5 Questions for Niki Nakayama
Niki Nakayama is chef-owner of Japanese restaurant n/naka in West L.A. Born and raised in Los Angeles, she started her career at Takao in Brentwood, then trained at Shirakawa-Ya Ryokan during a three-year working tour of Japan. Under chef Masa Sato she studied the Japanese culinary art of emphasizing seasonality and balance in a series of dishes. Back in L.A. Nakayama opened Azami Sushi Cafe, gourmet Japanese takeout by day and an eight-course chef's table by night. Now, n/naka is the expansion of her kaiseki. For the month of June, Nakayama is creating a seven-course foie gras kaiseki menu, highlighting various cooking methods of foie gras paired with Japanese flavors such as miso, dashi and fish such as unagi and tara (cod). A sushi course will feature foie gras sushi.
What’s next on your menu? Special spring vegetables like fiddlehead ferns and ramps. As for seafood, it's all about clams, scallops, Japanese sea bream and some Japanese specialty fish like needlefish (sayori) and firefly squid (hotaruika). I'll also be working with foie gras ....
Latest ingredient obsession? Beets of all shapes, sizes and colors; because we don't have this in Japanese cooking, it's incredibly interesting to see how the flavors change with Japanese cooking methods, like braising with dashi, cooking it tempura-style or mixing it with sesame paste.
What restaurant do you find yourself going to again and again? One of my favorite places to eat is ShinSenGumi Yakitori in Gardena. I always get bacon-wrapped cherry tomatoes skewers. So hot, so dangerous, but, oh, so delicious!
Favorite kitchen soundtrack? I love this question. Currently, Rachael Yamagata or Adele. Their songs follow chord progressions that are familiar, but it's what they do to it that makes it incredibly unique and amazing. It just proves to me that when things are done with feelings and emotion it elevates the experience for both the performer and the listener.
The last cookbook you read –- and what inspired you to pick it up? I buy cookbooks all the time and most of time I just flip through them so I have an idea of where to look for something when I’m ready to really read it. I did however read the whole "Eleven Madison Park" cookbook because I felt it was so inspiring and artful. It reminds me how much I love what I do.
n/naka, 3455 S. Overland Ave., Los Angeles, (310) 836-6252, www.n-naka.com. The special foie gras kaiseki menu available in June is $180 per person. Call for reservations.
-- Betty Hallock
Photo: Niki Nakayama, chef-owner of n/naka. Credit: Zen Sekizawa