Skip to content

The Feminine Chef Making Japan’s Most Elaborate Delicacies Her Personal

In 1965, the legendary Lyonnais chef Paul Bocuse, who had simply earned his third Michelin star, travelled to Japan. In Osaka, he met with Shizuo Tsuji, a former crime reporter who, in his late twenties, determined to pursue his ardour for classical French and Japanese cuisines by opening a cooking faculty. Tsuji launched Bocuse to kaiseki, an elaborate, formal meal that’s thought of the top of Japanese delicacies. Kaiseki shouldn’t be a particular dish or approach however a format, typically involving a dozen or extra tiny programs. It shares a historical past with the austere rituals of the Japanese tea ceremony, and incorporates aesthetic parts from Japanese artwork types reminiscent of calligraphy and flower arranging. In its exactitude and restraint, Bocuse noticed an method that was in some ways the very reverse of decadent French haute delicacies. Returning to Lyon, he drew upon the ideas of kaiseki as he pioneered what grew to become often known as nouvelle delicacies, a contemporary reimagining of French cooking that emphasised seasonality, the standard of components, and a dramatic procession of plates composed with painterly aptitude.The dots and squiggles of nouvelle delicacies have light from vogue, however almost each up to date restaurant’s tasting menu owes its construction to Bocuse’s dégustation, which in flip owes its identification to Japanese kaiseki. In Japan, kaiseki eating places are pretty widespread, however in America the custom exists largely as an concept or an affect. “To have the ability to run your individual kaiseki restaurant, it’s important to be educated in kaiseki eating places for years and years,” Naoko Takei Moore, a cookbook writer and Japanese meals knowledgeable, advised me. The chef Kyle Connaughton spent many years learning the intricacies of kaiseki delicacies earlier than opening his Sonoma restaurant, SingleThread, however he nonetheless doesn’t contemplate himself a kaiseki chef. Dave Beran, who took inspiration from kaiseki for his tasting-menu restaurant Dialogue, in Santa Monica, mentioned, “Should you requested me to call 5 kaiseki eating places within the U.S., I couldn’t do it.”Essentially the most distinguished American kaiseki restaurant is n/naka, a small Los Angeles institution owned and run by the forty-four-year-old Japanese-American chef Niki Nakayama. Japanese delicacies, on the excessive finish, is just about all made by males. When n/naka opened, it might have been the one kaiseki restaurant run by a lady in any nation. Housed in a low grey constructing on a quiet nook in Palms, a neighborhood tucked between sleepy Culver Metropolis and the Santa Monica Freeway, it’s open 4 nights per week, and seats twenty-six friends at a time.Nakayama was born and raised in L.A., the youngest daughter of immigrant mother and father who owned a wholesale seafood distribution firm. When she opened n/naka, in 2011, it was rapidly acknowledged as a jewel within the metropolis’s formidable Japanese-restaurant scene. In 2012, the Los Angeles Occasions critic Jonathan Gold wrote that “the sheer stage of cooking on this modest bungalow eclipses what you discover in grand eating rooms whose cooks seem in nationwide magazines.” In 2015, Nakayama was featured on the primary season of “Chef’s Desk,” the Netflix anthology collection created by David Gelb, the director of the hit documentary “Jiro Desires of Sushi.” Since then, Zagat has ranked it the No. 1 restaurant in Los Angeles. Chrissy Teigen, the supermodel and culinary character, tweeted to her thousands and thousands of followers that it was one in all her favourite eating places on this planet.Each Sunday morning, at 10 A.M. Pacific time, n/naka’s online-reservation system releases per week’s value of tables for 3 months sooner or later; by 10:01 A.M., there are none left. Nakayama recurrently receives items and letters from individuals pleading for seats. Aspiring diners have provided to usher in their very own tables and chairs, or have proven up on the kitchen door and tried to palm a couple of hundred bucks to the final supervisor. One man provided Nakayama the short-term use of a luxurious automobile.N/naka has typically been miscategorized as a sushi restaurant, the fashion of Japanese eating institution most acquainted to Individuals. However sushi and kaiseki are in some ways opposites. Sushi is as a lot a culinary efficiency as it’s a class of meals. The itamae (head chef), normally sporting a kimono and a headscarf, prepares your maki and nigiri proper in entrance of you. There’s theatre in slicing the fish, brushing on the sauces, shaping the rice between agile fingers; there’s banter with the purchasers, and macho jockeying with different cooks behind the bar. In a sushi tasting menu, or omakase, the chef is free to improvise the meal as he goes alongside, selecting no matter fish appears greatest. (The phrase “omakase” means “I belief you.”) Kaiseki, in contrast, has a predetermined stream, its interrelated programs incorporating dozens—if not a whole bunch—of components and methods to type a single narrative arc. Even essentially the most exorbitant sushi omakase may be over with in forty-five minutes; a kaiseki meal takes hours to unfold. Junko Sakai, a Japanese author, has likened a sushi chef’s method to that of an essayist, and a kaiseki chef’s to that of a novelist.And but kaiseki doesn’t broadcast its personal cleverness. There is no such thing as a futuristic culinary chemistry or flamboyant tableside showmanship. Its practitioners speak about it virtually as a type of service, a subordination of the self. Once I met Nakayama, she advised me that, in kaiseki, “the components are extra necessary than you, the cooking is extra necessary than you. All the pieces concerning the meals is extra necessary than you, and it’s important to respect that.” She added, “There’s part of it that’s actually prideful and impressive, and but it tries to carry itself again.”Nakayama spent years immersing herself within the particulars of the artwork type. “She loves the obsessiveness,” Carole Iida, her spouse and collaborator, mentioned. Nakayama and Iida met in 2012, a number of months after n/naka opened, when Nakayama was working eighteen-hour days within the kitchen. Quickly Iida, who can be a cook dinner, closed her sushi restaurant to develop into the sous-chef at n/naka. The place Nakayama radiates inventive power, Iida is regular and direct, and she or he rapidly assumed a job because the protector of Nakayama’s imaginative and prescient, taking up features of managing the restaurant that Nakayama had uncared for. The 2 have a working joke that there’s an n/naka B.C. and an n/naka A.C.—earlier than and after Carole.Within the early days of n/naka, Nakayama made the menu as Japanese as attainable. In a patch of earth exterior the restaurant’s street-facing window, she tried to plant a decorative Japanese backyard for diners to stare upon throughout their three-hour meals. However the crops, and others in her yard at house, languished. Ultimately, she swapped in native greenery, and gave over her house backyard to greens that might flourish within the dry California warmth: pink radishes, lettuce and chard, candy tomatoes. Her meals, she got here to appreciate, might be “California kaiseki”—like her, a fusion of Japan and L.A.On the coronary heart of kaiseki is the notion of shun: the second when a specific fruit, vegetable, or fish is at its best possible. Some kaiseki cooks divide the 12 months not into quarters however into seventy-two micro-seasons. The meal’s first course, sakizuke, is sort of a waymark on a map: You might be right here. In mid-January, once I ate at n/naka, with the Los Angeles Occasions restaurant critic Invoice Addison, that meant a show of subtropical winter sweetness: diced Hokkaido scallop below a vivid orange gelée, subsequent to a good brighter carrot purée, out of which ribbons of crisp-fried purple carrot streamed just like the rays of the Southern California solar. Our server, a sublime Japanese girl in a pointy black blazer, advised us to consider the second course, a mess of two-bite dishes organized on an rectangular tray, because the desk of contents for the remainder of the meal: ankimo (monkfish liver) pâté; a skewer of lobster sashimi daubed with salty-tart preserved plum; a tiny porcelain cup of chawanmushi (savory custard); enoki-mushroom tempura, like a lacy fan of coral, with a dice of contemporary persimmon. The course was a sensory strobe gentle, transferring quickly from wealthy to delicate, delicate to sharp.Nakayama runs n/naka in response to omotenashi, a observe of compassionate service that includes anticipating friends’ needs. The spacious eating space is split by picket screens into intimate subsections. Nakayama retains intensive notes on her clients—what they ate, how they reacted—and makes positive {that a} returning visitor is rarely served the identical menu twice. The thirteen-course meal prices 200 and twenty-five {dollars} per individual, making it probably the most costly dinners in Los Angeles. But lots of the n/naka followers I spoke to remarked on its absence of cheffy self-indulgence. “There’s an virtually visceral egolessness,” Addison mentioned, after our meal. “It appears like a aid, after consuming so many intensely performative tasting-menu meals, to only be current, to really feel a quiet and awake astonishment at these components, and the care that has gone into them.” Evan Kleiman, the host of the public-radio present “Good Meals,” advised me, “I feel it’s essentially the most unpretentious tasting-menu expertise one can have.”The origins of recent kaiseki are arduous to pinpoint. The favored story dates it again to the sixteenth century, when the tea grasp Sen no Rikyū is alleged to have codified its important precept of seasonality. He’s additionally mentioned to have declared that the meal ought to encompass not more than a cup of soup with rice, fish, and pickles, all of which needed to be of the best high quality—an opulence of perfection, moderately than of wealth. Ultimately, kaiseki branched into two traditions: the spare meal nonetheless served with the tea ceremony as we speak, and the luxurious kaiseki served in eating places—with out tea, however with loads of sake readily available. In kanji, there are two methods of writing “kaiseki,” to refer to those totally different strains.Lots of of guidelines can govern the preparation of a kaiseki meal. Nearly all of them serve aesthetic or gastronomic ends, although to a nonexpert they’ll appear ludicrously fussy. Plates ought to be organized with the primary component barely to the rear, in order that, to a seated visitor wanting down, it seems to be centered. Items of sashimi ought to be served in odd numbers. Spherical meals ought to be served in sq. vessels, and sq. meals in spherical vessels. No two bowls of the identical form and materials ought to consecutively seem. Meals that’s grilled ought to precede meals that’s steamed, which in flip ought to precede meals that’s fried. Elements with slender, days-long home windows of shun—like bamboo shoots in spring, or plum blossoms in winter—ought to be included not solely to deliver diners pleasure however to immediate a melancholy reflection on the relentlessness of time and the inevitability of dying.Nearly all of kaiseki’s guidelines may be subverted by the chef; understanding how and when to interrupt them is essentially the most assured expression of kaiseki mastery. For the hearty course known as shiizakana, which generally includes a meaty soup or stew, Nakayama serves pasta: a swirl of spaghetti alla chitarra, tossed in a creamy ragu of abalone liver and pickled cod roe, topped with Burgundy black truffles. In a meal of restrained and finely drawn flavors, it growls with a brazen decadence. It’s the solely dish that by no means leaves n/naka’s menu.Once we’d completed consuming, Nakayama got here out to say hiya. She is 5 toes one and slender, with lengthy darkish hair that she ties again in a ponytail on the collar of her white chef’s jacket. Some cooks make the rounds and glad-hand, however Nakayama emerges to greet just one desk at a time, for a quick trade of gratitude earlier than every diner leaves. Because the staggered meals of n/naka’s first spherical of seating drew to an finish, the noren curtains between the eating room and the kitchen flipped and waved with the chef’s near-constant passage.Nakayama and Iida stay a mile from the restaurant, in a mid-century fashionable home that they share with three rescue canine and Iida’s mom, Mieko. Their house, just like the restaurant, is spare however heat. For Nakayama, its greatest attract was a room hidden within the basement the place she might preserve her information, her electrical piano, and her assortment of guitars. As a teen-ager, her ardour was music; she studied piano for a 12 months after highschool, then on a whim travelled to Japan, hoping to pursue a profession as a singer-songwriter. After a couple of months in Tokyo, feeling aimless, she went to Niigata, a port metropolis a couple of hundred miles to the north, and spent the summer time working within the kitchen at a standard ryokan inn owned by one in all her mom’s cousins. Like many ryokan, this one served its friends beautiful kaiseki meals.One latest morning, as I sat with Nakayama and Iida at their sunny kitchen desk over a breakfast of miso soup, rice, pickles, and an onsen egg, Nakayama recalled her time working on the inn. When she’s off responsibility, Nakayama is ebullient and discursive, a quicksilver conversationalist who stretches out her phrases with a touch of Valley Lady drawl. She described an awakening over a plate of pickled greens. “All of the sudden I used to be, like, Huh, I actually like this little dish the place I stand the meals up on it, and it appears like a bit of mountain!” she mentioned. “I actually like placing that one final carrot on high in order that it appears alive!” She returned to L.A. to attend culinary faculty, after which labored for a 12 months within the again kitchen of a high-end Brentwood sushi bar. In 1997, she returned to Niigata, this time as a proper apprentice to Masa Sato, the kaiseki chef at her household’s inn. She stayed for 3 years. “The schooling I acquired wasn’t about talent—it was about style,” she mentioned. “I realized what actual Japanese meals ought to style like. Japanese meals isn’t about attempting to combine numerous flavors; it’s concerning the means to season nicely, how you can add the correct amount of salt, what temperature every thing is served at. That was the perfect schooling I might get.”Nakayama hoped to open a kaiseki restaurant in L.A. Her household, who had agreed to supply funding, anxious that kaiseki was too unique for L.A. diners, and urged her to think about a extra typical restaurant. In 2000, she opened Azami Sushi Cafe, on a business strip close to the neighborhood line between Hollywood and Fairfax. She tried to differentiate Azami from town’s legion of comparable eating places, providing fresh-grated wasabi and distinctive, well-priced fish acquired from her household’s seafood enterprise. However she discovered the work stultifying, and nursed a rising disdain for her clients’ style for California rolls and spicy tuna tartare.It additionally grew to become more and more clear to her that being a lady was an expert legal responsibility. The normal sushi world, like a lot of Japanese society, stays extremely gender-segregated; girls fascinated by turning into itamae have struggled to seek out sushi masters prepared to make use of them. Ladies who do enter Japanese fantastic eating typically find yourself leaving after a couple of years. Yubako Kamohara, the pinnacle chef of Tsurutokame, a women-run kaiseki restaurant in Tokyo that opened 4 years after n/naka, advised me, by way of a translator, that the business is unwilling “to accommodate girls’s wants.”Niki Nakayama, proper, along with her spouse and collaborator, Carole Iida.{Photograph} by Damon Casarez for The New YorkerEven in Japan, you’re much more more likely to see a non-Japanese man behind the sushi counter than a Japanese girl. Nakayama advised me, “I’ve labored with male sushi cooks who haven’t any sushi background, who got here from being a salesman, and simply hopped into the sushi bar as a result of they wished a brand new profession—and people individuals acquired far more respect than me.” Sushi cooks have concocted all types of pseudoscientific causes that ladies don’t belong behind the counter. When Yoshikazu Ono, the son of the famed Tokyo sushi chef Jiro Ono, was requested, by the Wall Road Journal, why there have been no girls featured within the documentary about his father, he defined that “due to the menstrual cycle girls have an imbalance of their style.”Azami earned appreciative writeups on native restaurant blogs, however Nakayama felt that she was typically painted as a novelty for what the Website online LAist known as her “girl-powered sushi.” One evening, throughout dinner service, three males got here into the restaurant and stood simply contained in the door. Nakayama recalled, “They had been clearly Japanese, clearly businessmen. They noticed us”—Nakayama and her feminine sous-chef—“and so they took a pause. I bear in mind they turned and checked out one another and had been, like, ‘Let’s go.’ And so they left. And me being me, in fact, in my thoughts there was a psychological center finger going up: ‘Don’t come again.’ However I carried that feeling with me: ‘Because of this individuals don’t take me significantly—as a result of I’m a lady.’ ”Nakayama bought Azami in 2008 and put a down fee on the n/naka house. She leased the constructing to a different enterprise for a 12 months, and spent two years after that renovating. In the meantime, she labored because the chef at a deli owned by her sister in Arcadia, the Los Angeles suburb the place they’d grown up. Within the evenings, Nakayama turned the tiny storefront into the San Gabriel Valley’s very unlikely sizzling ticket—a “secret Japanese chef’s desk,” Chowhound wrote—cooking eight-course meals for only a handful of consumers an evening. Most of them had heard concerning the dinners by way of phrase of mouth, and few knew something concerning the chef. Nakayama began wanting ahead to the second when she’d step out from the closed kitchen to thank friends for coming, and see the look of shock on their faces.Nakayama’s authentic blueprints for n/naka known as for an open counter between the kitchen and the eating room, as in lots of Japanese eating places, the place a couple of fortunate diners might sit and be served, kappo fashion, straight from Nakayama’s fingers. When the well being division rejected the plan, she put in a pair of conventional shoji screens, set on sliding tracks, which, throughout service, she retains closed. “The extra I thought of it, the extra I noticed that it’s higher that folks can’t see me,” she mentioned. “I’m in all probability not aggressive sufficient to be, like, Hey, look, that is who I’m, that is what I do, it’s me, me, me.” She went on, “Should you don’t have a look at us, we’re allowed to only be who we’re, and what we do comes by way of a lot extra simply.”The night after my meal at n/naka, I joined Nakayama and Iida for dinner on the Beverly Hills restaurant Matsuhisa, the place, three many years in the past, Nobu Matsuhisa grew to become a sushi famous person. Neither girl had ever eaten there, although the situation loomed giant in Iida’s household historical past. Within the eighties, her father, a chef with a sushi counter in Arcadia, opened a second restaurant, within the spot that Matsuhisa now occupies. The enlargement, she mentioned, was “that stereotypical story of the chef who needs to construct an enormous identify for himself.” Iida’s mom was impatient with the enterprise, which was removed from their house. “Being here’s a little bit difficult for me,” Iida mentioned, because the three of us sat at Matsuhisa’s twenty-foot-long sushi bar, including, “I’ve by no means witnessed the place that triggered these issues.” Her father stubbornly caught it out for years; finally, he bought his lease to Matsuhisa, and Iida’s mother and father divorced.When Matsuhisa opened, in 1987, its Japanese fusion grew to become a sensation among the many Hollywood élite. Robert De Niro was so captivated that he satisfied the chef to associate with him in a brand new enterprise, which grew to become the Nobu empire. Even on a Sunday evening, once we visited, Matsuhisa was full of individuals. We had been on the far finish of the counter: my shoulder was pressed up towards a wall, and Iida stored being jostled by the animated gesticulations of a broad man to her proper. Nakayama, within the center, stored her chair pulled again to carve out some house. A platoon of sushi cooks, all males wearing white, sliced sashimi and rolled maki earlier than us.Iida ordered in Japanese from one of many cooks—a couple of items of tai (crimson sea bream) nigiri and a salmon-skin roll. Nakayama and I every had the omakase, which proceeded like a greatest-hits checklist of the soy-and-sweet dishes that made Matsuhisa’s identify, together with hamachi with jalapeño and the long-lasting slab of miso-glazed black cod.Iida advised me that, the primary time she visited Nakayama’s house, she observed an array of Put up-it notes caught on the partitions of her workplace space. Every had the identical message: “n/naka,” adopted by 4 hand-drawn stars. The restaurant, which was then a couple of months outdated, had not but acquired any opinions. Nakayama described the notes as a promise to herself, and in addition a trial run: a approach for her to develop snug with the popularity that she hoped was on its approach.Nakayama attracts a distinction between success and fame. She speaks warily about culinary superstar. At Matsuhisa, once I requested for her skilled opinion of our meal, she was studiously well mannered. “Nobu-san has been doing this for therefore lengthy, and it’s so admirable of him to have introduced out this complete imaginative and prescient of Japanese meals,” she mentioned. “There isn’t a single restaurant that isn’t attempting to repeat him. And it’s been so standard, and it’s been so lengthy since he first did it, that—” She gestured on the scallop sashimi with black garlic and kiwi in entrance of us. “It’s not, like, ‘Wow!’ I imply, it’s ‘wow,’ nevertheless it’s not ‘wow.’ ”A server introduced over flutes of Nobu champagne, a private-label brut grand cru. “Nobu has a champagne!” Nakayama cried. “Oh, my God, Carole, we’re so behind!”Nakayama advised me a number of occasions that she’s bored with speaking concerning the expertise of being a lady chef, however she typically brings up the subject. As she and Iida drove me again to my resort after dinner, they mentioned their buddy Dominique Crenn, the acclaimed San Francisco chef, who final 12 months grew to become the primary girl in America to earn the utmost three Michelin stars for her restaurant, Atelier Crenn. Crenn writes the menus as poems, with every line similar to a dish. Each Crenn’s fashion and n/naka’s have been described as “female,” which Nakayama finds absurd.“At numerous fine-dining eating places, the meals is so delicate, so small—that’s female, proper?” she mentioned. She introduced up the flagship restaurant of Thomas Keller, the place the six high members of the group are all males: “If you have a look at the meals that the French Laundry does, with all of the flowery preparations, it’s so female. I don’t see the distinction.”From the again seat, Iida added, “I’m wondering if individuals would use the phrase ‘female’ if maybe you appeared totally different, too. Let’s say she didn’t seem like a small Asian girl, however as a substitute was, like, a six-foot-tall, two-hundred-pound Nordic girl. Would they nonetheless use that time period?”When Nakayama first met Iida, by way of OkCupid, she marvelled: Iida was additionally Japanese-American, had additionally grown up in Arcadia, and was additionally—improbably—a sushi chef. They lived 5 minutes away from one another. Nakayama’s canine was named Sammi; Iida’s was named Sammy. Nakayama felt that her whole life was falling into place.She had by no means been open along with her mother and father about her sexual identification. “Once I was rising up, and even in my twenties, my mother would say, ‘I hope you’re not bizarre’—which means homosexual,” she advised me. Nakayama sees her ambition as, partly, a approach of channelling her terror of disappointing the individuals she was closest to. “I used to be so afraid to embarrass my household,” she mentioned. “I believed that if I obtain issues on this planet, and am revered, then individuals received’t discover me shameful. They’ll be happy with me—being homosexual will simply be secondary.”Even when her relationship with Iida grew to become severe, Nakayama averted popping out to her mom. (Her father died in 2004.) “I’d by no means say the phrases ‘I’m homosexual.’ I’d say, like, ‘I’ve a buddy! Who lives with me now!’ ” When she and Iida acquired engaged, she wasn’t positive how you can break the information: “I bear in mind telling my mother, ‘I feel you need to come to Hawaii in August, as a result of Carole and I are going to undergo a celebration. Of our friendship.’ She was, like, ‘Are you getting married?’ I mentioned yeah, after which she mentioned, ‘I’m O.Okay. with it.’ I left her that day in shock. I used to be crying—all these years of carrying this, and eventually to get thus far.” On the wedding ceremony, Nakayama’s mom walked her down the aisle.N/naka is closed to diners on Tuesdays, when the employees prepares for the week’s service. On the Tuesday afternoon following our meal at Matsuhisa, two prep cooks, each younger girls, had been slicing abalone and segmenting satsumas, whereas a dishwasher cleared a backlog of pots. The restaurant’s pastry chef, Gemma Matsuyama, checked in with Iida a few purchasing checklist for a run to a close-by market. Nakayama chatted with one in all her seafood suppliers, who had dropped by to ship 4 burly kegani, or horsehair crabs, their strawberry-colored shells lined in spiky whiskers. She meticulously examined the crustaceans, then bundled them right into a fridge beneath her workstation. When Nakayama was in culinary faculty, she discovered that she was too brief to succeed in sure gear within the kitchen; when designing n/naka, she positioned every thing at counter peak or decrease.Michelin has not ranked Los Angeles eating places since 2009, when it suspended town’s information owing to the “financial surroundings.” However there have been rumors that its secretive critics might quickly resume awarding stars in L.A. Nakayama typically jokes with Iida that, if n/naka earns three stars, they’ll take that as a sign to retire. Her ambition, currently, is much less fevered than it was once. “I’m completely satisfied to the purpose the place I fear,” she mentioned. “As a bit of child, I used to dream rather a lot about one other life—I feel it got here from a dissatisfaction with my actual life.” She’s talked earlier than about closing n/naka in 5 years, or possibly when she turns fifty-five, or about serving dinner just one evening per week.Nakayama in contrast her inventive course of to enjoying a sport like Sweet Crush—every new menu growing in issue and complexity, in a unending competitors towards herself. At n/naka, I watched because the kitchen progressively cleared out, till solely Nakayama and Iida remained. They labored facet by facet, going through the shoji screens that defend the kitchen from the eating room. Snow-crab season had simply ended, and the kegani would exchange it on the menu, because the centerpiece of a turnip stew. Kegani is good, however snow crab is sweeter, and the turnips that Nakayama and Iida had pulled from their backyard had been barely extra fiery than these from the week earlier than. Nakayama defined later that she would change the stew—extra soy sauce within the dashi, a smaller cube for the greens—to accommodate these minute variations. “We do what we do, and we’re all the time considering, Is that this the perfect?” she mentioned. “I don’t know. We simply preserve doing it.” ♦