Chef Niki Nakayama
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.
3 words to describe Nature?
GIVING. VAST. BEAUTIFUL
3 things Nature taught you?
3 most treasured Nature spots?
ALL OCEANS, MOUNTAINS, FORESTS
When you look at the ocean, it makes you feel…?
ALIVE AND SMALL
When you see a forest, it makes you feel…?
When you see a volcano, it makes you feel…?
When you see a sunrise or sunset, it makes you feel…?
When you hear thunder, it makes you feel…?
When you hear the wind howling, it makes you feel…?
Are you an Ocean, Mountain, Forest, or Desert person?
On a scale of 1 to 10, how important is Nature to your well-being?
Share with us a childhood nature memory?
THE FIRST TIME I EVER PLAYED IN THE SNOW AT BIG BEAR, I THOUGHT I’D FOUND MAGIC POWDER. EVERY TIME I SEE SNOW, IT REMINDS ME OF HAPPINESS AND HOLIDAYS.