For Niki Nakayama, the art of cooking all comes down to feeling. Always one to follow her intuition, Nakayama’s instincts guide her path as a chef, and it continues to be the driving force behind every dish she creates. At n/naka, her highly acclaimed restaurant in West Los Angeles, Nakayama secures her place among the foremost chefs in the world of modern kaiseki—a traditional Japanese dining discipline based in gratitude and appreciation that balances taste, texture, and presentation through a progression of dishes served in a meticulous, thoughtfully curated order. For Nakayama, the kaiseki philosophy allows her to show a deep appreciation for the beauty of nature, with the purpose of, “highlighting natural flavors, presenting them in their purest way without over-complication, and serving them how they were meant to be in their peak season.”
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Nakayama began her career at the popular Takao restaurant in Brentwood, following her graduation from culinary school in nearby Pasadena. After embarking on a three-year working tour of Japan immersing herself in the deeply nuanced methods and flavors of both traditional and contemporary Japanese cuisine, including the art of traditional kaiseki, Nakayama returned to her hometown to open Azami Sushi Café on Melrose Avenue. After eight years—during which she became known for her omakase menu—the chef branched out to host elaborate chef’s table dinners that resulted in Nakayama’s modernized kaiseki dining experience, which has become the signature cuisine of n/naka. As Nakayama describes, “I was ready to put my name on something, ready to take that leap and challenge myself—and ready to take the traditional kaiseki philosophy and make it my own.”
Today, n/naka serves as a global destination for modern kaiseki with a California twist, at which Nakayama serves world-class, artfully curated, and exquisite dishes in a progression designed to reflect the mood of season, time, and place. One of the toughest reservations to get in L.A., n/naka’s books typically fill up three months out, a testament to Nakayama’s resonance in the international culinary world. Critics also take note—the restaurant has appeared on Jonathan Gold’s “101 Best Restaurants” every year since opening in 2013, and continues to catch the attention of media including T Magazine (The New York Times), Eater, Vogue.com, and many more.Nakayama’s devotion to sustainability also plays out at n/naka, with currently 70% of its ingredients sourced locally—a rarity in Japanese fine dining. At 2017’s Food on Edge symposium in Galway, Ireland, she explained how the pillars of kaiseki, to integrate your surroundings into the cuisine, find harmony with these sustainability initiatives.
Outside of the restaurant, the chef can be found at her Los Angeles home spending time with her wife and their three dogs—a golden retriever, a Chihuahua, and a terrier mix. One of her favorite pastimes, playing guitar, “allows for decompression,” she says, when she steps away from the kitchen.
How did you get into the industry?
I’ve always enjoyed eating and cooking from a very young age because it brought people together and was always a part of something celebratory. I started to consider it as a career when I lived in Japan for a year after high school. After spending a summer at my relative’s ryokan in Japan’s country side, I knew that it was what I wanted to do and soon after enrolled in culinary school when I came back to the States.
Any emerging industry trends?
Aside from the movement towards roots and origins such as fermentation, I’m seeing a trend where chefs are incorporating a mix of different cultures and cuisines into the food they are creating.
Any industry opportunities or challenges?
With the rise of interest in Los Angeles from chefs all over the country and the world, we’re seeing a massive influx of restaurants opening in Los Angeles. I think it presents a wonderful opportunity to expand on food culture in the city. The only challenge I see in that is the expansion could potentially dilute the influence of smaller mom and pop businesses that have dominated the city’s landscape.
Inspiration for the business idea, and your vision for the Business?
I was inspired to create a Japanese restaurant that was unique and different from other Japanese restaurants in that it had a strong narrative of being the kind the Japanese restaurant that could only exist in California. I wanted to take the original philosophy of Kaiseki, which is to truly present and honor your environment and interpret those things through Japanese tastes and cooking methods. My vision for our business is for it to continually grow as important voice for Japanese cuisine while creating a unique dining experience for our guests.
What's next for the Business in the near future?
I’m hoping that we’ll be able to bring new and interesting experiences for our guests through themed menus and chef collaborative dinners.
Your key initiatives for the success of the Business?
I’ve always feel that the key to our business success is having our guests’ best interest at heart. It’s very important for everyone on our team to recognize that we are, at the end of the day, a hospitality business and that our job is to ensure our guests feel taken care of and that the time and investment they’ve made in dining with us was worth it to them.
Your most difficult moment at the Business? (and what did you learn?)
The most difficult moment of our business isn’t defined by one single event, but the continuing effort to improve and grow so that we are able to meet expectations, if not exceed them.
Ideal experience for a customer/client?
The ideal experience for our guests, is that they felt their time and resources were well spent when they think of us. I understand the effort it takes to make plans and take time to come visit us and I want to ensure that it was well worth it.
How do you motivate others?
I always tell our crew that you always get what you put in. If you want something to be meaningful for you, you have to do your part by contributing your efforts. In short, do things with heart and purpose for the sake of doing it and it will reward you in so many ways.
Career advice to those in your industry?
Remember what our industry is about; hospitality.
What do I do best?
While I take what I do in terms of work very seriously, I try not to take myself too seriously.
What makes me the best version of myself?
I’ve realized that everything, the good and the bad, has led me to where I am now, and I can appreciate all of it.
What are my aspirations?
For work, I aspire to continually grow and learn new skills. For my personal life, I want to slow down and enjoy each moment a little bit more so that time isn’t always passing by so quickly.
My Biggest Success?
My relationships and the people I’m surrounded by. I have an amazing partner/wife that I get to work with and share my success with. I work with some of the most amazing individuals who are kind, thoughtful, and compassionate. And, my family and friends are pretty great people.
My Most Challenging Moment?
The decision to close my first restaurant after 8 years to embark on my dream restaurant. It was stepping into unknown territory and taking a giant leap of faith.
Put your heart into everything you do.
My Favorite People/Role Models?
My favorite people are the ones I’m working with every day and my role models are people that contribute to making the world better and feel a sense of responsibility towards others.
My Favorite Places/Destinations?
I love going to Japan because it always feels like home. I have also really enjoyed traveling to Ireland, it’s landscape is awe inspiring, and Hawaii really does feel like paradise.
My Favorite Products/Objects?
My favorite object is my knife, because for such a simple tool, it does so much.
My Current Passions?
My current passion is swimming. I love the feel of being water and with my ears plugged. It’s the most relaxing thing I get to experience before a busy day.