Chef Niki Nakayama and Sous Chef Carole Iida-Nakayama are bringing Kaiseki dining culture to the eaters of Los Angeles with the focus on what it means to be Californian. n/Naka has a unique approach to Californian Japanese cuisine that makes the restaurant extremely successful. Their careful selection of local ingredients infused with their Asian American upbringing brings an incredible experience in the dining room and on the palate.
By John Liu
Photos and Video by George Ko and Eric Nakamura
GR: What was your childhood like, in terms of aspirations and being Asian American? Were you always food centric or food focused?
Niki Nakayama: It was such a long time ago! It’s hard to remember, but I do remember really enjoying eating food. I’ve always associated a really big meal with celebrations. Every time Thanksgiving rolled around or when we had New Year's festivities, it was the most exciting part of my childhood. I remember one time being bribed by my dad to eat sushi. I was like, “I wanted something…” and he was like, “If you eat it, I will gladly buy that thing for you.” And I was like, “Ok fine!” When I was eating the sushi, I was thought, “This is really great! This is so delicious! I don’t think he’s going to make up for this because I’m enjoying eating sushi so much!” Being Asian American, it was always easy to consider the differences between being an Asian person in the States and my fellow students around me— it’s easy to know the differences between people and myself. But one of the things that I always talk to Carole about is that the greatest thing about having mixed cultures is that opportunity to be able to pull from the cultures what we like most and to grow from that, and to take those things and help let those things shape us, versus being just one culture, one mentality. It’s like this multitude of mentalities that help us recognize how we can be better as people. That’s the best part of having an Asian background as well as growing up in the states.
Carole Iida-Nakayama: My family owned a sushi restaurant growing up, so I totally took it for granted that, “Oh my God we have to eat sushi again?” It was probably not until high school when I really realized how lucky I was to have a family that was constantly cooking fresh food, and having all of that fish supplied without having to go pay for sushi as a kid. It never really occurred to me.
NN: So lucky right?
CIN: I know! I think that influence being around the kitchen, being surrounded by food, I really didn’t appreciate it until a little bit older in life probably after high school. Food was always just something that was a part of family because of the restaurant. I remember growing up thinking, "God, why would anyone do this for a living? It’s so much work, you come home smelly." My parents smelled like fish all the time, that’s gross!
NN: You didn’t know bad sushi until college right?
CIN: Yeah, I never had bad until I ate out in college. I was like, “Oh my God I’m never ordering uni unless I know where the source is coming from again.”
NN: That’s pretty amazing.
GR: Your love of food definitely translates into your cuisine at n/Naka. There are people that come into your restaurant that aren’t as familiar with Asian cuisine or Asian inflected cuisine. How do you try to adjust the menu to new clients?
NN: Carole and I always talk about how initially when n/Naka started, there was this concept that we had to make it as luxurious as any restaurant that you would find in Japan. That meant bringing in all these ingredients that came from Japan, or trying to make it as “Japanese” as possible. But in time, we started to realize and recognize that this was not really representative of kaiseki the philosophy, in general. Kaiseki is about showcasing what’s local, what’s nearby, what’sm—for the lack of a better word— in your backyard. So, we thought we should look into this whole concept of a California kaiseki, so that we can help people recognize that when they come eat here, they know where they are. We are in California, we’re not in Japan. It doesn’t make sense to create a meal that’s like Japan because you should enjoy that in Japan. The idea to be traditional weaved its way out of our style and a more California style of cooking naturally evolved for us.
CIN: Sometimes the subtleties of flavors in Japanese cooking, they work well in Japan because the base ingredients are so much stronger or have much more—
GR: Geographically close–
CIN: Yes. And even with vegetables, or seasonal things, there’s just no access to those particular Japanese vegetables here. To try and use subpar vegetables to recreate that Japanese dish didn’t make sense. It started to really shine when we went foraging, and we noticed this is what we grew up with in our backyard, but we never really understood anything that was here until we started digging.
NN: Then the whole idea became how can we take all these ingredients that aren’t inherently Japanese and turn it into something that even a Japanese person could understand. Then when they eat it, they are like, “Oh this is still Japanese, but it’s got something different about it that’s not inherently Japanese.” That’s the best way to describe what we’re trying to aim for right now. It would be an amazing thing to get to this place where when you came to n/Naka and you dined here and you thought, “Well this is a very Japanese experience, but so much of it is not Japanese.” It’s uniquely it’s own and not something that was recreated.
GR: I’ve talked to some of the people that have dined here recently with your new California kaiseki cuisine. Their perception is certainly that n/Naka is a Californian restaurant that serves very meticulous Japanese inflected cuisine, but the philosophy is extremely local. Have there been any surprises in terms of ingredients, sourcing, things that you have never thought you would use in your recipes and now you are using?
NN: A few things, seafood definitely comes to mind.
CIN: Black cod as a sashimi.
NN: Black cod as a sashimi is unheard of Japan. It’s not naturally thought of as a fish for sashimi. But since we’re able to catch it in our waters and do ikejime (the Japanese method of paralyzing a fish to maintain freshness) to it and pick the really nice quality ones, it’s a possibility, which is really amazing.
For example, we presented another dish with ogo seaweed. I’ve never seen ogo seaweed anywhere until I met our local fishmonger who brings it. It was quite an amazing discovery because it has such a pronounced flavor; there’s something very ocean about it, yet it’s very reminiscent of Japanese seaweed. It’s wonderful to discover these new things that are local to use that we never thought about using before.
GR: You two work so hard at your restaurant all the time. I was just wondering do you ever take time off? Do you get a day off? Do you have vacation? Do you go places? What do you do on your days off?
NN: We sleep. (Laughs)
CIN: Sleep, catch up. Luckily, we’ve had a lot of trips that are work related. After the work part is over, we get to travel and see different towns and cities.
NN: We were in Europe last March and we visited Amsterdam, and my first time in Paris. It was really a wonderful experience to visit the country of food, the land of food. It was also very educational, but really fun to try so many different things.
GR: Is there any particular restaurant you dine at locally on your day off?
CIN: We tend to go to K-town on our day off to go to a Korean spa. Post-spa we usually either do Korean shabu shabu or Korean BBQ.
GR: I know you have a garden that you harvest from as part of your California Kaiseki. Are you actually maintaining that garden? Are you out there pulling weeds? Or are you working with someone?
CIN: A little, both.
NN: We have Dan, who’s amazing. We work with Farmscape Garden’s. They basically set up everything for us. Dan’s an amazing farmer/owner and we’ve known him since the beginning of his company and our restaurant days. Ever since, we’ve become friends and we work together all the time. He does most of the teaching: he teaches us what to do and he shows us how to work the garden right, how to turn the soil each season, and to hunt for grubs, which is not very fun, but a part of the process. It’s just an amazing to really get in touch with earth. I find it meditating. When we’re working on the garden and kind of chatting and planting things— it feels very meditative to me and it brings you into that moment where you’re enjoying it for what it is. I like it a lot. Carole does a lot of harvesting.
CIN: I do a lot of the harvesting of our micro greens. Right now we have quite a bit of mizuna, a lot of different types. Dan goes crazy with the variety, which is great, and now we have a ton of beautiful mizuna, which works great on plates. It’s been just wonderful to pick it fresh everyday as opposed to picking it up at a grocery store having it just sit there. Dan is wonderful at supplying them on a weekly basis.
NN: He always goes out of his way to help us source things that are unique and different. Right now he’s helping us grow a red turnip, a Japanese red turnip, akakabu. It was such a great ingredient to have during Valentine’s Day because we could puree it and turn it into this beautiful pink color that otherwise would not have come naturally without this red turnip. Just to work with these ingredients that have helped us to become more creative with what we are doing— it’s inspiring.
GR: It sounds like the menu is geared towards evolution and evolving. I remember eating at n/Naka way back when you had one of your early restaurants in Arcadia, Inaka. The menu was fantastic already. We can trace your progress in cooking. Do you foresee some trends in the future? Are there things you want to do in your cooking down the line?
CIN: It’s hard to say. If we look back at last year’s Valentine’s Day menu, since we just had Valentine’s Day, it was kind of shocking to be like, “Huh, that’s all we did?” which is a good sign. Not that we weren’t proud of it in that moment at that time, but it’s nice to see that progression of how far you have come in a year.
NN: The menus that we are doing now have a little bit more complexity than the originals. Carole does a good job of thinking the dish through even deeper. I would like to do is to create more theme type menus. I feel like they are fun to work towards and are wonderful in telling a story. This storytelling is great to get people thinking and maybe have those thoughts be towards something better, for a greater cause.
CIN: We were talking about it this morning. We’re in such a technologically advanced place in society now where everyone’s on their phones. Eating together is one of the last real human interactions that people still love to do. Part of what we’re trying to do with the food and the whole experience is to continue the joy that can be felt, the human connection that can be felt through food and through meals.
NN: The shared meal is such an important experience that we can’t substitute with technological, that we can’t have all these artificial things come in because it always has to stay real.
CIN: It would be great if the actual dish could provoke thought beyond just being food. People flip on their phones and are constantly bombarded with political news, or do this, and buy that. But if you can just sit there, and not only enjoy food just for sustenance, but also allow that moment of thought that you’re participating in instead of just being fed information—
GR: Just living in the moment—
CIN: Just really enjoying it, not just looking at it—
NN: Feeling alive like I’m here in this moment—
CIN: Just feeling connected to the food, to the person you’re eating with, to us in the back cooking it for you, to the servers trying to provide great service for you tonight.
GR: Of all the restaurants, we definitely feel that family sense when we eat here. It’s thought provoking, you really want to put everything down just to think about the food and who’s in the kitchen preparing it. Thank you for that and for chatting with us!
NN & CIN: Thanks you! Thanks for letting us be a part of it! We’re excited for the inaugural launch of Giant Robot!
You can visit n/Naka at their website. Make sure to book a reservation far in advance!