Chef's Table (2015–…): Season 1, Episode 4 - Niki Nakayama - full transcript

A look at chef Niki Nakayama and her Los Angeles restaurant n/naka.

[indistinct chatter]

Cooking is the one thing that I feel

I can completely trust what I'm doing.

When I'm plating a dish,
my mind is completely shut off.

It's all based on feeling.

"This has to be here.
This has to be here.

This feels right here.
This looks right here."

I think it's similar to

that meditative state
that people can get to

where they're not listening
to their minds anymore,

but it's just that moment.

In moments like that, there's a song
that's going on in my head.

I don't know how to get rid of it.

[opening theme playing]

[Evan] What's happening right now in LA
is tremendous.

You have young chefs
who have incredible skill levels,

and permission to
express themselves.

Niki is imbued in
this Japanese tradition,

but she is herself.

[Maria] It's rare now
to make a food discovery.

There's a sameness
that is invading the food landscape.

So when you come upon someone
who is doing something really different...

there's a real genuine exhilaration

in feeling like you have
discovered something

that's happening in food
that really isn't happening anywhere else.

[Evan] You drive by N/Naka

[laughing] four times before you realize
you've arrived where you're going.

And then you walk inside,
and it's simple... very simple.

Everything there is subservient
to focus on the food.

As soon as that first plate
hits the table,

the hairs go up on the back of your neck.

You're like, "I'm about to experience
something very special and very real."

It could be a tiny bit of food,
something very small,

and you look at it and you think,
"Oh, that's a really nice scallop."

And then you eat that

and it's an explosion
of flavor in your mouth.

When you experience food
that is created by a master,

it's like taking you to another planet.

And then forever in your mind,
it's just imbedded as a high point.

[man] Truffle guy, Niki-san.

[Niki] Hey, how are you?

This one's good for us. This one.

My food is very expressive of who I am.

When I'm cooking,
I'd put as much heart into it as I can.

It translates to people who eat the food

and they can sense who I am
when they eat the food.

At N/Naka, we do a modern kaiseki.

It's a course meal,
a variation of the traditional kaiseki,

but we do our own interpretation of it.

Kaiseki is using
the best ingredients available,

presenting them without
ruining their texture and flavors,

and using different cooking methods
to enhance that ingredient.

Everything has to be
connected to one another

and there has to be a flow.

Traditional kaiseki is so subtle.

The flavors are incredibly light.
The style is very formal.

It's not meant to be
an artistic expression.

But what we do here is,
we're using richer styles of cooking.

That's what makes it more interesting.

[Takao speaking Japanese]
When I first saw her...

I didn't think such a small girl

would be able to cook at our restaurant.

I even made fun of her for it
in the beginning.

I told her it was like
she was playing chef.

She was very upset. "This is not play,"
she said. "I'm very serious."

Niki is very petite and very pretty.

When she first started
working at my restaurant,

she became a mascot.

It is rare for a female chef

to work in a Japanese restaurant.

[Niki speaking English] In Japanese,
there is this word called "kuyashii,"

which is when somebody puts you down
or says you can't do something,

and you have this burning desire
to prove them wrong.

Earlier in this career,
I felt a lot of motivation from that.

Having been in a kitchen
where it was all men,

I had to prove myself in order to
be considered equal to their work.

There was this feeling of determination
to just not be less than.

-Look at the ducks.
-Oh, they always go there, right?

[Niki] In my family,
women are not expected

to reach high levels of achievement
in their careers.

We can go back from here.

They placed so much emphasis
on men amounting to things

where women are just
supporting characters of their lives.

My mom always pointed out
that we have to respect my brother

because he's the oldest
and also the son.

And I remember thinking,

"I'm better than him in other ways,
and how come you can't see that?"

It was frustrating growing up.

There was a desire to prove that I could
do something different from what they do.

[Robert] This is a family business
my father started.

I graduated college
and then they took me in,

and that was it.
I couldn't get out.

I've been here for, like, about 30 years.

Just learned the trade,

and my mom is, like, semi-retired,
so I'm just taking over.

[Niki] How's the tuna coming in today?
Did you get a good amount?

It's all fresh, and a good amount.
We had, like, about 10,000 today.

I think it looks really, really good.

[Robert] Yeah.

[Niki] After my dad passed away in 2004,

my brother and my mother
took over the family business.

My brother, especially so.

[Robert] You should take one of these
and cut it for yourself.

-[Niki] Nah.
-[laughs] All right. I'll see you later.

[Niki] Okay, thanks, Robert.

My brother is 11 years older than I am.

I always saw him more of
an authority figure versus my sibling.

When I first announced that
I was thinking of opening a restaurant,

my brother,

who had tried to open a restaurant
with a couple of his friends,

was not supportive.

He made sure to tell me...
they can only help me so much,

and should I not be able to
be successful from that point on,

that I would have to let it go.

And then came that feeling of kuyashii,

that, "Oh, I'm gonna prove it to you
that I can get this done,"

and the whole motivating factor was,
"I cannot fail."

She's more artistic,
but she has her own thing going,

and we got our own things
going around here.

And just... How do you say it?
It's just different interests.

[Niki] I always believed, growing up,
that I'm supposed to pay my dues.

In order to get anywhere in life,
I have to work hard at it.

And I thought, "Okay,
I'm gonna have to work really hard

to make something happen,
to learn something.

But someday, when all is said and done
and I feel ready enough,

I'm gonna do my own thing...

and just be free."

[Niki] After I graduated
from culinary school,

somehow I was lucky enough
to get that job at Takao restaurant.

When I saw his menu,

it was just so exciting
to see all these new ingredients

that you don't see in
standard Japanese restaurants.

He had caviar, he had truffles,
he had foie gras,

he had all these wonderful things
that just wasn't very common.

I remember making it a point,
when he would show me something,

to do everything I could
to memorize what he said

and ask him just once.

[Takao speaking Japanese]
We say, "Ask if you don't understand,

watch and learn the rest."

This is the best way to become a chef.

[Niki speaking English] The biggest thing
I took from Takao was

a very strong sense of responsibility
to the guests that come.

[Takao speaking Japanese]
When a customer returns to my restaurant,

I already know
what they are going to order.

So I serve something as they sit down,

they are always surprised.

They ask me, "How did you know?"

To which I answer,
"You are my customer...

of course I remember what you like."

[Niki speaking English]
I knew when I opened N/Naka,

I wanted to provide that
type of experience for our guests.

[telephone ringing]

Thank you for calling N/Naka.

-Yes, name, please?
-[Niki] Here at N/Naka,

we keep notes on
what everybody has had.

Okay, Ravi, gluten-free soy sauce, okay.

[Niki] What they've drank,
what they liked,

what they gravitated towards.

We have binders of every guest
that has ever been here.

Today, uh,
let's talk about the 6:00 people.

John James was a repeat
from February 13th.

But we're gonna go ahead
and still do the tuna,

'cause I believe on the February 13th,
we did seared toro.

It's one of the best challenges
I've set up for myself

and also one of the hardest.

Not to repeat dishes...
it's so hard and so stressful.

It forces me to create dishes
when I otherwise might feel... slacking.

What would you wanna eat
after shabu-shabu salad?

[Carole] Are you doing ponzu
with the shabu-shabu salad?

Ponzu style or more sweet?

Uh, sesame tare and ponzu.

Why don't you just do
houba, then sukiyaki,

and then steak and beef rice at the end?

But it'll be sweet-sweet.

-He's a... child. I don't think he'll...
-He'll care?

-He's eight.
-That's true.

[Maria] As a diner,
you feel cared about there.

There's an intimacy that she imparts,
um, that feels really unique to me.

She doesn't just
look at her diners as customers.

She's not turning tables.

She's grateful for everyone
who comes into her restaurant

and she really wants to please them.

[Niki] The pressure is so high.

There's this nervousness,
this lack of confidence,

this consistent need to make sure that
I'm pleasing the guests when they come.

Niki, how many ravioli today am I doing?

Sixteen pieces, four orders.

One for Monica Fitzgerald,
two for the Grossmans,

and one for the boy.

Oh, he's getting ravioli, too.

I have this incredible
sense of responsibility

toward the guests
who have made plans,

saved and done their best to put together
this experience for themselves,

and I owe that to them to provide
the experience I have envisioned for them.

When I think about constantly wanting
to earn that grade A from the customers,

the anxiety level rises.

And I think there is that part in me

that wants to calm that anxiety
by working even harder.

One of the first questions that
I ever had to really think about

was my dad asking me, "Well, what do
you plan to do when you grow up?"

And I was like,

"I don't know. I guess I'll be
whatever you think that I should be."

He wanted to be very supportive.

Having his Asian background,
he was very stern

and didn't know
how to be sensitive or soft.

He was the type of person that,
if we didn't bring A's, it was an F.


I still feel that kind of pressure

to try to please somebody
that can never be pleased.

Oh, Carole, we don't have enough
little oranges today?

[Carole] I brought some.

-Oh, you did?

[speaking Japanese]
Of course you did!

[Niki speaking English] Carole came
into the kitchen two years ago.

For me, it was a great opportunity
and great learning experience.

And the way I felt when I first ate here,
before working in her kitchen...

was moved.

It's rare to go to a restaurant
and really feel moved by food.

I really felt her heart in every dish.

[Niki] Carole's amazing with, uh,
details and technical things,

and she likes things
very organized and very standard.

And I am the opposite,

I throw things around
and can be kind of a mess.

Where did I put it?

I had it in a bowl yesterday.

You didn't see it in a white bowl,
did you?

A white bowl of aoyagi.

Oh, yeah, perfect.

The things that we're
able to do at N/Naka

are more elevated, more cared for...

because she's here doing it.

[Carole] Can we get some baby potatoes?

[Niki] Baby potatoes.

Carole and I
are partners in the kitchen...

we're best friends...

and she's also my partner in life.

[indistinct chatter]

[Carole] Niki has a depth to her

that I think comes through
in the food and the work she does...

but there's also this
extremely childish, silly side.

I get to see both sides of that
all the time.

Carole says this is more fun.

[Carole] Yeah, I did.
It's more interactive and...

And we don't have to
be responsible for anybody else's...

-[Carole] Less work for us.

[woman speaking Japanese]

[Carole speaking English]
Well, I haven't shown her that.

[speaking Japanese]
What is this?

[Carole] That's the book I made Niki
for her birthday.

[woman exclaims]

Niki turns 39 years.

[Niki speaking English] Initially,
I was afraid of working together

because people that work together
tend to drive each other crazy

and I didn't want that
for our relationship.

But... we allow each other
that space to be,

and it's just the best thing
that has ever happened to me.

Jack, you don't have kabu yet?
I mean, anymore?

[Jack] Apparently, it's all burned up

because of excessive heat we had
in the past couple of weeks.

We've had an extremely
long relationship with Niki.

I didn't think too much of her, initially.

I just thought she was another,
you know, Japanese woman.

Then, all of a sudden,
she started getting more and more popular.

Here in LA, I think the foodie scene
is right up there with the showbiz.

But she's down-to-earth.
You know, she's real.

[Evan] Niki is a beautiful example
of how lack of ego...

made it take a little longer

for people to notice
what was going on in that little corner.

There's been this whole conversation
about women in the kitchen

and about how they get
short shrift from the media.

And it's true, they do.

But she blows your mind
as much as any super-dude, tatted-up chef.

-[Jack] All right, see you.
-See you tomorrow.

[Niki] My friend sent me a discussion
that they were having on Chowhound

about this Wall Street Journal piece
that came out

and the negative feedback came out as,

"Oh, I get pieces like this
just because I'm a woman."

And I think it's funny
because sometimes, like,

"Oh, I can't be this--
work at this level, because I'm a woman."

Or if good things happen, it's like,

"Oh, I get these puff pieces
because I'm a woman."

I really, really don't wanna
make being a woman

an issue in the work that we do.

But it's just there.

[Carole] There are men that have
walked out on her in the past

when they see that it's a female chef.

It is an issue.

Recently, some big-name chef in Hawaii
came to N/Naka

and started eating her food
and was really excited about it.

After one of the servers
revealed that she was a woman,

he started making these
very patronizing remarks.

"Oh, that's so cute.

Oh, that's how girls cook.
Isn't that adorable?"

And she was infuriated.

[Niki] When people see me, they don't
generally identify that I'm the chef.

They don't think that
I fit that mold of a chef.

The automatic assumption is that
I don't know what I'm doing.

Which is why, at this restaurant,

the best way for people to enjoy the food
is to not see who's making their food.

[indistinct chatter]

I like that people aren't
distracted by anything else.

[Maria] I think for her
there is empowerment in it

because it means that
she doesn't have to worry about

someone assessing her
with the prejudice of knowing her gender.

She can just cook.

There's a liberation in that.

I'm sure there are some female chefs
who would think,

"No, let 'em see me cooking,

and if they don't like it,
yeah, they can leave."

That's not really who she is.

The best advice that I've been given
was to never stop learning.

Because the moment you give up
and think you know everything,

you're already done as a chef.
You should just quit.

After I finished up at Takao,
I went to Japan

because I knew that
that was gonna be

the best experience
for learning how to cook.

I went to work at my cousin's ryokan,
which is a Japanese inn.

It was in the countryside.

-[birds chirping]
-You could hear nature all over.

That's where I first experienced kaiseki.

It was a different kind
of Japanese food.

There's this philosophy
in this progression in the food.

It just broadened my vision.

The philosophy of kaiseki
is that we are supposed to

represent the area that we're living in.

When I was working in the countryside,
we took from what was close to us,

making the best use of
what the season has to offer.

I was so in love with the idea

that I put a farm-like garden
in the back of my house.

One of the first things
I've learned about kaiseki is

the integrity of the ingredients
should never get lost.

In Japanese, it's called sozai wo mamoru,
which means "to protect the ingredients."

After having this garden,
to see it from seed,

to watch it grow little-by-little,
to watch the process,

to see it struggle,
to see it survive,

there is this whole level of appreciation
that everything takes time,

everything takes
the right amount of nurturing,

everything deserves effort
because it's making an effort.

This little tomato
took three months to grow...

and to just toss it or to waste it
or to take it so lightly,

we're not doing our best to appreciate
what nature is truly offering,

what the lessons of life
that are all around us

are trying to teach us.

And I thought, "Maybe one day
I'm gonna open a restaurant

using the kaiseki philosophy."

5:30 people here?

[woman] 5:30 people and 6:00 people.

[Niki] Okay.

[Takao speaking Japanese]
Kaiseki is a course meal

consisting of seven or eight dishes,

presented in a very precise order.

Course meals usually start at a low point
and rise to the main dish.

The dessert at the end sort of
comes back down like this.

It's really very melodic.

Because the nature of the food is this
combination of lightness and brightness,

it is very musical.

[Maria] Part of the kaiseki tradition
is progression of technique

and flavor as well, where you're
kind of alternating salty or sweet.

[Niki] In kaiseki, a grilled dish is
always served before a steamed dish.

A steamed dish is always served
before a fried dish.

Sashimi is always served
before all those.

I love that there are so many
different elements of cooking,

but they're all part of one experience.

When I came back from Japan
and was about to open a restaurant...

I was confused about
what kind of restaurant I should open.

I loved kaiseki, but...

my mom advised me that

we should open a restaurant
that was gonna be familiar.

Go the sushi route
because it's more acceptable,

it's widely understood by people
and perhaps it's the best way.

There was a part of me
that didn't truly believe in it,

but yet I didn't have a clear vision
of what it was that I wanted to do.

That's when I opened Azami.

The most critical thing that I experienced
before opening it

was this big meeting that I had
with my mom and my brother and my sister.

Everybody was there.

And there was this overall consensus,
"You can't mess up!" [laughs]

"We're gonna finance it
as much as we can,

but if we feel that
it's getting out of hand,

we're closing it.

You only get one chance."

And then the only thing I could feel was,
"I'm gonna show you!"

I found the location on Melrose.

It fit my budget.
It was a mess.

I remember opening on a Thursday.

We rolled up the gates.
Had no idea what we were expecting.

There were no customers.

The first two or three years,
business was just really hard,

and I just thought, [clicks tongue]
"It's okay. I'm gonna survive this."

Luckily, people started to talk about it,

and people were coming,
and we were getting booked all the time.

The restaurant was successful.

My dad was really, really proud of me...

but I was not happy.

I was completely burnt out.

I didn't feel that my voice in cooking
was strong enough to say,

"Hey, this is who we are.
This is what I am.

This is the food we serve."

It was more of
trying to go with the flow,

like, adjusting and accommodating

and figuring out what it is
that people wanted.

There wasn't room to be creative

because there's not a lot of things
that we should do to sushi.

We should always keep it
very simple, very pure.

Have the perfect rice,

at the perfect temperature,
at the perfect texture.

It's so much more technical
than it is creative.

It can feel limiting.

I didn't like being another restaurant

that was putting out
the same food for everybody

and not having that passionate feeling
for creating dishes that I enjoy.

Everything felt so much more like work.

I didn't have any more to contribute
in terms of that type of cuisine.

And then that's when I knew
that it was time to let it go.

I sold Azami in 2008...

and I just remember feeling lost
and not knowing what to do.

I had planned that I was gonna be
hiding in my house, wearing a robe,

growing my hair really long,
possibly a beard, ordering pizza.

That was my plan.

One day, I was driving
and I was listening to NPR.

They were talking about this chef
who had worked in the city

who was doing these chef tables...

and I was thinking,
"That's... That's what I'll do!"

I'm gonna open a restaurant where
I'm gonna serve whatever I wanna cook.

And there's gonna be no questions asked.

I was going to take
a traditional kaiseki philosophy

and make it my own.

There would be a structure.

But within that structure,
so much creativity would be allowed.

I'd spent so many years
training in Japan.

I'd been through so many
learning experiences,

and I felt that at this point
I deserved to open up something

that I 100% believed was who I am.

That is when I opened N/Naka.

Not more than a year after,
my sous-chef quit.

I was by myself.

Suddenly, all the prep that
I was used to dividing up was all mine.

I remember going to the back
and standing there, feeling like,

"This is gonna be
the most horrible night of my life."

And I started crying a little bit.
And I was like, "It's gonna be okay."

And then I was just like...

"Universe, if you're up there
and if anybody's up there,

just let me get through this night
without messing up."

But I think I used the word "fuck up."

I was like,
"Just don't let me fuck up."

As the night progressed
and things were moving,

I was more focused than I usually am,
and I got through the night...

and I walked away from it knowing
I could do this.

No matter what happens,
I could do this.

At some point,
you need to trust yourself.

When it comes to cooking...

there's no more doubt.

Because of my culture...

I'm uncomfortable with
trying to make loud, bold statements.

I could do that in the food.

The food can be an egomaniac.

It could be loud.
It could be aggressive.

It could be all these things that
I personally am not comfortable being.

It allows me to
have crazy ideas or experiment,

to not follow the rules.

At this point,
she's not trying to prove anything.

She's carving her own path.

There are certain things that
in traditional kaiseki would not be done.

Her signature dish is one of them.

The pasta dish,
it's called shiizakana,

which is translated,
"Not bound by tradition, chef's choice."

People who have experienced
kaiseki in Japan,

they might find it questionable that
I should put this into our meal.

But I wanted to do something
that was very me.

[Takao speaking Japanese] I went
to her restaurant twice in one week.

She served a completely different menu
both times.

It's not easy to do,
and she pulled it off like it was nothing.

She surprised me.

It was truly exceptional.

[Niki speaking English]
Earlier in my career,

the motivation was that feeling that,
"I have to prove myself."

But at this point...

the whole feeling for cooking
has shifted into something different.

I'm enjoying this work more for myself...

without thinking about pleasing people.

Everything that is happening to me now
is something that I've always dreamt of.

I constantly remind myself that

I have to really, really live it,
to be in it...

and appreciate it now
so it doesn't pass me by.

[closing theme playing]