When it comes to culinary creations, Japanese culture leans toward innovation, often wading into more adventurous waters that flow beyond the U.S. popular spicy tuna roll. Niki Nakayama, owner and chef of the Los Angeles-based n/naka, is expanding this sushi tunnel vision with kaiseki, a traditional 13-course Japanese meal. “Kaiseki is about eating with the season. Using all the methods that make up Japanese cooking, a chef decides how to make every ingredient taste its best,” says Nakayama, a James Beard semi-finalist, who recently celebrated her restaurant’s fifth anniversary.
She was born and raised in California, but her parents made sure to integrate Japanese tradition and culture with their American experiences and tastes. “My mom made steak that was marinated with Japanese seasonings and served it to us with A1 [Steak] Sauce,” recalls Nakayama, who interprets kaiseki in a similar fashion. She merges California ingredients, flavors and cooking methods with kaiseki’s traditional centuries old skills and techniques, from beauty to balance. Thus her avant-garde take on the 13-course meal, or modern kaiseki, is born. Her restaurant is among the few that is exclusively dedicated to this practice.
After graduating from the Southern California School of Culinary Arts in 1997, Nakayama left for a three-year working tour in Japan. She accepted a position at Shirakawa-Ya Ryokan, an inn owned by her extended family that specialized in kaiseki cuisine. Motivated to showcase everything she had learned, Nakayama returned to the U.S. and opened her first restaurant, Azami Sushi Cafe, which closed after eight years. “I view my whole career as ever-evolving. I think every experience and lesson is a building block that stacks on top of another,” she says of her past. “n/naka is an honest representation of the things I’ve always wanted to do but was afraid to in the past.”
The harmonious vibe begins with the design. From the exterior to the interior, n/naka represents a sense of gratitude. “In my eyes, the beauty of kaiseki is about gratitude. I hope our guests are able to enjoy the moment that is. Much of our lives are spent focused on things in the future or the past. It’s always such a special experience when we are able to forget both and just be in the moment,” Nakayama explains.
The process of creating the menu is threefold. Nakayama sources only the freshest ingredients. Her first daily stop is her own garden, where she cultivates kabocha squash, shiso, borage and other unique vegetables and herbs. “We are able to grow things that may be hard to find from vendors, and as an added bonus, it is incredibly educational and inspiring,” she says. Then Nakayama visits local purveyors such as the community supported fishery Dock to Dish, master forager Pascal Baudar and others for seafood and produce. “From there we test ideas and recipes to make sure the flavors and textures work and then finish with the visual presentation,” she says. “We interpret kaiseki with its true intention, which is to present the surroundings and ingredients that are closest to us.”