Chef Niki Nakayama: Repeating and Refining

“I dig these. I’m with you on this.”

Thus started my interview with Chef Niki Nakayama of n/naka for Plate Magazine’s The Japanese Influence issue. Nothing thrills me more than shooting interview questions over to a chef and getting that kind of response. Our interview proved just as delightful.

Here’s a lightly-trimmed version of our full discussion.

Chef Niki Nakayama - photograph Zen Sekizawa
Chef Niki Nakayama – photograph Zen Sekizawa

Chef Niki Nakayama

Interview taken January, 2018

Jacqueline: Let’s start with the three years you spent cooking in Japan. What made it feel like a significant period of growth regarding technique, or understanding of ingredients? Especially compared to your similar training in the United States, what stuck with you?

Niki: The first thing I noticed was how amazing the ingredients were. I was in a very small city; not at a restaurant Michelin writes about, or a world-renowned location. Given the fact that even a place such as that prides themselves on any kind of ingredient is really a telltale sign of the way Japanese people care about the food being served.

I was impressed by how amazing something so simple such as squid could be. The squid we could get in L.A. or in the States was treated. Or caught here but then sent somewhere else and brought back. To experience something caught and served that same day was an amazing discovery! The sheer idea of how important ingredients are — how you need to do your best to highlight them in their most natural environment, in their most natural state.

One of the things they always teach you in Japanese cuisine is that you need to take care of and protect the ingredients. The whole philosophy is always: How do we use the techniques we understand to remove the things not particularly great about this ingredient and, with the same techniques, highlight what is wonderful about it? There’s more a taking away and showcasing versus adding layers of flavors to mask anything.

And with Japanese plating, there’s this emphasis to emulate nature as much as possible. There’s idea — mountain, valley, river — and you plate that kind of way: you have something high, and something in the middle, and something low. There’s that idea of emulating nature. But my biggest takeaway in plating was a need to make the food come alive; to make it look very fresh, lively, and appealing. That was an important lesson as well.

Jacqueline: Were one of these elements difficult for you to understand or overcome during this time?

Niki: In Japanese food, there is this concept of simplicity. Within that simplicity, I think it’s easy to misinterpret that it means to just “put a few things on a plate.” When one is trained in Japanese cuisine, it’s understood that in simplicity, many levels of perfection are required to make things look simple. For example, every single item on the plate has to be equal in size, cut, placement, and direction. There’s intentional simplicity. It’s not, “Oh I put two things on a plate” and that’s it. There’s deliberate action. I think that sometimes doesn’t translate for people who don’t study Japanese cuisine enough.

Jacqueline: Was that concept particularly hard for you?

Niki: It wasn’t particularly hard. But it became very apparent that Japanese cuisine prides itself on a very high technical aspect. Above being creative, above be unique, there’s an incredible respect for technical precision. That kind of mindset requires a lot of practice. When you learn something, it’s easy to have that beginning love or interest in it. But you have to remember that to really get good, you need to overcome the feeling of, “I already know how to do this. This is easy for me.” When you start to have that kind of attitude, the work begins to suffer. You have to work through that in order to get to that place where it no longer feels like you’re deliberately trying to make it perfect; where it’s ingrained and a part of you. So to better answer your question, it’s about overcoming the challenge of thinking that you already know what you’re doing, and still perfecting that knowledge until it becomes a part of you.

N/Naka Blue Crab, Zucchini Blossom, Carrot - Photographer Zen Sekizawa
N/Naka Blue Crab, Zucchini Blossom, Carrot – Photograph Zen Sekizawa

Jacqueline: I know you touched upon presentation of a plate. But how was the actual eating experience for diners different than restaurants back in L.A.? To a point that you sort of mentally bookmarked to bring it home later?

Niki: Everything in Japanese plating is always just enough. Everything you eat leaves you with this feeling of, I wish there was one more bite. That kind of simplicity and awareness is very unique for Japanese cooking, because there’s a natural tendency to want so much of something good. But too much of a good thing can be too much of a good thing!

Jacqueline: When you returned home, what did you most want to bring to L.A. with Azami? What was missing in the dining scene there?

Niki: I had experienced so many kinds of Japanese food not available here I thought would be interesting to introduce to the dining public. When I first came back from Japan, sushi was the major thing here, and the sushi was going in all directions. There was this new craze for these mega rolls or extravagant rolls topped with so many sauces. What I had learned in Japan was a lot simpler. With Azami, I hoped to open a restaurant that was not the same thing you’d find on every other corner or a different interpretation of the same thing. I wanted to do something unique to my experience. Kaiseki was just one thing that I thought might be fun to introduce to the dining public.

Jacqueline: Shifting to the concept of seasonality. Can you describe the difference — or what I guess was a sort of before and after — of when you started thinking local with your menu? When and why did making your cuisine with ingredients local to California become important?

Niki: Kaiseiki in its origin has always been about featuring local and seasonal cuisine — that’s always been a part of Japanese cooking. Originally, when I opened n/naka, the idea was that I wanted to create a restaurant similar to what you could find in Japan; to recreate Japan here.

And then I went back to Japan in 2015. When experiencing the local cuisine and talking to other chefs, I asked them what they prize the most. And everyone’s answer was always: “Oh we really prize using ingredients that are really close to us because nothing better ensures that kind of freshness than location.”

Up until then, our restaurant was importing 70% of the things on our menu from Japan! And it made me think really deeply. Like, well, we’re trying to do kaiseki. But we’re not really adhering to the kaiseki philosophy of showcasing things that are local. How does that make us a real kaiseki restaurant?

So I thought, no matter how hard I tried to recreate Japan in L.A., it just isn’t the same as it is for a person who’s been to Japan, and dined in the beautiful Choto gardens, and the tea gardens, and with the backdrop of Japan itself. It became very apparent that I needed to create a restaurant that you could find in Los Angeles. And that’s how I started to look into using ingredients that were in California or from the area and wanting to discover natural herbs or natural flavors that are California; trying to figure out how I could use those in our Japanese cuisine using Japanese techniques.

N/Naka's California Kaiseki - Black Cod Sashimi - photograph Zen Sekizawa
N/Naka’s California Kaiseki – Black Cod Sashimi – photograph Zen Sekizawa

Jacqueline: How hard was that? Was it more on the challenging side to find things to substitute, or more on the exciting side? Because I would imagine that if you are importing 70% from Japan, switching to all local ingredients would really significant change your process.

Niki: It was really hard because first of all, I had no idea where I was going to find local fish from. — it’s not something our Japanese seafood purveyors could easily offer up. I had to ask around for so many months and no one seemed to have the answer.

And just at around the same time I read that there was a program called Dock to Dish that features local fish coming to L.A. It was a golden opportunity for me to really learn more about California products, and the timing was just really amazing. And along with Dock to Dish, other purveyors also started using local fish. Now, we are able to serve some local fish sashimi style — which was something I never thought was going to be possible, given that raw fish coming from Japan was always so superior in quality.

Jacqueline: What kinds of things have you been able to serve that are local?

Niki: We use a fish called Kinki in Japanese — a type of rockfish, a white fish. It’s really amazing because the fat content on it is surprisingly high, so the texture and flavor are mild but then it’s also rich at the same time. So we’ve been able to use that on our menu as well as local black cod, which is something I think if Japanese people heard about they would freak out because of all the local black cod, I mean, I don’t think they catch black cod in Japanese waters. So they would never imagine using that as sashimi! We are fortunate that because we can catch it here and do the Ike Jime technique on it, we’re able to serve it sashimi style.

Jacqueline: Other than fish, what ingredients that have thrilled you, and how do they work differently than their Japanese counterparts?

Niki: We sometimes use a black mustard seed brought to us by our forager in place of wasabi! That’s been really exciting because the flavors are similar yet they’re totally different. It’s a unique ingredient we get to share with our guest. We have a wonderful farmer that comes and works with our garden, who plants a lot of herbs more natural to this environment. I had never worked with lemon verbena before. Having been able to discover that is so exciting because it has the wonderful flavors of ginger as well as hints of lemon. We’ve been able to incorporate it in some of our sauces, which is unique to Japanese cuisine.

I tried to put a list together of all the Japanese herbs and things we would use for a Japanese pantry and only came up with, like, 10 different things. That was a little shocking! Japanese people don’t use any herbs at all! It was an eye-opening experience and good for us to think about!

Jacqueline: That’s really funny!

Niki: When we looked at European cuisine there are hundreds of herbs incorporated. We can’t even come up with 10! We’re like, oh no, our Japanese pantry just got really small.

Jacqueline: Well, speaking of simplicity and having not that much to work with, or I guess on the flip side, “American cuisine” is pretty boundless. Unless we’re thinking burgers and fries, there’s really no restriction. So you’ve got American cuisine on one side — or American ingredients — and Japanese influence on the other. Do you set rules or parameters for yourself when building a dish in name of cohesion or focus? Do you have, it has to stay in this box? How do you limit your own creativity?

Niki: Kaiseki has parameters in that we have to feature different cooking methods that highlight all the ingredients. For me the most important thing is we always cook and use ingredients in the most natural way possible so that it always tastes Japanese. And then should we want to go a little bit further, then we allow ourselves to add a little bit of accent here and there. We only use things outside of Japanese ingredients as little touches, but never allow it to be the main focus of anything we do. The goal is it has to be about 65 percent fully Japanese, and then we allow ourselves that 35 percent leeway to sort of incorporate different cooking methods or a little bit of like additional cream here or a little butter there that wouldn’t necessarily be found in Japanese cuisine in the first place.

Jacqueline: Can you breakdown as an example a dish that you’ve done that is in that 35 percent?

Niki: Ok. We tend to do that a lot for our modern interpretation of Japanese sashimi. So we have a traditional sashimi where it’s just cuts of fish, sashimi is generally showcasing your cutting techniques with traditional soy sauce and wasabi. So we have a modern version where we pair it with different sauces. For example, right now we’re doing a Spanish mackerel tartar that we serve with concord grape. And we also do a smoked vinegar dashi and pair it with a little bit of picked fennel fennel. And so those flavors that are outside of the traditional Japanese sashimi profile. So we sort of incorporate that within it to make it interesting and a little bit different. But we always make sure never to sauce the actual sashimi — it’s always somewhat on the side so that you can try it if you like, or not. So as to not ever interrupt the pureness of the sashimi. So it’s very outside of the traditional Japanese sashimi. But ultimately when you eat it, I think it still tastes Japanese.

Jacqueline: On the flip side, what dish do you feel most exemplifies your style – how Japanese tradition and techniques and these local ingredients come together?

Niki: I feel like one that we just did is a perfect example of blending Japanese in California: We get a lot of local fish from our Dock to Dish program and local fishermen. And then in Japanese cooking we have a method called agedashi, which is we deep fry something in cornstarch or some kind of starch powder and then we steep into a dashi broth. So it’s crispy and yet soft, and then also saucy at the same time. We’ve used this technique on one of our dishes where, instead of dashi broth, we puree tomatillos into the broth. So the concept and the flavor profile is still very Japanese, because we also use a sencha powder. The whole agedashi is a very Japanese thing but the sauces and the flavors are a little bit different. And I think it’s a perfect example of blending Japanese sensibility, Japanese techniques, Japanese ideals, and even Japanese flavorings with something that is very California; very outside of Japan. It’s the perfect dish that shows Japan and California.

Jacqueline: And why is this the perfect dish that shows you?

Niki: I think it’s a really wonderful blend of California ingredients as well as Japanese ingredients and Japanese philosophies and ideas. And I always tell people that I’m really fortunate to have this Japanese heritage and yet have this wonderful American influence in my upbringing. Combining the two always feels so authentically like who I am. I hope that makes sense.

Jacqueline: It does completely. So along those lines: When you are cooking in your restaurant do you feel you’re cooking American cuisine, Japanese cuisine, or something new? How do you define for yourself what you’re cooking?

Niki: I feel like I’m cooking Japanese food from the perspective of somebody who has grown up outside of Japan.

Jacqueline: Other than ingredients, what’s the difference of somebody outside of Japan versus had you grown up in Japan?

Niki: I think that’s a really hard question! I think what I allow myself is the freedom to explore and be creative and not be tied down by the traditions that really are what Japanese food is so much about. Japanese food prides itself on tradition. And because I’m not in Japan, I allow myself to do what is more authentic for me; by honoring tradition but allowing the appreciation of this American upbringing — that creative side — into the food that we’re making. That’s a hard question!

Jacqueline: I know! As I was saying it, I was like, I don’t know how I’d answer this! The why this is fascinating, right? It’s so interesting! Because that’s what happens when you change things as you do them?

Niki: I always have to say that, because I feel like it would be really inappropriate for me to be announcing that I’m very traditional Japanese food, because I can’t say that having not been raised in Japan and having a very different experience. My food experience has always been the mix of everything. And even though my home cooking has always been very Japanese, it’s always been this wonderful influence from outside so that I just feel that for me to claim expertise in traditional Japanese cooking is too bold of a statement to make. I understand Japanese food from my own experience and upbringing, as well as having been trained in Japan; I know what Japanese food tastes like and understand it to the best of my ability. But I also can’t help wanting to combine my experiences of having grown up in the States, and my food. I love Japanese food so much, and I was there before I opened n/naka – I took a trip to learn food even more in depth – but halfway through I was like, ‘I JUST NEED CHEESE!” I just needed something heavier. And then if I eat too much western food, I need a bowl a miso soup and rice. It’s always something in between.

Jacqueline: What feels the most satisfying about the food you’re cooking today, with all its changeability and all the expectation that comes from those walking into your dining room? What most excites you still about working with food?

Niki: I think it’s that constant desire to keep growing and keep learning — that’s the best part of me. We just put a new mini veg tureen on the menu as the appetizer course, where we put a lot of elements. I’d made veggie tureens in the past, but never to where I’m a master at it. Today, I’m redoing and relearning and trying to understand it all over again and perfect it as I learn and keep learning and grow from that experience. You can learn so many things, but there’s never enough time to learn everything. Once I find a challenge, I want to keep at out until it’s something I’m good at. That’s what makes the work that much more fun – that constant learning and growing, because there are so many things yet to try. I’m exited to learn all the things that are still interesting to me.

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