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 folks every evening, despite the fact that the kitchen and eating room might 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 have been extra enamored with pork stomach and molecular gastronomy than in refined Japanese tasting menus. Nonetheless, she persevered, fueled by an unshakable sense of pleasure for her craft and obligation 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 method,” 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 method 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 have been absolutely dedicated to calling them that. However the eating public’s lack of awareness 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 realizing 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 a lot of the previous 10 years. The 2 have been new to courting when Carole stepped into the kitchen to fill in for a no-show sous chef, and she or he hasn’t left Niki’s facet since. The gamble to blur the traces 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 outdoors 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 galvanizing a era of cooks and eating places, listed here are the ten methods N/Naka modified the Los Angeles eating scene eternally, in keeping with influential members of town’s eating neighborhood.

Introducing Angelenos to kaiseki

Although some locals could 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 wish to do, and we’re going to do it. Not as a result of it’s one thing we all know folks like, however as a result of it’s one thing we like.’ And that is among the rarest issues in eating places,” says Dave Beran, chef and proprietor of Pasjoli in Santa Monica. “[She took] an enormous threat in saying, ‘If it’s good, folks will take pleasure in 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 opinions 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 usually regarded as an expression of farm-to-table cooking, a key tenet is to combine one’s environment by sourcing substances 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 substances all through the state. “Her enthusiasm for substances and the best way they’re handled with nice care via each step of her course of reveals on the plate,” writes Betty Hallock, former Los Angeles Instances deputy meals editor, in an e mail. “You’ll be able to inform from the best way the menus are structured [that] there may be particular custom there, however… you may 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 undoubtedly 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. “Quite a lot of Japanese eating places, particularly informal ones, provide every part from sushi to tempura and ramen and udon… type of like a deli mentality,” says Yoon. N/Naka confirmed Los Angeles first, and a nationwide viewers later, that there’s rather more to Japanese fantastic 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 method 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 can by no means be repeated in the very same method once more,” Hallock writes. “However simply as a lot as she is rooted in custom, she is all the time pushing herself to vary and to strive new issues.”

Take, for 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 on the Counter and former Los Angeles Instances restaurant critic, in an e mail. “I believe it’s this rigidity between Japanese and California traditions, moods, and substances 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 (quite than being a by-product of Japan) takes ability and guts. “The extra guidelines there are at a delicacies, the tougher it’s to seek out your personal model of variance inside that,” says Beran. “[The meal] was introduced in a method that didn’t make me really feel like we have been sitting in Japan having kaiseki. It made me really feel like we have 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 method that no person else has in LA, as a result of no person 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, together with her personal imaginative and prescient,” writes Hallock. Even N/Naka’s eating room captures a laid-back LA vibe. “The area isn’t 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 fantastic eating

When N/Naka opened in 2011, Los Angeles’s thought of fantastic eating was rooted within the traditional 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 traditional fantastic 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 undoubtedly been the place fantastic eating is in LA.”

Along with altering up the anticipated fantastic eating format, N/Naka’s hotter service and relaxed atmosphere imbued a way of hospitality that was lacking in stodgier eating rooms. “I believe that due to who Niki is, individuals who could 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 form of real hospitality. That sense of worry, of being intimidated, falls away and means that you can focus on the expertise itself, which is so pleasurable.”

Inspiring the following era

The resounding success of N/Naka paved the best way for cooks and restaurateurs to open bold eating places that leaned into tasting menus with out being tethered to the French customary. 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 viewpoint and has success, then the world of chance opens as much as people who find themselves nonetheless within the dreaming stage,” says Kleiman. “Whenever you perceive that you simply don’t must have gilded chairs and also you don’t must have 20 programs, then swiftly you begin to consider what you wish to do inside your personal set of parameters.”

N/Naka emboldened cooks to assume outdoors the confines of current restaurant ideas. “At a time when the chatter outdoors LA was that the eating scene wasn’t something particular [and] the eating places you heard about have been the fashionable celeb spots, Niki and Carole have been doing one thing that didn’t fall into any of these molds. And it form 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 now have Hayato, now we now have Kato.”

Bringing nationwide acclaim to Los Angeles

Irrespective of how loud Angelenos shout concerning the metropolis’s unimaginable eating scene, folks outdoors the Southland don’t all the time appear to know the form of cooking occurring 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 e 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 might see that LA was on the entrance line of top-dollar, artistry-driven cooking as effectively.” Because the recipient of two Michelin stars and the topic of a whole episode on the primary season of Chef’s Desk, 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 tradition 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 attention-grabbing 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 method Niki is that this correction.”

Although it’s considerably rote to view N/Naka’s accomplishments via a gendered lens, Niki and Carole’s success within the face of systemic obstacles speaks to unimaginable power 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 Relating to Her, a nonprofit devoted to the development and empowerment of girls restaurateurs. “I’ve discovered, in my very own life, I’ve subconsciously put limits on my skills or ambitions. However seeing these two Asian girls in hospitality establishing their very own luminosity encourages me and empowers me — and I think about different girls and notably Asian girls — to imagine in what is feasible. Bold girls don’t all look or behave a sure method both. There’s an class to Niki and Carole, and above all, that’s what conjures up me.”

“The state of affairs that Niki and Carole discover themselves in, as girls working a really high-profile Michelin-starred institution, shouldn’t be exceptional. However that’s not the world we stay in,” says Michael Cimarusti, chef of Windfall, Connie & Ted’s, and Greatest Lady. “I’m married to a lady who can be a chef (Crisi Echiverri), and she or he has all the time instructed me that she felt it was her accountability to be that significantly better than everyone else… as a result of you’re a girl and the expectations aren’t as excessive, to be observed it’s a must 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 neighborhood

Fostering real relationships inside LA’s neighborhood of cooks and restaurateurs has all the time been a precedence for Niki and Carole. They make it some extent 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 Relating to Her,” says Ta. “Whereas they themselves will not be splashy folks, everyone knows that N/Naka makes a splash, and it actually helped to propel the attain of Relating to 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 liked. And it was issues like that — the place I didn’t ask, they only did,” says Beran. “[They] actually care concerning the trade, not nearly [themselves].” Whereas large 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 identical time,” says Yoon. Almost everybody that Eater spoke to talked about how graciously the Nakayamas have handled them through the years, which is notable in an trade higher identified for its loudest cooks than ones that play effectively with others (and share lobster purveyors).

Although neither Niki nor Carole anticipated celebrating this milestone in quarantine whereas serving bento containers to masked patrons, each are wanting 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 containers 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 rather a lot left to say when it comes to the meals and the work in it for me. And I hope to have the ability to categorical 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 performed — defining and refining what it means to be a kaiseki restaurant in Los Angeles.

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