The hot new show, Chef’s Table on Netflix, takes viewers inside the kitchens of some of the most talented modern chefs, to show you the inner workings of their daily routine and the exquisite food they produce. Niki Nakayama's Los Angeles restaurant, n/naka, was one of the first to be aired and gave us an insight not only into the world of sushi, but also what it's like to be a Japanese female chef within the male dominated industry.
The show takes viewers inside Nakayama’s Los Angeles restaurant, n/naka, where she prefers to work out of view. That’s symptomatic of many years working in the world of sushi, where being a female chef brought unwanted attention. As one of only a handful of female Japanese chefs, she was seen as an oddity, even slighted by male patrons, including one who dismissed her work as “cute”.
We caught up with her after the show to relect on the traditional kaiseki meals she produces, her home town of LA and what is was like to become a TV star on Netflix.
What are your earliest memories of being interested in food?
When I was in second grade, and my grandparents came to visit for the holidays, I remember telling my grandmother while we were walking to the market that this particular day was the happiest day of my life. When she asked me why, I told her because we were about to have a feast and eat together as a family. I think for me, eating together and sharing food was always an expression of happiness.
I also had a tendency to experiment with strange ideas. One day after school when I was young, I really wanted to eat pizza, but there was nothing like it at home. So, I found round wonton skins, spread jarred pasta sauce on them, cut some cheddar cheese to put on top and toasted them in the oven. I was so happy to have my own pizza, although it tasted nothing like the real thing.
What would you say has inspired your cooking the most?
My cooking is heavily inspired by my experiences of being exposed to two very different cultures: Japanese and American.
Describe your culinary style...
My culinary style is a cross of different cultures with an honest desire to remain true to its origins, but not sacrificing the ability to interpret it in a manner that makes sense to me.
When people eat the food at n/naka, I think it comes through in the dishes that there’s a distinct approach and particular flavors that are purely Japanese. However, there are also nuances in the presentation and interpretations that also suggests everything isn’t completely Japanese too. The reason for this is because in the kaiseki tradition, we are inspired and want to represent the immediate area that surrounds us. In my case, it’s California.
What are your most indispensable ingredients?
Dashi (Japanese stock), soy sauce, salt, vinegar, mirin and miso. These are all the ingredients that make up the core of Japanese cooking.
You recently featured in Netflix's Chef's Table series. Can you tell us about the process of doing that?
I was fortunate enough to work with an incredibly amazing director, Andrew Fried, who had the vision and understanding of how to guide me in the right ways so my story could be told fluidly.
Why did you want to be a part of the series?
I was amazed by David Gelb’s “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” and I felt that an opportunity to be a part of something he was doing would be an incredible experience for us at n/naka. Even though I didn’t know much about the details of the project, I trusted that whatever he would present would be something artful, educational and engaging. I was excited about being able to share with people what our restaurant is about and all the things we’re trying to accomplish.
How did you want to portray your cuisine at n/naka?
That at the heart of it, it is purely Japanese in taste and essence, but I also want it to showcase all the influences that come from my life growing up and living in America.
If you could go back in time, what advice would you give your younger self, starting out a career in the world of food?
This is a hard question because I wouldn’t want my younger self to have it any easier. I believe my younger self needed the struggles and self-doubt in order to learn how to overcome those things in order to grow.
What's next for you?
I want to continue to grow and to take n/naka to the next level.
What’s been your most embarrassing kitchen moment?
I was working at my first restaurant job, Takao in Brentwood, and was told to make the classic Japanese egg omelet for sushi. I had never made it before, so my technique with flipping the egg was not reliable. I started flipping the egg and everything was going OK, but on the last flip I went too hard and the egg flew out of the pan in front of all the guests sitting at the sushi counter. I turned bright red from embarrassment.
What restaurant is currently at the top of your list to dine at?
Find out more information about n/naka here | www.n-naka.com