traditional Japanese culinary practice that emphasizes the balance and seasonality of a series of dishes.

Upon her return to Los Angeles, Nakayama opened her first restaurant, Azami Sushi Cafe, which quickly became known for her omakase menu. Inaka, Nakayama’s ambitious second venture, functioned as a Japanese takeout by day and an intimate eight-course chef’s table by night. With this project, Nakayama discovered that focusing on tasting menus allowed her to do what she enjoys most: creating a thoughtful and cohesive series of dishes that provides a personal experience for each diner. n/naka, a passion project 10 years in the making, is the expansion of Nakayama’s previous endeavors, applying the artistic and technical notions of kaiseki to create an ever-evolving seasonal narrative within each meal.


I Support: Leukemia & Lymphoma Society


Why: This charity is dear to me because I have personally lost a person to blood related cancer.

Interview with Los Angeles Rising Star Chef Niki Nakayama of n/naka

Antoinette Bruno: How did you get your start? 
Niki Nakayama: After I finished high school, I always anticipated studying in Japan, to live there for a while. When I was there, I was completely amazed that people were so involved with food. Growing up, we ate for enjoyment and nourishment, but not on the level when I first visited Japan. People were still just coming into it in L.A. Everywhere in Japan you're bombarded by food—one strawberry shortcake done in 10 different flavors. There’s a crazy obsession with food—it was 1996. At the time, I was fortunate enough to visit my cousin whose family had an inn in northwest Tokyo. They exposed me to all of these dishes and cuisine. Up until then, I hadn't fully experienced the kaiseki meal. I helped them out for the summer and it just made sense that when I came back, I was in food.

I've always enjoyed cooking for friends and family, but not at that level that is so intricate. I worked for my parent's seafood distribution company, but never thought I'd want to sell fish. So, it was a nice way around working with them. 

AB: Who's your mentor?
My aunt in Japan that has the inn. I enjoyed that she was teaching me. No matter what, at the end of the day the food has to taste good. I could explore all of the aspects of the visual and presentation, but I learned to always protect the ingredient. I love the ingredient in its natural setting, but the taste of the ingredient shouldn't get lost.

AB: How are you involved in the local culinary community?
NN: I'm not involved as much as I would like to be right now. There's no time while we're building this business. In the future, there's a lot more I'd like to contribute in terms of charitable giving and the culinary community; talking about how we can promote sustainability and local gardens.

AB: How are you working to make n/nake sustainable?
The old school Japanese people may have a hard time understanding sustainability because it's the mindset that if you want that ingredient you should be able to have it. Times are changing. As more information and news becomes available, there's a lot more of an awareness. It's unfortunate that sustainability is a foreign concept. The whole concept in Japan is respect for that ingredient. They're never going to be the perfect shape. Our job as chefs is to utilize it in the best way we can. It's our job to present that to guests, in a way that is interesting to them

AB: What’s the hardest thing you’ve  had to do in your career?
A lot of the learning I’ve done. There's only so much people can teach you in forms of basic training, but from there on, every chef should do their best to find their own voice. There’s a lot of personal research, training, and understanding what it is you feel most connected to. The learning process starts from there. You have to allow yourself to fail, to experiment, to believe in your ideas. When I was opening this restaurant, it was risky to present just a tasting menu and kaiseki to guests, but I felt like with all of the things I had learned, I was ready to take a chance. I had to believe in that vision, what might be accepted and what might not be. Learning what cooking means to me is hard. Not to mention, I’m a woman in a man's world. 

AB: How do you define success? What are your future plans?
The constant need to feel I’m continuously growing as a chef. I would like to present menus where we have our kaiseki, but also fun themed menus that evolve around a concept, foodwise. Other than that, I would like to do good with whatever it is we can, raising awareness for the environment, contribute to that. 

AB: How do kaiseki and sustainability work together?
NN: The first rule of cooking one learns in Japan is, "Sozai o Mamoru," which means to protect an ingredient; it also means to showcase an ingredient's flavor without masking it. The reason I wanted to learn kaiseki cuisine is because there are so many ideas and meanings behind every dish that’s served. The greatest thing that I've learned in kaiseki cuisine is the core teaching of gratitude, the appreciation for ingredients that nature has to offer. In understanding this, I feel that sustainability and the philosophy behind kaiseki cuisine are intertwined. It becomes natural to cook and create menus that are dictated by what is available and sustainable.  

At n/naka, we’re at the beck and call of what nature has to offer. For example, our own garden produces vegetables of all sizes and shapes and in quantities that are abundant to minuscule. I enjoy this because it just means I have to learn to be more flexible and change my ideas to accommodate the ingredients. With seafood, it’s very much the same. As I've become more educated on products that are sustainable, I do everything I can to feature only those items on our menu. That may make the ingredient rotation a bit more limited, but it also means I have to be more creative with its usage and presentation.