Cooking with the World-Famous Kaiseki Chefs of n/naka
To your average traveler, Karatsu, a small city on the Japanese island of Kyushu, might seem worlds away from Los Angeles. And even though it is 6,000 miles from her acclaimed kaiseki restaurant, n/naka, to chef Niki Nakayama, “Seeing the coastal views and the farmland, I had this feeling of going home, where all of the things that you’re carrying from your day-to-day life in the city fade piece by piece.”
For Niki and her wife and sous chef, Carole Iida-Nakayama, those things were the day-to-day operations of n/naka, for which the two chefs were featured in the first season of Chef’s Table on Netflix and for which Niki has been named a semifinalist thrice for Best Chef: West by the James Beard Foundation. (N/naka, which was awarded two Michelin stars this summer, is also one of our World’s Best Restaurants). Last fall, the chefs closed the restaurant for a week to undertake a quixotic trip—to cook, and stay, with two women they’d never met.
When Niki and Carole came across “Cultivated Days,” the blog of writer-photographer Prairie Stuart-Wolff, they felt a shock of recognition. Prairie and her partner, potter Hanako Nakazato of studio Monohanako, share a home in the hills and a life that in some ways mirrors Niki and Carole’s own. Both couples are engaged in exploring the philosophies that undergird Japanese cuisine—Niki and Carole through their work at the restaurant and Prairie and Hanako through writing, photography, cooking, and ceramics. All four women find different ways of bridging, and interpreting, the threads of their lives that link them to America and Japan. Niki and Carole, the children of Japanese immigrants to California, craft their own highly personal interpretation of traditional kaiseki cuisine that honors its Japanese philosophies and incorporates as many California ingredients as possible. Hanako, a 14th-generation ceramicist, draws on Western and Japanese influences in her pottery, and Prairie, who moved to Japan with Hanako in 2007, works to capture, in her words and photographs, the spirit of Japanese cuisine and food culture. “There was a natural chemistry in a lot of the things we think about and have dealt with in each of our different crafts—a lot of parallel paths,” says Niki.
And how did their hosts feel about entertaining world-famous chefs they’d never met? “I’ve learned that when hosting guests it’s better to focus less on what kind of reputation precedes them and more on how I can welcome them with the best I have to offer,” says Prairie. It’s an approach she takes from the lessons of the tea ceremony in Japan, she says: “the spirit of a practice that asks us to set aside the trappings of titles and status so that we may more fully experience a fellowship of individuals sharing a unique moment in time and space.”
Over the course of a long weekend, with F&W photographer Eva Kolenko capturing the visit with her camera, the two couples cooked together, that spark of kinship deepening into a friendship. “I could sense how hard they worked to get where they are because they seemed so grateful and respectful to others,” says Hanako. “Based on that common ground, we were easily able to enjoy each other’s company and to share what we love.”
This past summer, Prairie and Hanako traveled to Los Angeles to stay with Niki and Carole, to cook with them at their home, and to dine at n/naka. But that’s another story.