In August, famed kaiseki chef Niki Nakayama will launch an exciting all-California menu at her restaurant n/naka. In her kitchen, Chef Nakayama is painstakingly drying, fermenting and smoking her own bonito from locally-caught fish. In the Farmscape-designed garden in front of her Culver City home, Nakayama and her wife, sous chef and partner, Chef Carole Iida, are growing Japanese ginger, eggplants, and cucumbers for the menu. Proteins for the all-California menu will be sourced from Dock to Dish, and California wines chosen by general manager Jeffry Undiarto will take the stage.
The menu will only be served several times over the next two to three months, so call and make your reservations.
Paste had a chance to chat with Chef Nakayama about her life with food, from playing Wham! when she cooks, to which episode of Chef’s Table she watched and loved.
Paste: What Japanese heirloom vegetables have you been experimenting with for the all-California menu?
Chef Niki Nakayama: We’ve been growing kamo nasu, which is a kind of eggplant, quite famous in Kyoto, that’s shaped like a tennis ball and known to be delicious for its meatiness. We are also trying myoga this season, which is a kind of young ginger. We also have yuzu citrus, sudachi citrus, and green umeboshi plums, as well as shishito peppers and Tasty Queen Japanese cucumbers.
Paste: Do you love gardening and its challenges?
NN: I’m always surprised by how relaxing and meditative it is. I can’t help but slow down when I’m clipping herbs or vegetables or when I’m trimming the greens as well as pruning the vines. I think the most challenging part of gardening is grub hunting, but I always tell myself they love vegetables, so they’re okay.
Paste: What are the challenges of working on the all-California menu?
NN: The challenge is finding the right cooking method and flavor pairing that showcase that ingredient while maintaining Japanese elements. With the California menu, some are native and some were introduced generations ago from all over the world. I am trying to find a good usage for a plant called Cat Tail which has flavors of cucumber and the texture of large green onions.
Paste: How do you keep innovating within the boundaries of kaiseki?
NN: Before I do anything, I always have to ask myself, “does it keep in line with what kaiseki is about?” That said, I spend a lot of time learning about ingredients, both traditional and new, and try to find new and interesting ways to fit them into what kaiseki is about. Being innovative to me just means constantly learning, experimenting, researching, and putting ideas together.
Paste: Do you feel that you’ve become more accepted in the world of kaiseki as a woman since you’ve received a high level of recognition?
NN: I feel very fortunate because kaiseki is still so new to people outside of Japan that I am able to do it without preconceived notions about who should be doing it or what image a kaiseki chef should have. It’s easy to have an image in our minds when someone says sushi chef, but when someone says kaiseki chef, people may draw a blank in their minds, and that’s a great place for me to be.
Paste: What music do you play for yourself when you’re cooking?
NN: Most of the time I like music that allows me to take my time and relax, but sometimes I like to work to fun stuff like Wham!
Paste: What do you like to play for guests and in the kitchen?
NN: For guests, I always feel like something really pleasant and relaxing without making them feel too relaxed, so we choose a lot of jazz and sneak in some fun stuff from Kings Of Convenience, Ray La Montagne and Rachael Yamagata. For the kitchen, we don’t listen to music during service because being able to hear the servers and staff comes first.
Paste: When you leave work, are you too exhausted to cook?
NN: More often than not, but when I’m hungry, I start craving specific things and that leads to feeling inspired to cook what my brain wants to eat.
Paste: So do you still want to eat Japanese food at home?
NN: All the time.
Paste: What’s your favorite veg-out chill-out food for home?
NN: Shabu shabu or hot pot.
Paste: How has your life changed since you were on Chef’s Table?
NN: It’s been a wonderful experience for me. Although I am a lot busier trying to keep up, I’m also experiencing a dream come true little by little every day.
Paste: Have you watched the new season?
NN: Yes, but only one so far because I don’t get a lot of down time.
Paste: Were you particularly intrigued by any episode?
NN: I watched the Gaggan Anand episode, which was so beautifully shot and incredibly moving. I really love how the Chef’s Table team and Netflix are able to capture the most interesting thing about a particular chef. I think they truly do an amazing job showcasing every chef’s strengths and vulnerabilities that are positive and inspiring.
Paste: Any other TV you’re watching?
NN: “Game of Thrones” because it’s entertaining, addictive, and fun, not to mention that some of the episodes leave me in utter shock and disbelief.
Paste: Where have your travels recently taken you, and how have they informed your creativity?
NN: I recently traveled to Amsterdam and Paris. I didn’t have much time to explore Amsterdam, but my dining tour of Paris was really inspiring. Every time I eat well, I’m reminded how important quality ingredients are and how caring for those ingredients really does bring out the best in them. I find that the most enjoyable meals are often the ones where the chef really cares about their ingredients and respects them by not hiding their natural flavors.
Paste: What restaurants have you enjoyed the most recently?
NN: In my own city, Cassia and Park’s BBQ, and in Paris, Yam’tcha was amazing as was L’Astrance.
Paste: Thanks for the recs, Chef Nakayama.
NN: My pleasure.
Dakota Kim is Paste’s Food Editor. Tweet her @dakotakim1.