When one thinks of Japanese food, many minds automatically go straight to sushi—California rolls, spicy tuna, and maybe nigiri if you're a little more well-versed. But of course, Japanese cuisine goes far beyond just your average hand roll. We recently learned all about a traditional form of dining called kaiseki, and, specifically, a female kaiseki master who has made waves in an industry run by men.
Kaiseki is not to be confused with another style of Japanese cuisine, omakase, which is a meal that's left up to the chef. Omaskase comes from the word meaning "to entrust," so diners "trust" the chef to pick everything they will eat. In comparison, kaiseki does require that same "trust" in the chef, but it is a much more structured and very formal multi-course meal in which each course adheres to a different concept. For example, the Sakizuke course must pair something common with something unique—each part of every meal has it's own purpose.
Chef Niki Nakayama is kind of a big name in the world of Japanese cuisine. She owns n/naka in L.A.'s Palms neighborhood, and you may remember her as one of six chefs featured on season one of the critically-acclaimed Netflix series, Chef's Table, back in 2015 (she was the only female that season, BTW).
She is also a James Beard Award semi-finalist and is one of the world's only female masters of kaiseki—and the only in America. In case you're wondering, yes, that is a big deal. To get where she is today, Nakayama trained extensively in Japan, and it's not been an easy road, to say the least. Japanese cuisine, especially in the kaiseki tradition, is a male-dominated world where sexism is alive and well, so it's practically unheard of for a woman to be a chef, let alone run her own restaurant.
Each dish in Nakayama's 13-course kaiseki is carefully thought out and served in a specific order, and although her meals are very traditional, she also incorporates some unique ingredients to put her own modern spin into every element. Calling it "California kaiseki," the chef aims to source local, seasonal ingredients (even using veggies and herbs from her own garden) while still maintaining the integrity and flavors of traditional kaiseki. She is also dedicated to sustainability, and the restaurant even stopped serving endangered bluefin tuna.
But n/naka is not just about the food itself. It also prides itself on the experience as a whole. The restaurant seats only 26 people at a time, so it's a personal and intimate dining experience that no guest will soon forget. Nakayama has put her heart and soul into n/naka, and it is reflected in every facet. Because of her deep-rooted passion for what she does, she's garnered some major attention over the years. Namely, actress Sophia Bush is a huge fan of Chef Nakayama. After dining in, she was so moved that she wrote a short novel in the form of an Instagram post to express her gratitude. "I appreciate you so much. Thank you for such a beautiful birthday experience, and for being one of my #SHEroes. Even food can be feminist," said Bush in her caption. We are here for the girl power.
I had the pleasure of dining @nnakarestaurant last night. Chef @nikinnaka is one of the world's only female kaiseki chefs. If you've seen her episode of @chefstablenetflix, you know she is subverting traditional Japaense gender norms by carving out this path for herself. Designed to accompany tea ceremonies in monasteries, kaiseki is a formal ordering of courses with roots in Buddhist ritual, and began in 16th-century Japan. It's also historically, exclusively, prepared by men. Being the only female kaiseki chef in America, maybe even the world, Niki stands out. And she has been negatively judged. Undeterred, she crafted a simply solution. She cooks away from the view of her dinner guests. Screens keep her kitchen private so the attention is paid entirely to the food. "People should just come in, focus on the food, and then, after they've had their experience and decided what they think, I can go out and say hi," Nakayama says. It works. After 13 delightful courses, guests are amazed by the innovative food and by the surprising woman who prepared it. She's not afraid to challenge diners with her playful spirit, or her unexpected menu. She sources seasonal ingredients, grows her own garden for the restaurant, and often designs menu items around local fare. It's a holistic approach to food that feels simultaneously healthy and fantastical. "The philosophy I take from the monks is that of appreciation, not to overindulge," Niki says. Chef. I apprecIate you so much. Thank you for such a beautiful birthday experience, and for being one of my #SHEroes. Even food can be feminist #nnaka #chefniki
Actress Kiernan Shipka, who is known for being a huge foodie, also felt compelled to post an Instagram of her meal at n/naka. Although far more understated than Bush's, her short but sweet caption says it all.
Other celebrity sightings at the restaurant include Charlize Theron, Mindy Kaling, Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis, Chloe Grace Moretz, Jessica Alba, and Kim Kardashian and Kanye West. With fans like that, it's no wonder that the reservation books fill up months in advance, so if you want to dine at n/naka, you'll need to make that reso way ahead of time.
n/naka is located at 3455 Overland Avenue, Los Angeles, with prices ranging from $160-$185 per person.