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, n/naka, one of the most preeminent kaiseki establishments in America, is so innocuous 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 a 13-course Japenese-inspired meal using local California ingredients that's a veritable feast for the senses. Although n/naka opened its doors seven years ago, the fine dining establishment's coveted tables are just as sought after as ever with reservations booked solid three months in advance, a testament to the artful fine dining experience the duo curates each night.
As you might have already guessed, part of what makes n/naka so undeniably special is that modern kaiseki cooking anchors both a menu and a marriage. Ahead, we talk to the couple behind L.A.'s hottest restaurant (with the hardest-to-procure dinner reservation) on being partners both in and out of the kitchen.
Speaking with Nakayama and Iida-Nakayama, it's clear that serendipity is what brought the two together in the kitchen. One day, out of nowhere, Nakayama's sous chef didn't show up at n/naka. The restaurant had only been open a year, and Nakayama was struggling to make it work with the limited staff she had.
"We'd only been dating for a couple months, and Niki texted me, 'Oh my god, my sous chef didn't show up today. I don't know what I'm going to do,'" explained Iida-Nakayama. "Luckily, my restaurant was staffed at night, so I was free and I just offered, thinking I could probably help with little tasks at least," recalls Iida-Nakayama. "I'd never done fine dining, but I thought maybe I could make the dashi and do all those kinds of basic things for her. So, I showed up, and I just never left," she laughs.
Equally as serendipitous is how the pair ended up together romantically. "My family has been visiting her family's sushi restaurant for decades. I mean years and years," explains Nakayama. When the pair eventually met online Nakayama laughed at the fact that she knew Iida-Nakayama's mother before she knew Iida-Nakayama herself.
After 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, but we had just never met prior to that," says Nakayama. "I think it always comes down to how things in life are sort of made better by the right time."
Although maintaining both a working and romantic relationship comes with its own set of unique challenges, for Nakayama and Iida-Nakayama, 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 the people," she jokes.
Likewise, Iida-Nakayama doesn't have the magic answer for why the arrangement works so well for the pair. "I think we're both at that point in our lives where we've learned enough about ourselves individually to know how to manage our own stress and how to deal with each other's stress," she adds. "It's not a conscious thing we have to work at it. It just works."
Iida-Nakayama attributes the ease of the couple's working relationship to the fact that they possess distinct culinary talents. "I don't consider myself the creative culinary talent that Niki is," she explains. "My skills lend themselves to the organization of the kitchen, the staff, and other operations-related issues," she elaborates. "It's a good balance. We're together on a personal level, but there's the distinction between our roles in the kitchen," adds Iida-Nakayama.
Since n/naka's opening in 2011, the restaurant has become much more personal, according to Nakayama. "It's a lot more representative who I am and who Carole is," she reveals. "We always say that it doesn't really make sense to be traditionalists because we weren't born and raised in Japan, nor did we have that kind of [culinary] training."
In fact, n/naka's signature dish is emblematic of this break with tradition. The dish, called shiizakana, which essentially translates to "not bound by tradition, chef's choice," is an abalone pasta that wouldn't be served as a course in a traditional kaiseki meal in Japan, confesses Nakayama. In kaiseki, "There is a little bit of a leeway in that a chef can choose a dish that is very personal to them," Nakayama explains.
In our menu, "We want to incorporate what it is that is true to us, which is our upbringing here in California, into the food," explains Nakayama. "So it's a natural evolution to add little elements into the cuisine that aren't traditionally Japanese," she adds.
Now, we don't know about you, but we're hoping that a last-minute cancelation allows us to snag a reservation to bear witness to this evolution very soon.
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