How Japanese Restaurant N/Naka Modified Los Angeles’s Eating Scene Eternally

When chef Niki Nakayama opened N/Naka a decade in the past on the nook of Overland and Lawler within the Palms neighborhood of Los Angeles, she commonly served fewer than 10 individuals every night time, though the kitchen and eating room may deal with 4 occasions as many. She distinctly remembers serving simply two diners throughout a very sluggish service in these early days, when restaurant patrons had been extra enamored with pork belly and molecular gastronomy than in refined Japanese tasting menus. Nonetheless, she persevered, fueled by an unshakable sense of pleasure for her craft and responsibility to conventional kaiseki philosophy. “It by no means occurred to me that we weren’t going to make it. For the primary time in my profession I simply felt this unimaginable sense of perception in what I used to be doing, and I might discover a manner,” she says.

To finance N/Naka, Nakayama offered her profitable Melrose Avenue restaurant, Azami Sushi Cafe, after which bought the Overland Avenue constructing outright. She used the rest of her price range to furnish the kitchen and eating room earlier than opening in April 2011.

Although many Angelenos knew their manner round a Japanese restaurant menu in 2011, kaiseki was nonetheless broadly unknown. On the time, the ultra-expensive Urasawa in Beverly Hills and the now-closed A Thousand Cranes in Little Tokyo each served kaiseki-influenced tasting menus, however neither had been totally dedicated to calling them that. However the eating public’s lack of expertise concerning the centuries-old, multicourse Japanese custom didn’t deter Nakayama from heeding an unrelenting name to serve kaiseki at her namesake restaurant.

“Kaiseki is understanding when to pluck the ingredient on the peak of its seasonality, and even simply earlier than, and presenting that,” she says. “For me, it’s a lot about an appreciation for nature and a gratitude for the sensation of nature and the way we’re supposed to spotlight all of the issues that encompass us.” Traditional Japanese cooking strategies — steaming, frying, grilling, and simmering — are purposefully chosen to spotlight every ingredient all through the 12-course meal.

Nakayama has been cooking alongside her spouse, Carole Iida-Nakayama, within the 400-square-foot kitchen for many of the previous 10 years. The 2 had been new to courting when Carole stepped into the kitchen to fill in for a no-show sous chef, and he or she hasn’t left Niki’s facet since. The gamble to blur the strains between their private {and professional} lives paid off as the 2 grew stronger in bringing the restaurant’s fashionable kaiseki to life with every service and season. And all of the whereas, they’ve needed to navigate the numerous highs and lows — Netflix fame, Michelin’s return to Los Angeles, pandemic-era uncertainty — that include restaurant life.

In its decade of working, N/Naka has risen to nationwide acclaim to change into essentially the most celebrated kaiseki restaurant exterior Japan. The indelible mark the restaurant has left on its hometown can’t be understated: from introducing locals to kaiseki to redefining “California delicacies” and provoking a era of cooks and eating places, listed below are the ten methods N/Naka modified the Los Angeles eating scene endlessly, based on influential members of town’s eating group.

Introducing Angelenos to kaiseki

N/Naka photo illustration featuring little dishes filled with seafood.

Although some locals might have heard of kaiseki, the custom didn’t catch on broadly till N/Naka got here alongside. “[Niki] determined to do that kaiseki-style tasting menu in LA that nobody was doing and say, ‘Properly that’s simply what we need to do, and we’re going to do it. Not as a result of it’s one thing we all know individuals like, however as a result of it’s one thing we like.’ And that is likely one of the rarest issues in eating places,” says Dave Beran, chef and proprietor of Pasjoli in Santa Monica. “[She took] an enormous danger in saying, ‘If it’s good, individuals will get pleasure from it.’” That dogged dedication to sharing a hyper-traditional Japanese expertise with an unfamiliar viewers was an incredible leap of religion. But it surely started to repay when restaurant critics Jonathan Gold and Besha Rodell filed their glowing critiques in 2012 and 2013, respectively, propelling N/Naka to town’s eating forefront and including kaiseki to the Angeleno lexicon.

Redefining California delicacies

There exists a really particular template for California delicacies that’s characterised by the “figs on a plate” aesthetic popularized by Alice Waters at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. Although kaiseki isn’t typically regarded as an expression of farm-to-table cooking, a key tenet is to combine one’s environment by sourcing components regionally. To that finish, Niki and Carole develop some 45 p.c of the restaurant’s produce of their Culver Metropolis entrance yard, and in addition supply as much as 80 p.c of their components all through the state. “Her enthusiasm for components and the way in which they’re handled with nice care by each step of her course of reveals on the plate,” writes Betty Hallock, former Los Angeles Instances deputy meals editor, in an electronic mail. “You possibly can inform from the way in which the menus are structured [that] there may be particular custom there, however… you’ll be able to sense the California in her,” says Sang Yoon, chef and proprietor of Father’s Workplace and Lukshon. “A lot of California seeps into the meals. Seasonality exists in Japan, however the produce, the herbs, you don’t see that. She positively leverages California closely.”

Broadening palates past sushi

Earlier than N/Naka opened its doorways, Angelenos had a narrower understanding of Japanese delicacies. Whereas high-end sushi temples like Sushi Nozawa, Mori Sushi, and Urasawa served beautiful omakases, many Japanese eating places in Little Tokyo and the South Bay and on the Westside showcased a extra informal method to Japanese cooking. “A number of Japanese eating places, particularly informal ones, supply all the things from sushi to tempura and ramen and udon… form of like a deli mentality,” says Yoon. N/Naka confirmed Los Angeles first, and a nationwide viewers later, that there’s way more to Japanese positive eating than simply high-priced nigiri.

N/Naka photo illustration of chefs Niki and Carole Nakayama processing raw fish.

Propelling personal-narrative cooking

A meal at N/Naka is a window into Niki’s and Carole’s life tales, with each course honoring each Japanese kaiseki traditions and their Japanese American heritage. “She places a lot thought and intention into her cooking, in a manner that’s distinctly in following with the Japanese custom of ichi-go ichi-e — the idea of treasuring a single second in time as a result of it is going to by no means be repeated in the very same manner once more,” Hallock writes. “However simply as a lot as she is rooted in custom, she is all the time pushing herself to alter and to strive new issues.”

Take, as an example, the restaurant’s signature dish, which options handmade spaghettini with abalone, pickled cod roe, and Burgundy truffles. Served for the shiizakana course, Niki’s interpretation breaks away from the extra conventional meat or scorching pot choices, with out compromising on the shiizakana’s essence. “Many people in Southern California are first- or second-generation People, which implies we’re continually negotiating between cultural and nationwide boundaries and identities,” writes Patricia Escárcega, a reporting fellow at the Counter and former Los Angeles Instances restaurant critic, in an electronic mail. “I feel it’s this pressure between Japanese and California traditions, moods, and components that makes N/Naka so compelling.”

From Hokkaido scallops with ponzu and white truffles to a salty plum granita garnished with delicate shiso leaves, the duo’s cooking has grown more and more assured over the previous 10 years to change into a real reflection of the cooks and their histories.

Capturing a real sense of place

Serving a kaiseki dinner that adheres to custom but additionally captures an LA sensibility (moderately than being a by-product of Japan) takes ability and guts. “The extra guidelines there are at a delicacies, the more durable it’s to seek out your personal model of variance inside that,” says Beran. “[The meal] was offered in a manner that didn’t make me really feel like we had been sitting in Japan having kaiseki. It made me really feel like we had been in California having a Japanese kaiseki meal.”

As a born and raised Angeleno, Niki’s journey and influences function the connective tissue all through the meal, just like the kanpachi sashimi served with an avocado sauce, and bell pepper and jalapeno jellies — Japanese in spirit with an Angeleno’s soul. “Niki has approached kaiseki in a manner that no one else has in LA, as a result of no one else has her distinctive experiences — rising up in California in her household’s seafood enterprise, coaching in Japan, working in male-dominated kitchens there and in LA, after which opening and working her personal locations, along with her personal imaginative and prescient,” writes Hallock. Even N/Naka’s eating room captures a laid-back LA vibe. “The area is just not intimidating. It’s the fitting dimension, it’s not overly luxurious, it’s on an unprepossessing nook,” says Evan Kleiman, host of KCRW’s Good Meals. “In so some ways it’s so LA, in that you simply’re not going to a palace the place your purse goes to have its personal chair.”

Evolving positive eating

When N/Naka opened in 2011, Los Angeles’s thought of positive eating was rooted within the basic sense, with tasting menus and fussy service. The kaiseki expertise bridged the hole between a sushi omakase and locations like Patina, Spago, and Melisse; it supplied a brand new understanding of high-end cooking to Angelenos. “There are only a few practitioners of basic positive eating, like a small eating room with pristine service, and that degree of element the place meals and repair can rise to the extent of artwork,” Yoon says. “For the final decade she’s positively been the place positive eating is in LA.”

Along with altering up the anticipated positive eating format, N/Naka’s hotter service and relaxed atmosphere imbued a way of hospitality that was lacking in stodgier eating rooms. “I feel that due to who Niki is, individuals who might not have ever had a tasting menu expertise at that degree are by some means engaged by her,” says Kleiman. “What Niki presents is so rooted in a type of real hospitality. That sense of concern, of being intimidated, falls away and permits you to focus on the expertise itself, which is so pleasurable.”

Inspiring the following era

The resounding success of N/Naka paved the way in which for cooks and restaurateurs to open formidable eating places that leaned into tasting menus with out being tethered to the French commonplace. It additionally confirmed that there was an viewers for private cooking that went past informal neighborhood spots. “Any time somebody new comes on the scene with a unique perspective and has success, then the world of risk opens as much as people who find themselves nonetheless within the dreaming stage,” says Kleiman. “If you perceive that you simply don’t must have gilded chairs and also you don’t must have 20 programs, then unexpectedly you begin to consider what you need to do inside your personal set of parameters.”

N/Naka emboldened cooks to assume exterior the confines of present restaurant ideas. “At a time when the chatter exterior LA was that the eating scene wasn’t something particular [and] the eating places you heard about had been the fashionable movie star spots, Niki and Carole had been doing one thing that didn’t fall into any of these molds. And it type of made it okay for eating places like Dialogue,” says Beran, referring to his now-closed 18-seat tasting menu restaurant in Santa Monica. “With out N/Naka, [the] eating scene wouldn’t be the place it’s now,” says Mei Lin, chef of Nightshade and Daybird. “She’s doing one thing actually completely different within the Los Angeles eating scene. There are much more tasting menu eating places. Now we have now Hayato, now we have now Kato.”

Bringing nationwide acclaim to Los Angeles

Irrespective of how loud Angelenos shout concerning the metropolis’s unimaginable eating scene, individuals exterior the Southland don’t all the time appear to know the type of cooking taking place on the bottom — or its philosophies. For higher or worse, scores like Michelin stars and reveals like Chef’s Desk can improve town’s notion amongst outsiders. “Watching Niki Nakayama inform her story on Chef’s Desk was like selecting up the final piece of a puzzle and snapping it into place with satisfaction,” writes Invoice Addison, Los Angeles Instances restaurant critic, in an electronic mail. “The world was already cluing into the greatness of eating in Los Angeles at each tier: the taco distributors and regional Mexican cuisines, our Thai eating places, our sushi tradition. When Nakayama associated her journey, everybody may see that LA was on the entrance line of top-dollar, artistry-driven cooking as properly.” Because the recipient of two Michelin stars and the topic of a complete episode on the first season of Chef’s Table, N/Naka confirmed the remainder of the world what Angelenos already knew — there’s no higher place to dine on the planet.

Upending gender stereotypes

Photo illustration of N/Naka’s Carole Nakayama tweezing a dish alongside a dish being served table side.

Although the hassle to evolve the restaurant trade’s bro culture has seen some progress, these poisonous roots nonetheless run deep. Niki and Carole carved out a profitable restaurant in a male-dominated trade whereas cooking a traditionally male-dominated delicacies, by no means compromising on their imaginative and prescient and values. “What’s so fascinating about the entire topic, about how kaiseki is that this male-dominated type, is that it’s a type that depends so deeply on nature, which appears to me to be inherently female,” says Kleiman. “So I discover that in a manner Niki is that this correction.”

Although it’s considerably rote to view N/Naka’s accomplishments by a gendered lens, Niki and Carole’s success within the face of systemic boundaries speaks to unimaginable energy and perseverance. “It’s deeply validating to witness Niki and Carole’s success,” says Lien Ta, co-owner of All Day Child and co-founder of Regarding Her, a nonprofit devoted to the development and empowerment of ladies restaurateurs. “I’ve discovered, in my very own life, I’ve subconsciously put limits on my skills or ambitions. However seeing these two Asian ladies in hospitality setting up their very own luminosity encourages me and empowers me — and I think about different ladies and significantly Asian ladies — to consider in what is feasible. Formidable ladies don’t all look or behave a sure manner both. There’s an class to Niki and Carole, and above all, that’s what conjures up me.”

“The scenario that Niki and Carole discover themselves in, as ladies working a really high-profile Michelin-starred institution, shouldn’t be exceptional. However that’s not the world we reside in,” says Michael Cimarusti, chef of Windfall, Connie & Ted’s, and Greatest Lady. “I’m married to a girl who can also be a chef (Crisi Echiverri), and he or she has all the time informed me that she felt it was her accountability to be that a lot better than everyone else… as a result of you’re a lady and the expectations aren’t as excessive, to be seen it’s important to contribute greater than everyone else since you’re not one of many boys.”

Photo illustration of a dish from N/Naka.

Constructing a culinary group

Fostering real relationships inside LA’s group of cooks and restaurateurs has all the time been a precedence for Niki and Carole. They make it a degree to lend their names and assets to assist up-and-coming cooks and do-good organizations, share their enterprise know-how, and welcome anybody into their circle. “It meant a lot to have Niki and Carole contribute to Concerning Her,” says Ta. “Whereas they themselves should not splashy individuals, everyone knows that N/Naka makes a splash, and it actually helped to propel the attain of Concerning Her.”

“As soon as I used to be speaking to [Niki and Carole] about lobster on the counter, and the following day I bought a textual content from Niki with a purveyor she had who had this nice lobster that she beloved. And it was issues like that — the place I didn’t ask, they simply did,” says Beran. “[They] actually care concerning the trade, not nearly [themselves].” Whereas massive egos are commonplace within the higher echelons of hospitality, Niki and Carole break the mould to steer with humility and kindness. “I don’t know anybody that good at what they do and is that good on the similar time,” says Yoon. Practically everybody that Eater spoke to talked about how graciously the Nakayamas have handled them through the years, which is notable in an trade higher recognized for its loudest cooks than ones that play properly with others (and share lobster purveyors).

Although neither Niki nor Carole anticipated celebrating this milestone in quarantine whereas serving bento bins to masked patrons, each are desirous to welcome diners again to the restaurant within the coming months. The 2 are patiently ready out what stays of the COVID-19 storm at their two-month-old West Adams restaurant N/Soto, which was born out of the takeout ekiben bins that N/Naka began serving through the pandemic.

“Ten years is a very long time and a short while in so some ways,” says Niki. “I really feel that there’s nonetheless lots left to say by way of the meals and the work in it for me. And I hope to have the ability to specific these issues earlier than I retire.” Whereas it’s unsure what the longer term will maintain, particularly given the final yr, the 2 are devoted to doing what they’ve all the time accomplished — defining and refining what it means to be a kaiseki restaurant in Los Angeles.

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