Chef Niki Nakayama: Make it Meaningful

May 2, 2017

“Even just in opening n/naka, I feel like I've altered the rules in this game…” Niki Nakayama, Founder, Owner and Head Chef at n/naka restaurant

As the owner, head chef, and mastermind behind her restaurant n/naka, Chef Niki Nakayama serves up coveted kaiseki dinners, a structured multi-course meal that emphasizes seasonality and extreme technical prowess. Niki truly straddles the line of tradition and innovation, sourcing local ingredients and employing centuries-old techniques. And she just may be the only woman in the world who does it. But while Niki is the master of her kitchen and craft, getting here was a struggle. In this episode, we tell the story of how she risked it all to launch her restaurant in one of the most cutthroat industries: food. And we learn that a commitment to your creative vision, even if it’s doing it the hard way, can sometimes take you to the top.

The Venture is hosted by Ashley Milne-Tyte

 

This episode features:
Niki Nakayama, owner and head chef at n/naka restaurant
Carole Iida-Nakayama, sous chef at n/naka restaurant
Besha Rodell, restaurant critic at LA Weekly
Eric Rath, history professor at The University of Kansas

Special thanks to:
Dan Allen, Farmscape
Sarah Rathbone, Dock to Dish LA

 

Transcript:
NIKI: When I taste a dish, I can tell you how it’s broken down, how to make it.

When I think a dish through, I can taste it in my brain. Like oh, it tastes like this. If I add this, it’ll taste like this. This texture…I can put it in my head and sort of gather what it will taste like, and how it could work, before having to actually use the ingredients to put it together.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte, and this is The Venture, a branded podcast from Virgin Atlantic and Gimlet Creative, about pioneering businesses and the people who made them possible.

In this series, we meet innovators, artists and risk takers who prove that business is an adventure.

And we’ll be taking this journey alongside Virgin Atlantic, Richard Branson’s transatlantic airline, a company that embodies the entrepreneurial spirit and celebrates challenging the status quo.

NIKI: So this is one of our dining areas, this is usually where the bigger group of six will sit, where we have a nice view of an outside garden..

I’m standing in the small dining room at n/naka restaurant in West Los Angeles. There’s a simple elegance to the room. Dark wood floors, and cream-colored walls. The only decoration is a row of artfully placed japanese antique cookie molds hand-carved out of wooden blocks. It’s a Tuesday afternoon, and the restaurant is closed today. It’s a day for prep and planning. Standing next to me, is Chef Nakayama.

NIKI: My name is Niki Nakayama and I am one of the chefs at n/naka restaurant in Los Angeles.
ASHLEY: One of the chefs.
NIKI: One of the chefs.

Niki isn’t just one of the chefs… she’s the chef and founder of n/naka, as in her name, Niki Nakayama. And this humble introduction tells you so much about who Niki is.

She’s one of the only female kaiseki chefs in the world. And what is kaiseki? It’s a style of Japanese cooking dating back to medieval times. From then until now, it’s traditionally been made by men for men.

ASHLEY: Are you the only female kaiseki chef?
NIKI: I don’t really know. But I hope that I’m not.
ASHLEY: Is there other kaiseki in LA?
NIKI: There’s probably going to be a few people opening up kaiseki restaurants, but from what I’ve heard they’re going to be opened by men.

The origins of kaiseki cuisine come from the formal Japanese tea ceremony, originally enjoyed by elite samurais and other Japanese nobility.

Kaiseki adheres to a strict set of rules governing the flavors and textures of each dish. Over time these rules have changed, but what’s stayed the same is the emphasis on variety, seasonality, visual appeal, attractive plating and small serving sizes.

In their 13 course meal, n/naka interprets it this way: Soup before sashimi, a grilled dish before steamed, a soft, melt-in-your mouth texture followed by crunchy and crisp. Sweet and bright balanced by savory and subtle. Each course is carefully calibrated to create this balance, and everything is plated with precision.

NIKI: It’s like working within a box where you really have to create something that fits an idea. But the challenging part is you can’t let that idea overpower what’s delicious. So it’s really, really hard and I love that challenge.

The challenge is what drives Niki. In her unassuming way, she is constantly striving to improve and reinvent, straddling the line between tradition and innovation. Cooking is both science and art, but kaiseki moves beyond that. The food is meant to tell a story.

ERIC: …And in a good kaiseki restaurant, the server will explain that story to you.

This is food scholar Eric Rath. He’s a professor at the University of Kansas, and he specializes in the history of premodern Japanese food culture.

ERIC: You might, at the end of your meal, be confronted with very small black soybeans and be told that’s a dessert. This happened to a friend of mine. And she was quite disappointed after thinking about all the money she was spending on this meal to be served a few beans at the end of it. But then, the server said “Oh no, these are very special beans. These are black soybeans that come from Tamba, which is near Kyoto, and they’ve been simmered for 24 hours and they’re very sweet and plump, and then you hear about that and, and you reflect upon the area they came from, their history, and maybe you have a different appreciation for those small humble soybeans that are sitting on your plate. There’s a long historical trend of seeing food as something more than just something meant for nutritional purposes. It’s creating art with food.

True to kaiseki rules, Niki creates a new menu every day with the season, based on the freshest ingredients she can get her hands on that morning. She grows herbs and vegetables in her front yard. She picks them in the morning and serves them that night in the restaurant. And if you’ve dined in her restaurant before, Niki will personally make sure that you will never eat the same thing twice. Which is a huge creative undertaking. And an expensive one. If you can manage to get a reservation at n/naka, a meal for two can easily cost you more than $700, if you also choose to get the custom wine or sake selections paired with each course.

BESHA: People are really appreciative of experiences that are really singular, you know, that are not like anything else.

This is Besha Rodell. She’s the restaurant critic for L.A. Weekly.

BESHA: There’s a $3 taco somewhere that competes with almost anything that you would want to eat here, and so I think you have to think of it more the way you would think of, you know, buying tickets to the opera or something like that, where it is an experience. The meal takes about, two and a half, three hours, and it’s all very, quiet, and very careful, and very lovely.

Here are some dishes on a recent n/naka menu:

Scallops, and sturgeon caviar, with beet puree, snow pea sauce and a crispy rice puff.

Zucchini blossoms stuffed with blue crab meat, and fried in tempura batter, served with a coconut-carrot sorbet.

And, grilled unagi eel with shitake mushroom, foie gras, and strawberries with a balsamic vinegar and soy sauce glaze.

And on the plate, all this food resembles a modern minimalist sculpture that you can also eat.
Niki places the food with extra long metal tweezers. Making sure one sprout or droplet of sauce is placed just so.

Every dish on the 13-course tasting menu is selected by Niki. And for repeat diners, her team keeps meticulous records of what every guest who has ever dined at n/naka has had to eat and drink. Before you come, they find out if you are left or right handed, and they’ll set the table accordingly.

To Niki, being meticulous is at the core of hospitality. And it’s also part of the challenge, it fuels her creativity. Again, here’s food critic Besha Rodell.

BESHA: This is, you know, 100 percent her vision and she’s done it exactly how she wants to do it.
ASHLEY: How rare is it for chefs to be able to do that?
BR: It’s exceedingly rare. I mean, I don’t think people have any idea how rare it is. So many things get in the way. The investors have opinions, your food cost would be untenable if you did the dishes you wanted to do. The city won’t let you put the fryer where you want to have it. So much compromise has to happen. You know, a business is a business, it has to be a business plan that would work, and most chefs want to do something that is probably not tenable. But she’s been, thankfully, really rewarded for it. And it could have gone the other way.

The odds have always been stacked against Niki. The fact that she’s a female head chef, in the world of fine dining, already makes her a unicorn.

On top of that she’s trying to convince Americans to eat an unfamiliar cuisine while charging them top dollar.

Not everyone could do it.

Then again, not everyone is Niki.

NIKI: No one expects anything from someone like me, especially in my younger years. It’s just, I’m not a very aggressive person. I don’t you know, rock the boat for a lack of a better word. But my will is strong. So it’s like, “okay I won’t argue with you about your ideas but I know how I’m going to do it my way some day.”

After the break, it’s Niki’s will against the skeptics.
—— MIDROLL ——

You’re listening to The Venture, brought to you by Virgin Atlantic.

JEREMY: My name’s Jeremy Brown. I’m the senior manager for customer experience design at Virgin Atlantic.

Like Niki and her team, Virgin Atlantic understands that meticulous attention to customer experience makes all the difference. For Jeremy, the subtle, unassuming touches, deliver the best results.

JEREMY: We have lighting installations that are programmed to actually mimic real time. So, over the course of a flight to JFK from London for example, we can actually have the sun rising or setting as it would naturally do in the destination. It’s almost one of those elements that our customers don’t necessarily recognize is happening. But hopefully as any customer gets offboard one of our flights they feel so much fresher, far less jet-lagged than perhaps they would do coming off an older, more traditional aircraft.

Virgin Atlantic: where designing customer experience, is all in the details.

To learn more, go to virginatlantic.com/theventure

—————-

Welcome back.

Niki grew up in Southern California. Her parents are first generation immigrants from Japan. They ran a seafood warehouse — and Niki had always liked cooking, but never considered it as a career.

When she graduated high school, she wasn’t sure what to do with her life. She loved music and thought about a future in the music industry, but she didn’t know how to make that happen. So, she decided to go to Japan for a year where she spent some time with relatives…working at their inn in the countryside…

NIKI: So I was just helping them out for about three months. And I basically helped out in the kitchen.

I remember them sending me upstairs, “Go get some rice for dinner” and I was running upstairs and had my little bucket and I opened it up and I was like heard angels singing like choir. And that was because it was glowing. Like, it was just so beautiful whereas like the rice that I grew up eating in the States, I mean, you open the rice cooker it’s just kind of like dry and flat. But this was a whole new level of rice.

My mom came to Japan while I was there and she was like, “What are you going to do with your life?” And she was worried. And she’s like, “Have you. Maybe you could go to culinary school here.” I was sort of just like uhhhh I didn’t really take her seriously.

After her mum’s visit, Niki realized something about herself.

NIKI: I really enjoyed kitchen work. I liked the meticulous aspects of trying to make everything look the same. And I like how it’s somewhat meditative. And plus I got to eat a lot of really great food. So I thought, “Maybe I can do this for a living.”

When she came back to California, she announced her plans to go to culinary school.

NIKI: So I told my mom that I’m seriously going to go into cooking and then she’s. She’s like, “What? Why would you want to go into cooking?” You know I was like, “What are you talking about? It was your suggestion.” It was like, she suggests things and then once you take her up on it she like wants to talk you out of it. And it’s like you’re so. She’s like, “You’re too short to do cooking. Your body can’t handle it. You’re too small.” And I was like, “Are you kidding me? I’ll be fine.”

Her family was skeptical, but Niki did it anyway.

After culinary school, she decided to head back to Japan. Back to the inn where she’d encountered that magical rice. She wanted to learn how to make it herself.

But…that’s if they would teach her.

NIKI: I think everything in Japan is male domain. I mean, Japanese cuisine itself, it’s just not very welcoming of women, it’s all men.

I mean once in awhile you’ll go to a country house in the middle of nowhere and then yes the person cooking inside is an old Japanese lady. But those aren’t the restaurants — even though the food is probably more amazing than anywhere else in the city — those aren’t the chefs that get celebrated.

In kaiseki, the cooking techniques and recipes are traditionally handed down informally, from mentors to trainees, or from fathers to sons.

NIKI: They always view women as the one that sort of like assists them, versus being a main character. So I went there knowing that for the most part I’d probably just be assisting like plating or assisting with some prep but maybe most of it washing dishes.
ASHLEY: And you were there for how long?
NIKI: Three years.
ASHLEY: That’s a long…To me that sounds like a really long time to be plating and washing dishes.
NIKI: It is, but in Japan a lot of the things you learn is you learn through taste on your own and you learn through watching. They just thought I was there. I was kind of like learning and you know they didn’t really think too deeply about it.

But she was thinking deeply about it — about the food, how it tasted, how it was assembled, how it sat on the plate. It was an intimidating environment to be in, and she was like a spy. Secretly soaking up everything she could.

ASHLEY: Did you ask questions?
NIKI: No, not really.
ASHLEY: Why?
NIKI: It’s not something that you very feel very comfortable to ask. But, any time I had time to go to the bookstore, I’d just pick up another book and then just kind of study it the whole time. And then if I did really have questions I could always ask my aunt.

The three years passed, and many dishes later, Niki came back to California. She didn’t have a master plan, but in the meantime, she set up a catering office in her parent’s seafood warehouse.

NIKI: My mom was like, “you know you can’t just hang out in this little office forever. You need to think about something that you want to do. Maybe…maybe open a restaurant?” I was like, “No, I’m not ready to open a restaurant. That’s crazy.”

And after I thought about it I was like, I think she’s right. I was like, “okay and maybe I’ll open a restaurant.” My mom was like, “Are you crazy?”

There was a lot of wariness and like are you sure can do this. And, we can’t support you if you can’t. And you get one chance to prove yourself.

And I was like, I’m gonna do it.

Niki opened a sushi restaurant, Azami Sushi Cafe, on the edge of the trendy strip of Melrose Avenue. And it got a lot of attention, not just for its food.

ASHLEY: And that first restaurant was famous for having an all-female staff.
NIKI: You know what, the funny thing is it just sort of happened that way because my cousin and I were working it. We were the only chefs there. So it felt like it was all female, but it was just the two of us.

From the outside, Azami Sushi Cafe was popular, and it stayed popular, year after year. It was well-reviewed and had lots of regular customers. For most chefs, this would be the end of the story, the happily ever after. But, something wasn’t right for Niki. She wasn’t happy making sushi night after night. It didn’t feel exciting, or challenging.

NIKI: I thought to myself, “If I’m going to spend 14 hours a day doing this work. I really want to make it meaningful for me.” Like it has to mean something to me.

So she came up with an idea.

What if she snuck some kaiseki items onto the menu? Dishes like the ones she had studied during her time in Japan. She thought, why not try it out?

NIKI: It was a three, five and seven courses I think. That was like secretly hiding somewhere on the menu. And then I was like, “No one’s going to order it.” You know, people are here for sushi.

But people did want it. And it sparked something for Niki, creating these new menu items.
She realized that just waiting for people to order the occasional kaiseki dish, wasn’t enough for her.

And so, she decided to take a risk. To close her successful sushi restaurant in pursuit of the kaiseki dream. To build a new restaurant from scratch. And to cook the dishes she wanted to make.

NIKI: It felt like I just had this weird leap of faith. Like I knew it was going to be okay. I didn’t know how long it was gonna take but I knew that I would be okay.
ASHLEY: That’s a lot of confidence it takes to do what you did. I mean, where do you think that comes from?
NIKI: I feel like I call it blind faith.

Between her savings and selling the restaurant, she had enough money to finance the project on her own.

She put money down on a little building on the corner of a residential neighborhood in Culver City, across town. An unusual location perhaps, but she had a vision.

Two and a half years later – after permitting, remodeling, waiting — and dreaming up the recipes — she opened n/naka in the spring of 2011.

NIKI: We served maybe ten people a night. Twelve people a night.

While most people might get discouraged by the lack of customers, Niki found it energizing.

NIKI: There were days where we didn’t have reservations. So we’d just close, but then I’d come in and do experimenting or just you know…it was like if we’re not busy it’s because the menu is not good enough and it’s just a sign to like be creative, try harder, do different things.

Slowly and steadily, she built up a clientele. Word spread around. She got some favorable restaurant reviews…More reservations….Niki was happy, and busy, and growing her business.

And in her personal life, Niki started dating a woman named Carole. Carole was also Japanese-American, and also a chef. Just a few months into the relationship, Niki’s sous chef failed to show up one day. And so, Carole volunteered to help. Here’s Carole:

CAROLE: I was very intimidated but I felt like well I know the basics you know so I’m sure even just having somebody who can do some of the basic menial tasks in the kitchen at this point like would be helpful then some random stranger just coming in.

But it was serendipity. Again, Carole:

CAROLE: For me, it was like the luckiest opportunity ever.
NIKI: Until I realized it was my lucky opportunity…because I was really nervous about her coming into the kitchen I was like “Oh no, she’s gonna see what a mess I am.”

Niki and Carole have worked side by side ever since. Carole is Niki’s sous chef. They got married in 2015.

NIKI: Since Carole’s joined us, she contributes so much to what we do. And I totally think that our success is of course due to her involvement. So I can’t take all the glory anymore. So, and I think we’re lucky in that both of us are fairly mild-tempered, except sometimes I do lose it in the kitchen when things aren’t going right. But luckily I know not to lose it on her.
CAROLE: We have our moments. It’s more like embarrassing to get frustrated with each other and know that the rest of the staff is aware that we’re frustrated with each other. So it’s kind of like if we were alone we’d probably hash it out a lot more. But knowing that there’s this whole crew, you know staff surrounding us watching us and feeling our mood is definitely tames our behavior.

[TRUCKS]

NIKI: Oh my god, we’re getting a delivery now… [DOOR] There’s so many things going on…

I’m standing outside n/naka with Niki when a truck pulls up, full of fish.

Niki: theres like so many things going on now

She’s already prepping for tomorrow’s service. There’s so much to do, so much to plan, and Niki wouldn’t have it any other way.

NIKI: I want to do this forever. I don’t want to expand. I don’t want to get bigger. I’m happy here. and I think I feel this way because there’s still so much more to do in terms of what we’re doing. Like just because it’s kaiseki it doesn’t mean that we cant be more creative in so many ways. I have this constant feeling where, this is good but there’s always more room to grow. More room to improve.

There were people who doubted her, underestimated her along the way. Even her own mum repeatedly warned Niki about the pitfalls and challenges of the industry. But she eventually came around..

NIKI: My mom is so proud of me, it’s embarrassing, it’s like mom please don’t introduce me to your friends. It’s really hilarious. But I’m glad that she feels proud of my success, and it’s very…it’s kind of changed the whole dynamic.

And Niki’s singular vision, her commitment to her creative ideas, is what keeps people coming back to the restaurant, again and again. People who are willing to make dining reservations three months in advance, and shell out hundreds of dollars to eat her food. Again, here’s LA Weekly Restaurant Critic Besha Rodell.

BESHA: There are so many market forces at play, and very few chefs have the money or the ability to just think up exactly what they want to do and do it without compromise. And that is absolutely the case for her.

It was a gamble that a business like this could ever work, but it has. Everything about Niki, her background, her experience, her humility that hides an uncompromising will — they all make her the pioneering chef she is today.

NIKI: Even just opening n/naka I feel like I’ve altered the rules in this game. Just, I didn’t have to make a big statement like, “Oh, I’m a woman doing this man’s cuisine.” I’m just doing it.

You know, you just make the opportunities for yourself or you find ways to go a roundabout. And sometimes that roundabout way is a lot more interesting, a lot more educational than the traditional ways or the ways that people usually follow.
CREDITS

The Venture is a co-production of Virgin Atlantic, Gimlet Creative, and Figliulo and Partners.

This episode was produced by by Nicole Wong, Rachel Ward, Grant Irving, and Julia Botero, with help from Frances Harlow, Katelyn Bogucki, Abbie Ruzicka, and Caitlin Dilena.

This episode was mixed and scored by Zac Schmidt. Production assistance from Thom Cote and Gideon Brower. Our editor is Wendy Dorr, and our Creative Director is Nazanin Rafsanjani. Our theme song was composed by Bobby Lord.

Special thanks to Dan Allen from Farmscape, Sarah Rathbone from Dock to Dish LA, Jeffry Undiarto, and Nancy Singleton Hachisu.

If you’re enjoying this show, please subscribe to The Venture on Apple Podcasts, or whichever app you use to listen. And leave us a review! It really helps people discover our show. To learn more, go to virginatlantic.com/theventure

Next time on The Venture…before the Kardashians, before Survivor, there was…The Real World.

JON MURRAY: No one quite understood what we wanted. I was like — I remember Heather B, goes you’re gonna — you’re going to give me a free place to live and you’re going to film everything? Is this a porno?

The story of the television show, and the team behind it, that changed the entertainment world forever.

That’s next time, on The Venture. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte, thanks for listening.