Today, I’m so excited to give you this Q&A with world-renowned chef, Niki Nakayama. I first heard of Niki when I was watching Chef’s Table on Netflix, and I highly recommend watching her episode if you get the chance.
Niki is my guest on the podcast for episode 050, and we discuss how she broke through personal and cultural expectations, limitations, rules and criticism. Here on the blog, though, you can read the rundown of our interview, but I hope you’ll listen too, because there’s a couple more conversations and details in the show I think you’ll love!
Q: As you were growing up you were expected to be kind of a supporting character to the men in your life. I love how you’ve used the term, Kuyashii, to describe how you were able to push yourself both as an individual and as a chef. Can you explain what that means?
A: A really great way to describe the feeling of kuyashii is something akin to how when your favorite team loses, or somebody that you’re rooting for, or something that you’ve been wanting hasn’t gone your way. There’s this driving feeling to want to get better or to move past that and to grow as a person. In the beginning of my career that was such a motivating factor for me because I couldn’t help but continuously bump into situations where it was a constant “no, you can’t do this, you’re not supposed to do this.” Not just in terms of my family, but it felt like it was an overwhelming thing in my social environment as well as my personal environment. That feeling can sometimes be so strong and can push you to become better or do better, or for lack of a better word, to prove people wrong.
Q: Instead of looking at these barriers as obstacles, you looked at them as chances to overcome them, right?
A: I think I attribute that to having been born and raised in the states. I think there’s a mentality, I always tell myself and remind myself how fortunate I am to have been born and raised here. To be able to sort of nitpick the things I really love about Japanese culture as well as the things I really love about being born and raised here in America. There is such a wonderful way of pulling from both cultures to grow as a person. You get to choose all the things you like and then discard the things that you feel don’t really necessarily make your life better.
Q: I know for you, your first restaurant Azami was a successful sushi restaurant, but eventually, you chose to sell it because you felt burned out and that you couldn’t really be as creative as you wanted to be. How did you know it was time to move on and let go of that dream in order to start a new creative endeavor?
A: I came to this point where I was telling myself I’m working these hours and it should have more meaning for me. I wanted to do something where, since I was investing so much of myself into what I was doing, that the work had to correlate to the results that I was seeking. I thought that the sushi aspects and the sushi restaurant were wonderful, but it was always something that wasn’t exactly the kind of food that I wanted to do. And after striving, because it was really hard in the beginning just to open a restaurant and to learn from there each step of the way. But there was of course a feeling of I can’t let it go so easily because I’ve been working on this for so long, but then I think there’s a point in everyone’s life where you just want to get to this point where you really believe in what you’re doing. And when I was ready to sell Azami, I knew that I didn’t have that belief in that restaurant anymore and I wanted to go onto the next chapter, whether it would succeed or not, I would have been happy just having been able to try it.
Q: I equate that to be a little bit like the grieving process in that you’re so sad about this thing that you’ve grown and so you have to go through all those different stages of denial, and anger, and sadness, and it really is a grieving process of moving on. And it’s, in some ways, hard to motivate yourself to move onto the new thing, but in other ways I feel like for me at least I was running towards it because I was so excited about this new possibility for me. Is that how you felt as you opened up n/naka?
A: Yes, because I had spent so much time doing sushi and just learning about the things that surround a sushi restaurant. When I finally had some time to myself to sort of look out into the culinary world there were so many exciting things that were happening at the time, and that feeling of wanting to try and do those things felt so rejuvenating. Because when I was about to close Azami I was thinking I don’t know if I want to continue doing this because it’s not exciting or it’s not fulfilling enough. But when I saw that all these things were happening outside of what I had been doing, and all these things that I could learn, that feeling came back so I was really excited.
Q: At your restaurant you serve an interpretation of kaiseki, which is a traditional Japanese culinary art form with 13 courses and very specific rules on the order of the courses, right? But do you find that these traditions and these rules constrain you, or do you think that they push you to be even more creative with your menus?
A: I think they actually allow more creativity because sometimes the structure helps the creative process. When you’re presented with limits you sort of think in the way of what you can do, and it doesn’t allow for too much thinking everywhere. It allows for this very concentrated effort to think within those terms, and that sometimes helps fuel creativity in a different way. It’s like sometimes when we have vegetarians that come and eat with us, because I know there’s only a certain amount of certain types of ingredients I’m allowed to use, that process to be creative is expanded so much more. I know it sounds strange, but structure is sometimes a wonderful way to have more creative ideas. I’m the type of person if I didn’t have structure, I’d be all over the place and nothing would get done properly. Thankfully there is structure within this kaiseki format that allows me to explore things.
Q: You’ve mentioned in the past that “When people see me, they don’t generally identify that I’m the chef.” These guests are sometimes surprised to find a Japanese woman running such a successful kaiseki restaurant. How has that affected how you run your restaurant and how you choose to represent yourself in such a male-dominated industry?
A: I’ve always thought that I understood that we live in a culture or in a society where appearance is very important for people to sort of be able to associate and put two and two together. And I always thought that it would be wonderful if I could produce something where the work just spoke for itself, and the way for us to do that was just having people not see any of us cooking in the kitchen. It’s very unusual for Japanese restaurants, well not very unusual, it’s very common for Japanese restaurants to have the chef serve you right in front of you at a counter so that you have this connection with the chef. But for us, I was thinking that I’m not the type of person who can stand there and sell myself to people easily or try to entertain people too much while I’m doing my work. I thought it would be amazing if people just judged me purely on the work that was coming out.
The new restaurant, n/naka, has a fully enclosed kitchen. I sort of use this as a way to just let the food be the star and let it speak for itself and for people to judge their experience as a whole. And then afterwards I feel it very important to come out and greet the guests to show them that we’re very grateful that they’ve come to eat. And sometimes it’s funny to see their reactions, in the beginning more, not as much now.
Q: We discussed in this season about how life really is a series of choices, and that includes how we choose to react to hurtful people like that. We can choose to let that tear us down and feel like we can’t move forward from that, or we can choose to overcome that. How do you keep comments like that from allowing you to want to just quit?
A: I think one of the most important things is anytime, even with comments like that or anytime we receive some sort of criticism, the initial reaction is always like I’m a wounded animal, I feel so wounded by everything they’ve just said. It’s hurtful, and then a little sadness, and then anger, and then it moves in different stages. And then after the anger comes the looking through and thinking about the things that they’ve commented on and try to train yourself to think “okay what are the things they said that’s going to be really helpful for me to grow?” And from then on, it’s easier to be a little bit less attached to their comments and just take what that experience is in terms of it being something that can teach you to be better at what you do and then getting better from that. With any type of comments, positive or negative, there’s always something that you can see that’s positive within it, you just have to get to that point to allow yourself to see it.
I loved so much of what Niki and I discussed in this episode, there’s a bit more detail in there if you’d like to listen to episode 050 of the podcast.
I’d like to end this post on a great note with a quote from Niki during the show…
I love her mindset and outlook about pursuing her big dream. It inspired me so much and I know it will inspire so many others who hear about it!