Food & Wine: Niki Nakayama

© Zen Sekizawa

Niki Nakayama

Most Innovative Women in Food and Drink

Japan’s tradition of kaiseki cuisine is many things: exacting, beautiful, intensely seasonal, ritualistically structured—and rarely if ever welcoming to women chefs. That hasn’t stopped Los Angeles-based Niki Nakayama, who initially gained acclaim as a sushi chef (a world resistant to women in itself), and whose third restaurant is the wildly praised, kaiseki-focused n/naka (well documented on season 1 of Chef’s Table on Netflix). Twenty years of training—several at Japan’s renowned Shirakawa-ya Ryokan—and planning went into n/naka, somehing that clearly shows in the exquisite thirteen-course meals Nakayama serves there. Driven by what she grows in her own garden (cultivated together with the urban-farming group Farmscape) and what she sources from local foragers, Nakayama’s ever-changing menus take kaiseki’s rigorous traditions seriously, but also bring her own interpretation of its sensibilities to the table as well. That might mean something as simple as using locally grown black mustard flowers as a stand-in for wasabi, or as complex as an exotic, aromatic dish of delicate spaghettini with black abalone, pickled cod roe, and summer truffles; but no matter what, on every plate Nakayama's work is extraordinary.

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