Niki Nakayama Is Opening a New Bento-Focused Restaurant Celebrating Japanese-American Cuisine
Niki Nakayama is feeling the kind of jitters that she hasn't felt in a decade, the kind of jitters that chefs experience when they're opening a new restaurant.
"We're excited and nervous all at the same time," said Nakayama, who will debut n/soto with her wife and sous chef Carole Iida-Nakayama at the edge of Los Angeles' West Adams neighborhood on March 10.
N/soto, which grew out of the takeout ekiben boxes that n/naka started serving during the COVID-19 pandemic, is a restaurant that will focus on "what Japanese food looks like when it's influenced by other cultures." So it will open with a bento that reflects how Japanese food has evolved in Japanese-American home kitchens.
"The first bento is representative of the whole concept of the restaurant itself," Nakayama said.
The box, which is named Taste of Home and can be reserved online starting on March 5, will include about 20 items such as beef sukiyaki, salmon teriyaki, shrimp egg foo young, spam musubi, tuna macaroni salad, lobster miso dynamite, and coconut cake.
N/naka opened in 2011 on a quiet block in L.A.'s unglamorous Palms neighborhood and went on to become a kaiseki sensation that was featured on Chef's Table, named one of Food & Wine's 30 best restaurants in the world, and awarded two Michelin stars. But despite all the success, Nakayama had no desire to open another restaurant until the pandemic hit.
"It was something I didn't want to do because I felt so connected to what I was doing [at n/naka]," she said.
"The vision [at n/naka] is so tied to Niki as a chef and her expression of cooking through the kaiseki format," Iida-Nakayama said. "Part of what's exciting [at n/soto] is that it doesn't always have to come from Niki's brain."
N/naka recently collaborated on bento boxes with Vietnamese-American chef Minh Phan of Historic Filipinotown's Porridge + Puffs and Susan Yoon, the Orsa & Winston chef de cuisine who started cooking Korean food for dosiraks she sold out of her Mount Washington home. The creativity Nakayama found herself surrounded by energized her. She wants n/soto to be a restaurant about collaboration and uplifting the community. She wants ideas to come from her staff and from other chefs and from farmers and suppliers and community organizations.
The first n/soto bento, which will be available for about about six weeks on Wednesdays through Saturdays, is being created in partnership with L.A.'s Japanese American National Museum (JANM), which is providing historical photos and other reference points.
"The area that n/soto is going to be in actually had a really large Japanese community after the internment, after the war," Nakayama said. "They lost so much of their real estate and property in Little Tokyo that they had to move outwards."
The research for n/soto also involved searching for old recipes.
"We came across this wonderful cookbook that was made by Japanese people in Culver City," Nakayama said. "They just assembled recipes from different people in the neighborhood and brought it together to fundraise for the community. That's what food can do. It can bring people together. It can build community and also give back to the community."
Part of the proceeds from n/soto will support the Little Tokyo Community Council, whose work includes issuing grants to help restaurants during the pandemic.
"The motivating factor for n/soto was to be able to be part of something that was going to be good and to reach out to other people and really be there for one another," Nakayama said.
"The concept of collaboration over competition was a really strong phrase that we gravitated towards early on during the pandemic," Iida-Nakayama said. "With all restaurants and chefs struggling, it felt like we were all drowning at the same time. But we realized what gave us the most strength was when we could help other people."
N/soto didn't start because the n/naka team just decided to open another restaurant. They were looking to rent a space more suited for takeout. But they found a location that used to house a family-owned Korean restaurant. They checked out the standalone building with a parking lot and began to realize that they could do more than takeout here.
Nakayama and Iida-Nakayama have partnered on n/soto with Erin Wade, a restaurateur whose vision of entrepreneurship and restaurant culture aligns with theirs. They're getting their patio ready for outdoor dining in the near future. They will also add indoor dining when the time is right. The plan, Nakayama said, is to serve an izakaya-style menu "with a lot of influences that aren't purely Japanese."
So while n/naka is very much about Japanese kaiseki cooking, Nakayama wants n/soto to be "really representative of the L.A. experience."
To put it another way: n/naka is about Japanese food, and n/soto is about the food of the Japanese diaspora. It's about what immigrants take with them and leave behind. It's about how something like a fried chicken wing can represent both the past and a new beginning.
The word "soto" means outside or outward in Japanese, so what Nakamaya obviously wants to do at n/soto is explore the great things that happen when you take Japanese food out of Japan.
But also understand this: n/soto is still about the complexity and precision of Japanese food, and how this involves pickling and different temperatures and cutting things perfectly. It's about understanding how to precisely utilize different cooking methods like steaming, grilling, and frying to create what Nakamaya believes is the "best form of an ingredient." These are some of the things that viewers can learn when they watch Nakayama's new 18-lesson MasterClass, which launches on March 4.
"One of the things about Japanese food is that it's hard for people to recognize that there's so much work behind the scenes to get this very simple-looking product that ends up in front of you," said Nakayama. She mentions a bento-box salmon dish at n/naka that's poached in oil, pan-fried, grilled, and smoked.
And now Nakayama is also ready to learn from others as she writes a new chapter at n/soto.
"I've spent so much time at n/naka, and this other project will help inspire me," she said. "I'm so excited about all the things I'm going to be able to learn from other chefs and all the things that we're going to be able to exchange in terms of knowledge and ingredients and techniques and just overall philosophies. It feels like a wonderful way to keep growing."
n/soto (website goes live on March 5), 323-879-9455, 4566 W. Washington Blvd., Los Angeles