Niki Nakayama and Carole Iida: The Sustainable High of n/naka

This, it seems, is my table at n/naka. Yesterday I sat down to interview the two Michelin-starred chefs Niki Nakayama and Carole Iida-Nakayama, partners in kitchen and in life, and then asked to move to this table because it seemed more protected somehow, and I like to feel contained. Now, the next night at n/naka, this is the table I’m shown to.

Photo by Carolina Korman

This, it seems, is my table at n/naka. Yesterday I sat down to interview the two Michelin-starred chefs Niki Nakayama and Carole Iida-Nakayama, partners in kitchen and in life, and then asked to move to this table because it seemed more protected somehow, and I like to feel contained. Now, the next night at n/naka, this is the table I’m shown to.

On the wall next to me and my daughter are a line of antique mochi molds lined with gold leaf. They’re beautiful, the delicate designs indented in the hand-carved wooden molds. The light outside the shoji screen, with its flash of purple petals planted underneath, has darkened outside, no, blue-d. In front of us is a small donabe, a black clay pot with calligraphy, holding a few coals. Laid on top of it, gently, is a mulberry leaf, and on top of that, a few slices of Wagyu beef. This is the Niku course, or the meat event of our kaiseki meal. From what I’ve read of the intricate age-old kaiseki cuisine, the meal should unfold melodically, rising to a crescendo. The beef embodies this because it’s rich in aroma and comfort. My daughter and I are reduced to silence as the Wagyu softly sizzles on the leaf. The essence of this beef in all its beefiness manages to be forest-like, loam-y, richly delicious and overwhelming.

In a lot of ways the success of n/naka is overwhelming too, mainly because of what it isn’t. No superstar chef, or at least none with the bombast, look-at-me and trappings we’ve come to expect at a restaurant with two Michelin stars. No expensive buildout, no, the dining room is purposely simple, leaving you to focus on the food. Kaiseki cuisine is less common outside of Japan,  especially not led by two women chefs. Niki describes how some visitors, mostly Japanese, have decided to leave when they find out she’s female, and that’s why she now has shoji screens to seal off the kitchen from the restaurant.

“It’s better than they don’t see me,” she says.

Though, over the course of the meal, neither Niki or Carole totally disappear. They make forays into the dining room, always greeting only one table, and shyly accepting the praise, before beelining back to the kitchen. The succession of these thirteen courses, I want to say the elaboration, the development of theme, because that’s how they seem to rise and fall—lobster followed by sashimi, sea bass followed by truffle and roe pasta, tempura followed by rum cake and green apple ice cream—proceeds. The food is artful, careful, balanced, inspired: an ephemeral art for an ephemeral world. In a nondescript corner of Palms, these two are quietly making magic.

Photo by Zen Sekizawa

Not that it’s new. By now chefs Niki Nakayama and Carole Iida-Nakayama are widely celebrated, having summited many of the Mount Fujis of our culture. Niki and her restaurant were in Season One of Chef’s Table, a show that made millions of people more aware and open to fine dining, including a generation of young female chefs. Niki also has a Masterclass, so there, which may be the epitome of everything in our pop-culture-obsessed world.

And there’s been personal success as well.

Along the way, Niki met Carole, her partner in work and in life, and a person happily and eerily like her in so many ways—both Japanese-American, both coming from families in the restaurant business (Niki’s family owns a seafood importing business, Carole’s a sushi restaurant that Niki’s family have gone to for years and years), and both have had dogs named Sammie.

Photo by Zen Sekizawa

Seeing them together, they’re so much alike each other physically—diminutive and animated, breaking out into giggles and Niki throwing her arm around Carole with affection, those little touches on the elbow, those shared glances—I couldn’t help but marvel at how they found each other and how they make it work, running a small team that’s skilled enough to turn out elaborate thirteen course meals, as well as their new restaurant, n/soto, birthed out of the pandemic with Chef Yoji Tajima and, just as carefully, celebrating Japanese street food.

The words I kept thinking of when I spoke to them were grit and grace. It also occurred to me that so many of us are skating through life, eyes on the brass ring, that we forget to think about what it will be like when we really get there. How will it feel? If there’s a high, and we hope there’s a high, how hard will it be to sustain it? What will that look like? How will it work with our personal life? Will success chew us up and spit it us? Balance. That’s what we’re looking for. And joy.

I went back to the Chef’s Table episode that first made Niki famous, before even the Jonathan Gold article. Watching it again, I was impressed by what she was doing (to a swell of Vivaldi and sumptuous photography) but also struck by her determination in the force of what seemed like family pressure, as well as her fragility. A decade later, the person who sat across from me still seemed striving, fragile, sometimes childlike in her enthusiasm, but also possessed of a quiet confidence.

Photo by Zen Sekizawa

            “With all the years we’ve been working here,” Niki said, shooting a glance at Carole, who perched beside her, equally focused, leaning forward to make sure that they’re both precisely understood. “What is really important to me is the feeling that the work continues to be exciting. I think I recognize, even more than before, how important it is that every day is a day that is being seen by guests, or taking care of guests and taking care of our staff as well, just overall, to make micro successes become the overall truth of what I enjoy most about this work.”

            Micro success. The discipline to look at what’s on the plate in front of you, to intentionally not listen to the noise outside.

            “Yes. And that also feels like the greatest part of what success should feel like, what success is to me. And I think we’ve met so many different and wonderful people along the way since we’ve started this work. And there are times when it feels confusing, what everybody’s reaching for. Starting out in this career, there was also the notion that certain levels of success means that you’ve succeeded in making that happen for yourself. I don’t discount that in any way. I love how fortunate we’ve been to have the success that we have. And even achieving Michelin was a really big part of why I wanted to do this work because I have such a strong belief in the tenets that the Michelin (system) stands for. What’s appealing to me about something like that is to be acknowledged and validated. But I also realize that, well, those things come once a year. The other days of the week, what’s important is the art and craft of the work and the continuation of learning ourselves. Every time we put out a new menu, there’s always something that I’m learning that’s different from the menu that we did before. And I appreciate the opportunity to continually grow.”

            The Michelin system is widely ranted about, and yet it still remains the Oscars of the food world. I’ve seen chefs afflicted with what I call Michelinitis, or a high-pitched anxiety in the months leading up to the announcement that can have an effect on their food. Niki and Carole appreciate being seen, like all of us, but they keep coming back again and again to the work.

            And it’s very specific work. The kaiseki philosophy is intersectional in the sense that it incorporates music and calligraphy as well the deepest sense of hospitality—Niki and Carole keep binders on every one of their guests, what they’ve ordered, and what they like. I noticed a tiny altar in the vestibule, just inside the front door.

“That’s to keep the bad spirits out,” Niki said, but I somehow misheard.

“The bastards?”

“Yes,” she said with a grin. “Them too.”

Photo by Zen Sekizawa

At its core, kaiseki follows the seasons, each course featuring ingredients at their peak. There’s a sacred quality to it, which is perhaps why a branch of Kaiseki (this one with a capital K) evolved as part of Japanese tea ceremony. Kaiseki cuisine wants to give us the emotion, the feelings around the change of a season, even those subtler shifts we experience on the West Coast.

            “What we’re able to experience here is very special,” Niki said. “It’s not so pronounced in the ways that it is on the East Coast, or in Japan and other colder weather places…Initially inspiration comes from something visual, because that’s how I feel things, but what would burning maple leaves feel like and taste like? How to describe on the plate how the air turns more crisp?”

They also seem to possess the secret sauce on how to not only work together, but how to inspire each other too.

Photo by Zen Sekizawa

            “I would definitely say I’m not the creative behind the ideas,” Carole said. “Most of the creative energy behind our food comes initially from Niki. It’ll be just out of the blue. ‘Oh my God, I was thinking about this or that.’ And then it’ll be me who says, ‘Okay, tell me more. How do you see this happening?’ I’ll get much more specific. She’s a big idea person but, in my head, I’m like, ‘Okay, that’s a great idea, if we had a 50-person team to do it, but how are we really going to accomplish that with our team, time frame, equipment and the space in our kitchen? And so I feel that’s always been my strong suit, distilling her idea, trying not to lose the essence of her bigger idea, and making it come to life.”

            “She’s challenging me to think it through,” Niki agreed. “It helps me become more clear for myself too. Where sometimes (my ideas) are just pie in the sky.” Another look to Carole, along with a laugh. “I was telling her the other day, that a lot of people sat it’s hard work with your significant other, your spouse in the kitchen. But one of the best things is I get to see her be at her best all the time, which would be hard if we didn’t work together because we’re very different at work than we are at the park.”

There’s an element of foodie obsessiveness in the dining room. The person next to us is beaming about getting a reservation after eight months and the front-of-the-house staff, highly tuned, notices everything and is solicitous in a way that befits the price tag. Our personal guide, if you will, is a veteran of Per Se in New York, well educated about every element on the menu, friendly, and eager to answer any questions we might have. Which it turns out we need, because the procession of exquisitely beautiful courses includes things we’ve never tasted before, all in a particular order and following a set of rules that have existed for hundreds of years, and still with Niki and Carole’s specific California spin, not least because 45 percent of the produce on the menu is grown at Niki and Carole’s home. As Niki says, “when you grow a tomato from a seed and it takes three months to mature, and I’ve gotten to watch that, I’m not going to not treat it with respect.”

As we come to the end—the Sugar Kiss melon sorbet with cranberry ice & gelee, lemon verbena oil and honey dew juice—I think of the last question I asked them both: what would they say to a young female chef starting out now?

“It’s really important,” Carole said, “especially nowadays with so much social media and other people’s work and other people’s voices constantly out there shouting loudly. It’s very important as a young female chef to not allow those things to muffle whatever voice or vision or idea that’s true to you. Really try to figure out for yourself what it is you’re trying to say with your food. Find your own way there. Find your own voice.”

“I’ve come to recognize,” Niki said. “That this work is sustainable for me personally because there’s a desire to someday reach a level of mastery within the craft. That keeps the work fun. When you’re working for accolades or you’re working for recognition, that will take away all the joy from what you do because it will never be sustainable, and it’ll never feel like it’s—”

“It will never be enough,” Carole said. “Yeah. It just keeps going.”

“So please,” Niki said, “whoever wants to come into this field, learn to love the work. If you just love the work, the accolades come.”

Photo by Zen Sekizawa

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12 months ago

Thank you for sharing such detailed article. I am learning a lot from you. Oracle Fusion Technical Training

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