Niki Nakayama: In the kitchen we are neither men nor women

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Niki Nakayama became an international food name in 2015 when the Netflix series Chef’s Table dedicated a segment to the Los Angeles–based talent and her restaurant n/naka. In the show, her voice is soft, but her words are bold. Although it would seem she had a head start—her family business is the seafood distributor Unified Seafood Co., and relatives in Japan own a ryokan, where she in fact learned about kaiseki, the dining format on which she would base her own restaurant—she is frank about struggling within her own family as well as within the male-dominated restaurant industry. (In her Chef’s Table episode, a talking head illustrates this point by telling a story about a “Hawai‘i chef” who dines at n/naka then makes patronizing comments when he finds out the chef is a grrrrl. WHO IS IT?!) She also quietly, but very proudly, makes clear that she and her sous chef Carole Iida “are partners in the kitchen and we’re also partners in life.”

Last year, Nakayama was one of three Hawai‘i Food & Wine Festival chefs I interviewed for Modern Luxury Hawai‘i. It was the first time she participated—she doesn’t attend many. She must have loved it, because she returned this year, participating in the Oct. 22 Hawaiian Airlines Presents Lucky 7 event on Maui. Due to space constraints, only part of her answers made it into the article, so I thought I’d post more of the interview here, with stuff referring to last year’s event deleted.

Food festivals are everywhere now—do you participate in many, and what do you like about them?
No I don’t participate in many events outside of n/naka because it means we would have to close for service. I think the wonderful thing about food festivals is that they bring people together to enjoy something special about the host city. I think that’s what makes food festivals so fun to visit and equally fun to participate in. An event where people who love to cook sharing the same space with people who love to eat—it’s the perfect thing.

What spurred you to participate in the Hawai‘i Food & Wine Festival?
I was really excited about visiting Hawai‘i again. It’s one of my favorite places on Earth. This will be my first time visiting O‘ahu, but my fifth trip to Hawai‘i. The first time I visited Hawai‘i, I understood for the first time what paradise was. I will go any time I can.

How do you decide what to make for a festival? Do you take local ingredients and audience into account, or make whatever you feel like making?
I definitely think the local ingredients and the audience are two of the most important factors when considering a menu. My job as a chef is to make the ingredients shine so that the audience can enjoy every aspect of the ingredient. I love kaiseki cuisine because it is about gratitude; being grateful to an ingredient and to nature.

Has being featured on Chef’s Table changed your life?
Being on Chef’s Table has been a wonderful experience in that people are more aware of what kaiseki is and have a better understanding of what we are trying to convey with it at n/naka. On a professional level, that understanding brings a level of validity to our work and on a personal level, the sense of connection we’ve been able to establish with people that have seen it is amazing.

A lot is made of you being a female kaiseki chef. In Japanese homes, women are the amazing cooks. My grandmother was Nisei in Hawai‘i and she was a fantastic home cook—she really turned it on for New Years. How has the world of professional Japanese cuisine remained so male dominated?
I think there’s a belief in Japanese culture that a woman’s role is the caretaker at home.  Cooking is a part of that caretaker position. When cooking becomes a profession, it is no longer seen as caretaking but rather providing technical precision and artistry, both of which women are not usually given an opportunity to strive for and fulfill. To better answer your question, I think it’s just a part of cultural and social beliefs of the roles that men and women should play.

We have some talented young women working in kitchens here in Honolulu—do you have any advice for them?
Perhaps my advice is not only for women in the kitchen but for men as well, and that is, inside the kitchen, we are neither men nor women, we are chefs that care about our guests and their experience at every moment.

 

Photo: Zen Sekizawa

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