Niki Nakayama's Refined Cuisine is Rooted in Japan and Los Angeles
Niki Nakayama is a Japanese-American chef who is comfortable in both cultures. Born and raised in Los Angeles to Japanese parents, she attended culinary school in Pasadena and immediately started working locally with Japanese cuisine. During a three-year cooking tour around Japan, she focused her studies at Shirakawa-Ya Ryokan in Tokamachi, where she learned the skills required for kaiseki, traditional multicourse dinners.
Back in L.A., her Azami Sushi Cafe shunned the “mega rolls with crazy sauces” popular at the time in favor of the refined Japanese cuisine that she says “leaves you wanting one more bite.” Diners indeed wanted more of her omakase tasting menus, and reservations for her acclaimed n/naka, featuring 13-course dinners of local California ingredients prepared with kaiseki technique, are booked three months out. But patience is part of the kaiseki experience, for chef and diner alike.
Let’s start with your time in Japan. What training felt particularly significant?
The first thing I noticed was how amazing the ingredients were. I was in a very small city and not at a Michelin restaurant. To experience something caught and served that same day was amazing. How even a place such as that prides themselves on every ingredient is a telltale sign of the way Japanese people care about the food being served.
So one of the biggest lessons was that in Japanese cuisine, you protect the ingredients. The whole philosophy is: How do we use all the techniques we understand to remove the not particularly great things about the ingredient and, with those same techniques, highlight what is wonderful about it? There’s more of a taking away and showcasing versus adding layers of flavors to mask.
Was one aspect particularly hard to master?
With Japanese food, there is this concept of simplicity. But it’s understood that there are so many levels of perfection required to make simplicity look simple. For example, every single item on the plate is equal in size, cut, placement and direction. There’s intentional simplicity. Above being creative, above being unique, there’s an incredible respect for technical precision.
That mindset requires a lot of practice. When you learn something, it’s easy to have a beginning love or interest. But with time, you have to overcome, “Oh, I already know how to do this.” So to answer your question, it was about overcoming the challenge of thinking I already knew what I was doing, so I want to perfect that knowledge.
Let’s jump to California, and how you pull in that influence at n/naka. With words like “local” and “seasonal” thrown around so casually now, why are those ingredients of particular significance to your restaurant?
In its origin, kaiseki has always featured local and seasonal ingredients. When I opened n/naka, I wanted a recreation of Japan in L.A. But then in 2015, I went back to Japan. I asked other chefs what they prized the most, and everyone’s answer was about “using ingredients that are really close to us, because nothing better ensures freshness than location.”
Up until then, 70 percent of the things on our menu were imported from Japan. That made me think: We’re not adhering to the kaiseki philosophy if we’re not showcasing local things. And so how does that make us a real kaiseki restaurant? And no matter how hard I tried to recreate Japan in L.A., it wouldn’t be the same for a person who’d dined with the backdrop of the beautiful tea gardens in Japan itself. That’s when I started trying to figure out how I could use California ingredients in our Japanese cuisine.
Because I’m not in Japan, I allow myself to do what is more authentic for me, by honoring that tradition but allowing the appreciation of my American upbringing—that creative side—into the food that we’re making.
I would imagine switching from 70 percent imported to all local would significantly change ingredients and process!
It was really hard! I had no idea where to find local fish—it was not something our Japanese seafood purveyors could easily offer. Around that time, Dock to Dish was coming to L.A., which was a golden opportunity to learn. Now, we serve some local fish like black cod sashimi-style, which was something I never thought possible.
Were there any particularly exciting discoveries with local produce, compared to their Japanese counterparts?
We sometimes use a black mustard seed brought to us by our forager in place of wasabi. That’s been exciting, because the flavors are similar, yet totally different. It’s a unique ingredient we get to share, to educate that wasabi is great flavor-wise and so unique, but similar ingredients can have as much of an effect.
As you use American ingredients, do you have set parameters for yourself in the name of cohesion or focus?
Kaiseki sets the parameters, in that we have to feature different cooking methods to highlight the ingredients. For me, the most important thing is to use ingredients in the most natural way possible so that it tastes Japanese. We only use outside ingredients as touches—never as the main focus. It has to be 65 percent fully Japanese, and then we allow ourselves that 35 percent leeway to incorporate different cooking methods or ingredients not found in Japanese cuisine.
Can you explain a dish that explores that range and your style?
In Japanese cooking, we have a method called agedashi, which is when we deep-fry something in some kind of starch powder and then steep it in a dashi broth. It’s crispy and yet soft, and also saucy at the same time.
On our (local) rock cod tomatillo agedashi, we purée tomatillos into the dashi broth and season the fish with sansho powder (recipe). The concept and profile is still very Japanese, but the flavors in the sauce are a bit different. I think it’s a perfect example of blending Japanese sensibility, techniques and ideals with something very California.
Are you cooking American cuisine, Japanese cuisine, or something new?
I feel like I’m cooking Japanese food from the perspective of somebody who has grown up outside of Japan.
Where’s the difference versus if you had grown up in Japan?
I think it’s that I allow myself the freedom to explore and be creative and not be tied down by traditions. Japanese food prides itself on tradition. Because I’m not in Japan, I allow myself to do what is more authentic for me, by honoring that tradition but allowing the appreciation of my American upbringing—that creative side—into the food that we’re making.
We have a traditional sashimi showcasing cutting techniques with soy sauce and wasabi. Then our modern version pairs with different sauces. Right now we’re doing a Spanish mackerel tartare that we serve with Concord grape jelly, pickled fennel and smoked vinegar dashi. Those flavors are outside of the traditional Japanese sashimi profile, but ultimately, when you eat it I think it still tastes Japanese.
My food experience has always been the mix of everything: even home cooking was very Japanese with wonderful influence from outside. For me to claim expertise in traditional Japanese cooking is too bold. I understand Japanese food from my own experience as well as having been trained in Japan. I know what Japanese food tastes like and understand it to the best of my ability. But I also can’t help wanting to combine my experiences of having grown up in the States.
What most excites you about working with food?
It’s the constant desire to keep growing and learning—that’s the best part. We just put a new mini vegetable tureen on the menu. I’ve made tureens in the past, but never to where I’m a master. Today, I’m redoing and relearning and trying to understand it all over again. Once I find a challenge, I want to keep at it until I’m good at it. That’s what makes the work that much more fun—that constant learning and growing. Because there are so many things yet to try.
Jacqueline Raposo is a Wilton, Conn.-based freelance writer.