Niki Nakayama is the owner and chef of n/naka, the highly-acclaimed Japanese restaurant focused on the art of kaiseki in Los Angeles, California. This traditional multi-course Japanese dining experience relies on the freshest seasonal ingredients, presenting them in their most natural state with an artful perspective.
Being born and raised in LA, Chef Niki learned the passage of a chef when she moved to Japan to study the strict techniques, art, and philosophies of Japanese cuisine—specifically kaiseki. Upon her return to the sunny state of California, she was inspired to impart a new style of eating with thoughtful meaning behind each plate to the LA community.
I am joined by photographer & filmmaker Marat Shaya in the kitchen of n/naka with Chef Niki while she prepares the evening’s menu.
At what point did you decide to pursue a career in food?
It was when I moved to Japan. I was so excited to see the food scene that was happening there. I think Japanese people think of food as some sort of identity for the regions they come from. The appreciation for food is part of daily conversations.
I moved out to Japan in ’97 until 2000. I studied at my cousin’s inn. Some of the food I got to try, I didn’t have here [in Los Angeles]. It was incredibly amazing. With the Japanese food we have here, a lot of people associate Japanese food with teriyaki, tempura, or sushi. But there is so much more to Japanese food than what was available at the time. I thought maybe one day, if I am able to learn enough, I can bring it back and try to share with people here what I got to experience there.
While in Japan, you focused on the art of kaiseki.
Correct. I had never experienced food where we ate so many different courses all at the same time. A lot of inns in Japan, when they serve food, it is based on the kaiseki program. Traditional, banquet style. I don’t think people in LA have ever had that before because I haven’t.
I have a dish where we marinate thinly sliced sashimi with kelp. The idea is to impart the umami of the kelp into the fish. Very little seasoning is necessary. For New Years, a lot of dishes are pre-cooked ahead of time so that during the New Years celebration, there are two or three days of no cooking. There is a style called osechi. Osechi usually comes in three layer boxes. Each box has different types of things that have been cooked. The first layer could be vinegar dishes or pickled dishes, the second layer are braised dishes, and the third layer are grilled dishes.
A lot of the food in New Years dishes, there are ideas behind it. For example, a dish using kombu—which means kelp—but Japanese people like to take words like that and turn it into something that sounds like it. With kombu, it is associated with the word yorokobu which means happiness. That’s why we would put kombu into that box; it’s the idea of having happiness in it. What you usually see in that preparation is kombu rolled up with fish inside.
We came up with kobujime, which is a traditional Japanese style preparation of sashimi. When it’s rolled up, it’s representative of being a scroll. Inside the scroll is the idea of knowledge and intelligence. We have this scroll with fish inside, and the fish I’ve used is Japanese snapper which is Sea Bream. And Sea Bream has always been celebratory—they call it the King of Fish. I thought, it would be great to put intelligence and happiness into the scroll and then to present it to our guests. Everything has meaning to it.
Is it common in Japan to have meaning behind dishes?
I think for kaiseki, in particular. For example, a lot of people love the autumn season because there is the celebration of the moon. A lot of chefs plate up dishes for the moon festival so everything on the dish is representative of that moon festival. They’ll cut up vegetables that look like the moon and garnish it with leaves that look like autumn. It’s basically to remind the guest that we’re in the season where we’re enjoying the moon festival for autumn. It’s not just “here, eat the food!”
What inspires and motivates you?
I think it’s always trying to find that fine balance of what is traditional. There are great things about tradition, but not everything that is traditional tends to work for what is now. The idea is to not lose its identity but impart new ideas to it. I want to retain what it’s suppose to be but I need to add something that represents what we’re doing or who we are. With everything in life, there is great tradition that you have to carry and then there is tradition that we should change with the times.
How would you describe the differences in learning how to become a chef in Japan versus America?
Japanese people are very protective of the things that they have learned. For example, if I were to take on an apprentice, the apprentice would be somebody that I had incredible faith in, in order to want to pass on the things that I have learned. When you work with something consistently, even if you’re cooking rice for a whole year, it may seem very tedious, but it’s that strict training. Like understanding when you touch the rice, it may be from the same bag or a different bag but the texture is different. Today’s rice might be a little firmer from what I remember yesterday, which means I should cut the water a little bit based on the humidity in the air today. If I add a little bit more water to it, my rice might break open and I’d lose that shape when I am making sushi.
“With everything in life, there is great tradition that you have to carry and then there is tradition that we should change with the times.”
When I went to culinary school, it was a great experience that I got to learn so many things in such a short time. But a lot of the times when we made things, we would only make it once. There was no way I could say “I mastered that!” There’s no way. You have to keep doing something constantly and learning all of the nuisances in order to really grasp it.