Some dining experiences are so special that recounting them conjures up adjectives usually reserved for describing works of art. (Think: Moving, evocative, and avant-garde.) Chef Niki Nakayama's Los Angeles-based restaurant offers such an experience. Located inside a concrete building on a nondescript corner in Palms sits n/naka, one of the most preeminent kaiseki (multi-course) establishments in America. And it's so low-key that you might just drive past it if you're not paying attention.
Behind the unassuming facade, chef Niki Nakayama and her partner and sous chef Carole Iida-Nakayama work in tandem to tantalize diners' taste buds with 13-course Japenese-inspired meals that incorporate local California ingredients. Although n/naka opened its doors seven years ago, the eatery's coveted tables are still as hot as ever with reservations booked solid three months in advance—a testament to the artful, Michelin-starred happening the duo curates each night.
Part of what makes n/naka so undeniably special is that its modern kaiseki cooking anchors both a menu and a marriage. We asked the couple behind L.A.'s hottest restaurant about their partnership, in and out of the kitchen.
After speaking with Niki and Carole, it's clear that serendipity brought them together. One day, out of nowhere, Nakayama's sous chef didn't show. The restaurant had only been open a year, and Nakayama was already struggling to make it work with the limited staff she had.
"We'd only been dating for a couple of months, and Niki texted me in a panic, saying "My sous chef isn't here, and I don't know what I'm going to do," explains Iida-Nakayama. "Luckily, I was free and I offered to go in," recalls Iida-Nakayama. "I'd never done fine dining, but I figured I could make the dashi [soup stock] and do basic things. So I showed up, and I just never left," she says, laughing.
How the pair became romantically involved is also an equally fortuitous story: "My family has been visiting her family's sushi restaurant for decades," explains Nakayama. When the pair eventually met online, Nakayama laughed because she realized she knew Iida-Nakayama's mother before ever meeting Iida-Nakayama herself.
Upon meeting, the pair also discovered that they only lived about five minutes apart—and both had dogs named Sammy. "We were kind of shocked at how many things we had in common," says Nakayama. "I think it always comes down to how things in life are made better by happening at the right time."
Although maintaining both a working and romantic relationship comes with unique challenges, Nakayama and Iida-Nakayama say that it's surprisingly effortless. "We're really good at being mindful and respectful of one other," explains Nakayama. "So that my crazy, mad chef side doesn't lash out at her, I just unleash it on other people," she jokes.
Iida-Nakayama also has her theories about why their arrangement works so well: "We're both at that point in our lives when we've learned enough about ourselves to know how to manage and deal with our own, and each other's, stress," she adds. "It's not a conscious thing. It just works."
The ease of the couple's working relationship can perhaps be attributed to the fact that each woman possesses distinct culinary talents. "I don't consider myself the creative culinary talent that Niki is," Iida-Nakayama explains. "My skills lend themselves to the organization of the kitchen, the staff, and other operations-related issues. It's a good balance."
Since n/naka's opening in 2011, the restaurant has become a more personal representation of who the women are, according to Nakayama. "We always say that it doesn't make sense to serve traditional Japanese fare because we weren't born and raised in Japan, and we didn't have that type of [culinary] training."
In fact, n/naka's signature dish is emblematic of this break with tradition. Shiizakana, which loosely means, "not bound by tradition; chef's choice," is an abalone pasta that wouldn't normally be served in a traditional Japanese kaiseki dinner. In kaiseki, "there's a little leeway for the chef to choose a dish that's very personal to them," Nakayama explains.
In our menu, "We incorporate whatever it is that's true to us, such as inspiration from both our California upbringings, into the food," adds Nakayama. "It's from our natural evolution that we'll add elements that aren't traditionally Japanese," she adds.