When chef Niki Nakayama opened N/Naka a decade ago on the corner of Overland and Lawler in the Palms neighborhood of Los Angeles, she regularly served fewer than 10 people each night, even though the kitchen and dining room could handle four times as many. She distinctly remembers serving just two diners during a particularly slow service in those early days, when restaurant patrons were more enamored with pork belly and molecular gastronomy than in refined Japanese tasting menus. Still, she persisted, fueled by an unshakable sense of joy for her craft and duty to traditional kaiseki philosophy. “It never occurred to me that we were not going to make it. For the first time in my career I just felt this incredible sense of belief in what I was doing, and I would find a way,” she says.
To finance N/Naka, Nakayama sold her successful Melrose Avenue restaurant, Azami Sushi Cafe, and then purchased the Overland Avenue building outright. She used the remainder of her budget to furnish the kitchen and dining room before opening in April 2011.
Though many Angelenos knew their way around a Japanese restaurant menu in 2011, kaiseki was still widely unknown. At the time, the ultra-expensive Urasawa in Beverly Hills and the now-closed A Thousand Cranes in Little Tokyo both served kaiseki-influenced tasting menus, but neither were fully committed to calling them that. But the dining public’s lack of knowledge about the centuries-old, multicourse Japanese tradition didn’t deter Nakayama from heeding an unrelenting call to serve kaiseki at her namesake restaurant.
“Kaiseki is knowing when to pluck the ingredient at the peak of its seasonality, or even just before, and presenting that,” she says. “For me, it’s so much about an appreciation for nature and a gratitude for the feeling of nature and how we’re supposed to highlight all the things that surround us.” Classic Japanese cooking techniques — steaming, frying, grilling, and simmering — are purposefully chosen to highlight each ingredient throughout the 12-course meal.
Nakayama has been cooking alongside her wife, Carole Iida-Nakayama, in the 400-square-foot kitchen for most of the past 10 years. The two were new to dating when Carole stepped into the kitchen to fill in for a no-show sous chef, and she hasn’t left Niki’s side since. The gamble to blur the lines between their personal and professional lives paid off as the two grew stronger in bringing the restaurant’s modern kaiseki to life with each service and season. And all the while, they’ve had to navigate the many highs and lows — Netflix fame, Michelin’s return to Los Angeles, pandemic-era uncertainty — that come with restaurant life.
In its decade of operating, N/Naka has risen to national acclaim to become the most celebrated kaiseki restaurant outside Japan. The indelible mark the restaurant has left on its hometown can’t be understated: from introducing locals to kaiseki to redefining “California cuisine” and inspiring a generation of chefs and restaurants, here are the 10 ways N/Naka changed the Los Angeles dining scene forever, according to influential members of the city’s dining community.
Introducing Angelenos to kaiseki
Though some locals may have heard of kaiseki, the tradition didn’t catch on widely until N/Naka came along. “[Niki] decided to do this kaiseki-style tasting menu in LA that no one was doing and say, ‘Well that’s just what we want to do, and we’re going to do it. Not because it’s something we know people like, but because it’s something we like.’ And that is one of the rarest things in restaurants,” says Dave Beran, chef and owner of Pasjoli in Santa Monica. “[She took] a huge risk in saying, ‘If it’s good, people will enjoy it.’” That dogged commitment to sharing a hyper-traditional Japanese experience with an unfamiliar audience was a tremendous leap of faith. But it began to pay off when restaurant critics Jonathan Gold and Besha Rodell filed their glowing reviews in 2012 and 2013, respectively, propelling N/Naka to the city’s dining forefront and adding kaiseki to the Angeleno lexicon.
Redefining California cuisine
There exists a very specific template for California cuisine that’s characterized by the “figs on a plate” aesthetic popularized by Alice Waters at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. Though kaiseki isn’t generally thought of as an expression of farm-to-table cooking, a key tenet is to integrate one’s surroundings by sourcing ingredients locally. To that end, Niki and Carole grow some 45 percent of the restaurant’s produce in their Culver City front yard, and also source up to 80 percent of their ingredients throughout the state. “Her enthusiasm for ingredients and the way they are treated with great care through every step of her process shows on the plate,” writes Betty Hallock, former Los Angeles Times deputy food editor, in an email. “You can tell from the way the menus are structured [that] there is definite tradition there, but… you can sense the California in her,” says Sang Yoon, chef and owner of Father’s Office and Lukshon. “So much of California seeps into the foods. Seasonality exists in Japan, but the produce, the herbs, you don’t see that. She definitely leverages California heavily.”
Broadening palates beyond sushi
Before N/Naka opened its doors, Angelenos had a narrower understanding of Japanese cuisine. While high-end sushi temples like Sushi Nozawa, Mori Sushi, and Urasawa served exquisite omakases, many Japanese restaurants in Little Tokyo and the South Bay and on the Westside showcased a more casual approach to Japanese cooking. “A lot of Japanese restaurants, especially casual ones, offer everything from sushi to tempura and ramen and udon… sort of like a deli mentality,” says Yoon. N/Naka showed Los Angeles first, and a national audience later, that there’s much more to Japanese fine dining than just high-priced nigiri.
Propelling personal-narrative cooking
A meal at N/Naka is a window into Niki’s and Carole’s life stories, with every course honoring both Japanese kaiseki traditions and their Japanese American heritage. “She puts so much thought and intention into her cooking, in a way that is distinctly in following with the Japanese tradition of ichi-go ichi-e — the concept of treasuring a single moment in time because it will never be repeated in the exact same way again,” Hallock writes. “But just as much as she is rooted in tradition, she is always pushing herself to change and to try new things.”
Take, for instance, the restaurant’s signature dish, which features handmade spaghettini with abalone, pickled cod roe, and Burgundy truffles. Served for the shiizakana course, Niki’s interpretation breaks away from the more traditional meat or hot pot offerings, without compromising on the shiizakana’s essence. “Many of us in Southern California are first- or second-generation Americans, which means we are constantly negotiating between cultural and national boundaries and identities,” writes Patricia Escárcega, a reporting fellow at the Counter and former Los Angeles Times restaurant critic, in an email. “I think it’s this tension between Japanese and California traditions, moods, and ingredients that makes N/Naka so compelling.”
From Hokkaido scallops with ponzu and white truffles to a salty plum granita garnished with delicate shiso leaves, the duo’s cooking has grown increasingly confident over the past 10 years to become a true reflection of the chefs and their histories.
Capturing a true sense of place
Serving a kaiseki dinner that adheres to tradition but also captures an LA sensibility (rather than being a derivative of Japan) takes skill and guts. “The more rules there are at a cuisine, the harder it is to find your own version of variance within that,” says Beran. “[The meal] was presented in a way that didn’t make me feel like we were sitting in Japan having kaiseki. It made me feel like we were in California having a Japanese kaiseki meal.”
As a born and raised Angeleno, Niki’s journey and influences serve as the connective tissue throughout the meal, like the kanpachi sashimi served with an avocado sauce, and bell pepper and jalapeno jellies — Japanese in spirit with an Angeleno’s soul. “Niki has approached kaiseki in a way that nobody else has in LA, because nobody else has her unique experiences — growing up in California in her family’s seafood business, training in Japan, working in male-dominated kitchens there and in LA, and then opening and running her own places, with her own vision,” writes Hallock. Even N/Naka’s dining room captures a laid-back LA vibe. “The space is not intimidating. It’s the right size, it’s not overly luxurious, it’s on an unprepossessing corner,” says Evan Kleiman, host of KCRW’s Good Food. “In so many ways it’s so LA, in that you’re not going to a palace where your purse is going to have its own chair.”
Evolving fine dining
When N/Naka opened in 2011, Los Angeles’s idea of fine dining was rooted in the classic sense, with tasting menus and fussy service. The kaiseki experience bridged the gap between a sushi omakase and places like Patina, Spago, and Melisse; it offered a new understanding of high-end cooking to Angelenos. “There are very few practitioners of classic fine dining, like a small dining room with pristine service, and that level of detail where food and service can rise to the level of art,” Yoon says. “For the last decade she’s definitely been where fine dining is in LA.”
In addition to changing up the expected fine dining format, N/Naka’s warmer service and relaxed ambience imbued a sense of hospitality that was missing in stodgier dining rooms. “I think that because of who Niki is, people who may not have ever had a tasting menu experience at that level are somehow engaged by her,” says Kleiman. “What Niki presents is so rooted in a kind of genuine hospitality. That sense of fear, of being intimidated, falls away and allows you to concentrate on the experience itself, which is so pleasurable.”
Inspiring the next generation
The resounding success of N/Naka paved the way for chefs and restaurateurs to open ambitious restaurants that leaned into tasting menus without being tethered to the French standard. It also showed that there was an audience for personal cooking that went beyond casual neighborhood spots. “Any time someone new comes on the scene with a different point of view and has success, then the world of possibility opens up to people who are still in the dreaming stage,” says Kleiman. “When you understand that you don’t have to have gilded chairs and you don’t have to have 20 courses, then all of a sudden you start to think of what you want to do within your own set of parameters.”
N/Naka emboldened chefs to think outside the confines of existing restaurant concepts. “At a time when the chatter outside LA was that the dining scene wasn’t anything special [and] the restaurants you heard about were the trendy celebrity spots, Niki and Carole were doing something that didn’t fall into any of those molds. And it kind of made it okay for restaurants like Dialogue,” says Beran, referring to his now-closed 18-seat tasting menu restaurant in Santa Monica. “Without N/Naka, [the] dining scene wouldn’t be where it is now,” says Mei Lin, chef of Nightshade and Daybird. “She’s doing something really different in the Los Angeles dining scene. There are a lot more tasting menu restaurants. Now we have Hayato, now we have Kato.”
Bringing national acclaim to Los Angeles
No matter how loud Angelenos shout about the city’s incredible dining scene, people outside the Southland don’t always seem to understand the kind of cooking happening on the ground — or its philosophies. For better or worse, ratings like Michelin stars and shows like Chef’s Table can enhance the city’s perception among outsiders. “Watching Niki Nakayama tell her story on Chef’s Table was like picking up the last piece of a puzzle and snapping it into place with satisfaction,” writes Bill Addison, Los Angeles Times restaurant critic, in an email. “The world was already cluing into the greatness of dining in Los Angeles at every tier: the taco vendors and regional Mexican cuisines, our Thai restaurants, our sushi culture. When Nakayama related her journey, everyone could see that LA was on the front line of top-dollar, artistry-driven cooking as well.” As the recipient of two Michelin stars and the subject of an entire episode on the first season of Chef’s Table, N/Naka showed the rest of the world what Angelenos already knew — there’s no better place to dine on the planet.
Upending gender stereotypes
Though the effort to evolve the restaurant industry’s bro culture has seen some progress, those toxic roots still run deep. Niki and Carole carved out a successful restaurant in a male-dominated industry while cooking a historically male-dominated cuisine, never compromising on their vision and values. “What is so interesting about the whole subject, about how kaiseki is this male-dominated form, is that it’s a form that relies so deeply on nature, which seems to me to be inherently feminine,” says Kleiman. “So I find that in a way Niki is this correction.”
Though it’s somewhat rote to view N/Naka’s accomplishments through a gendered lens, Niki and Carole’s success in the face of systemic barriers speaks to incredible strength and perseverance. “It’s deeply validating to witness Niki and Carole’s success,” says Lien Ta, co-owner of All Day Baby and co-founder of Regarding Her, a nonprofit dedicated to the advancement and empowerment of women restaurateurs. “I have found, in my own life, I have subconsciously put limits on my abilities or ambitions. But seeing these two Asian women in hospitality constructing their own luminosity encourages me and empowers me — and I imagine other women and particularly Asian women — to believe in what is possible. Ambitious women don’t all look or behave a certain way either. There’s an elegance to Niki and Carole, and above all, that is what inspires me.”
“The situation that Niki and Carole find themselves in, as women running a very high-profile Michelin-starred establishment, shouldn’t be remarkable. But that’s not the world we live in,” says Michael Cimarusti, chef of Providence, Connie & Ted’s, and Best Girl. “I’m married to a woman who is also a chef (Crisi Echiverri), and she has always told me that she felt it was her responsibility to be that much better than everybody else… because you are a woman and the expectations aren’t as high, to be noticed you have to contribute more than everybody else because you’re not one of the boys.”
Building a culinary community
Fostering genuine relationships within LA’s community of chefs and restaurateurs has always been a priority for Niki and Carole. They make it a point to lend their names and resources to help up-and-coming cooks and do-good organizations, share their business know-how, and welcome anyone into their circle. “It meant so much to have Niki and Carole contribute to Regarding Her,” says Ta. “While they themselves are not splashy people, we all know that N/Naka makes a splash, and it really helped to propel the reach of Regarding Her.”
“Once I was talking to [Niki and Carole] about lobster at the counter, and the next day I got a text from Niki with a purveyor she had who had this great lobster that she loved. And it was things like that — where I didn’t ask, they just did,” says Beran. “[They] really care about the industry, not just about [themselves].” While big egos are commonplace in the upper echelons of hospitality, Niki and Carole break the mold to lead with humility and kindness. “I don’t know anyone that good at what they do and is that nice at the same time,” says Yoon. Nearly everyone that Eater spoke to mentioned how graciously the Nakayamas have treated them over the years, which is notable in an industry better known for its loudest chefs than ones that play well with others (and share lobster purveyors).
Though neither Niki nor Carole anticipated celebrating this milestone in quarantine while serving bento boxes to masked patrons, both are eager to welcome diners back to the restaurant in the coming months. The two are patiently waiting out what remains of the COVID-19 storm at their two-month-old West Adams restaurant N/Soto, which was born out of the takeout ekiben boxes that N/Naka started serving during the pandemic.
“Ten years is a long time and a short time in so many ways,” says Niki. “I feel that there’s still a lot left to say in terms of the food and the work in it for me. And I hope to be able to express those things before I retire.” While it’s uncertain what the future will hold, especially given the last year, the two are dedicated to doing what they’ve always done — defining and refining what it means to be a kaiseki restaurant in Los Angeles.