The Broad and Flaunt's #InfiniteLA Q&A: n/naka's Niki Nakayama and Carole Iida-Nakayama on Their Paths

by Brad Wete

Today we debut the first video in our series with The Broad and Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors exhibit. We’re connecting the work of some of Los Angeles’ most renowned activists and creative minds with Kusama’s stirring pieces and installations, currently on display at the acclaimed museum. We begin with chef Niki Nakayama, who—along with wife (and sous chef) Carole Iida-Nakayama—is redefinIng what Japanese cuisine is at their Culver City restaurant, n/naka. There, we asked them: Is there a place in your life where you have felt pressure to conform, but instead have followed your own path?

Share your response to that same question on The Broad's Instagram, Twitter or Facebook pages--using the hashtag #infiniteLA--for the chance to win a pair of tickets to see Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors. Submit your answer by 11:59 p.m. PT on Friday, November 3, and they'll be announcing the winner next Monday, November 6, along with the next video in our series.

Here, the two talk to us about how they first met (Carole knew Niki was the one, fast!), ingredient respect, and why you should think twice before turning your dinner table into a photo shoot set.

How did you guys meet?

Carole: We met year after n/naka had opened. When I found out that she came from a Japanese cooking background and I knew her parents’ sushi restaurant--I used to visit it all the time--I was really, really happy and excited. [I knew] that this was going to be an amazing alliance between us and an amazing relationship for us. I knew early on that she was the one. Maybe on our second date. 

Niki: Yeah, she actually did. She said it straight up: “I’m going to marry you one day!” 

Carole: But not now!

Niki: it was a little shocking, it was our second date, but I…

Carole: It’s because I’ve always felt like when you know something, you just know. I really believe in the signs the universe sends you. And that makes sense, it just does. So, I knew. On our second date, I knew right away that she was the one because there was just something that I was certain about. I have a tendency to feel something and just follow it through. Don’t think; just do.

Niki: Yeah, it was really funny. She literally on our second date, just blurted it out out of nowhere. “I’m going to marry you someday, but not now!” 

Carole: Not now. It was too quick. 

Niki: I was shocked, 'cause it’s not something you expect on a second date.  At the same time, something deep inside knew that she was right. So I didn’t know how to react to that because it’s like, “Oh my god, I know what she said was so true. But this is too early, right?” You’re not supposed to say these things on the second date. It’s just too crazy. She was right, though.

Niki, your path to becoming a chef wasn't one where you followed a traditional path, with a mentor. Why is that?

Niki: I think when anyone thinks about a traditional path in this field of cooking, it’s automatically easy to assume that one would have a mentor or a really great teacher that sort of guides you through and gives you maybe not all the answers, but sort of sets, by examples, how things should be.

So for this path it would have been amazing had these options been presented to me. Trying to reach high levels of work or career path in Japan is not really an option for a lot of women. And in terms of not having to conform, or even trying to get to some sort of conformity, it was never an option. That path was not available. So in order to get to this point, I’ve always felt that I’ve had to follow my own path. I’ve been very fortunate because when you follow somebody else’s ideas, it’s very easy to absorb and take those ideas and have them become your own where you don’t have the option to think beyond what you’re being taught.

But with that traditional path, and trying to find my way through on my own, it felt a lot more limitless. Like the idea of being able to open a restaurant like this, maybe would have been harder if I was constantly told that I could not. Without that, not following that traditional path, it was a lot more easier to imagine bigger pictures of things and sort of find my way through. Sometimes I think that it could have been a lot easier just following somebody’s way and sort of going through that path, and faster. But to finally get here and having experienced all the things that I’ve had, I needed this unconventional route to get to this place.

The ability to have so much freedom and choosing what we want for this restaurant to be, and for it to not have to be traditional, or to incorporate ingredients that aren’t traditionally Japanese or techniques that aren’t traditionally Japanese, but still keep in mind that the philosophy has been liberating and I think that’s the best part about not having to follow a certain a path and not conforming, and just going your own way.

Back then, did you wish you could take the easy route and have a veteran chef teach you things?

Niki: I’m pretty sure the feeling was like, “I wish that I could, but I can’t.” It was a feeling of, “I wish I could just train under some really amazing Japanese chef that would teach me all the secrets to what it takes to make Japanese cuisine so unique and so wonderful.” But knowing that it’s such a male-dominated industry, it’s not something that you can just write a letter to a chef and say, “Will you invite me or will you let me come.” That’s not an option, especially with Japanese culture.

When I think about most cultures in general, it seems like in the home, the mom really runs things. It’s strange that men dominate the cooking and restaurant industry. How did men get to run the kitchen?

Niki: I think it’s an idea within the culture that women lack the discipline to push themselves to this point where you can fully be devoted to perfecting an art. I think that’s unfortunate because there’s an idea that it’s okay for women to always play the supporting role and to always be the one helping a main person get to that, especially like a man’s point of success, but for her to challenge his success with her own success is really looked down upon.

Culturally, is that how it is in Japan?

Niki: Yeah I think it’s just embedded in the culture where it’s expected of women to not pursue a career after they get married and have children. And when I think about a lot of the work environments, there’s nothing to support a woman to say, “Hey, after you have a baby, you’re welcome to come back and work for us.” It’s like, “Oh, you’re done!”

What are all the different things that make a n/naka dining experience unique?

Niki: For a traditional dinner, it’s very rigid, there are ingredients we may not be able to incorporate or use or there’s always standards on how we should do things. We take those ideas and those standards, but we also elaborate on them. Our whole idea is to sort of showcase the ingredients that are closest to you. The things that are around in nature.

When we look at our California background, there are so many ingredients that are so new and so unique that you may not be able to find in the Japanese mountains or the Japanese valleys and rivers. So for us, we’re so excited to present ingredients that are of closest to us. For example, tomatillo, it’s not really a Japanese ingredient but we use it at our restaurant because it’s abundantly available, it’s local, there’s always a way to use something but still keep in mind all the ideas of what Japanese food is about.

Because at some point we realized it’s so ridiculous to try and recreate Japan in Los Angeles. For you to truly experience what that meal should be like, you have to be in Japan. You have to have those environments, that background, that whole feeling, it’s all encompassing experience and to try to recreate that here, it didn’t make sense for us.

What connection are you trying to make between Japan and Los Angeles?

Niki: I think the wonderful thing is while introducing the philosophy and ideas of a different culture to people who may not have necessarily experienced it firsthand; We’re trying to do our best to sort of bridge different ideas. I personally grew up in Los Angeles. I was born and raised here, so for me to call myself a traditionalist doesn’t make sense because I’m not. I have been influenced by other cultures along with my own, the ones that my parents have.

I think the wonderful thing about food is that it can translate and transcend so many different cultures. At the end of the day, the wonderful thing about food is its ability to nourish something. And when we are able to, the first thing we learn about a different culture a lot of times is food. So we’re able to bridge so many different cultures and bring a lot of people together by this very welcoming and very sharing experience. For me, when I cook for somebody, I feel like I’m giving our guests something very personal.

It’s like opening a dialogue of the things that maybe they have experienced and the things that I have experienced and bridging those things together. With artists like Kusama and the Infinity Room and “The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away” piece, I think it’s speaking of a universal language that we all want to connect, and want to find similar things, and yet still be respectful of the things that make us different.

Art is actually a big part of what you do—so much so that customers are often taking pictures of their plates before they eat their meals.

Niki: [Laughs] It’s just unfortunate sometimes when we try and send things at varying temperatures—because it’s like, “You have to eat this right now!” If that person is trying to capture the perfect angle, with every second that passes that product's just going down and down.

It won’t ever be able to be as good as when it first comes out. It’s an interesting perspective to think about.

Niki: It’s unfortunate because some soups are meant to be served really hot and the more time you let it sit...

I think people would care more if they knew that.

Niki: We’re fortunate to be at this place that dining and eating is something that people like to share in a way that it’s like, "Look what I get to experience!" It’s like how back in the day, when you went to concerts. People were excited to see you. It’s become that kind of entertainment. We’re lucky to benefit from it. At the same time, it’s a little bit of a double-edged sword.

What are you trying to accomplish when you're working with your ingredients?

Niki: There’s a huge amount of respect for the ingredients. It’s all about appreciation and gratitude. The first and foremost thing that we learn is that we must respect the ingredient, that it should be the first thing we consider when we’re putting dishes together.

Carole: In Japanese cooking tradition, respecting the ingredients means not inundating it with all these sauces and other flavors that might take away from the purity of the ingredient. It means really understanding what is the flavor of this ingredient. What are the best things about it that we as chefs can bring out and present to the guest in the best light.

Niki: It’s also constantly looking for how to remove the unwanted things about the ingredient in order to present all the best things about the ingredient.

Carole: Rather than creating a sauce to hide a bitter vegetable, it’s more about what kind of cooking methods and techniques can we apply to this base ingredient to extract some of that bitterness out so it’s natural sweetness will come through. It’s about really understanding something very deeply so that you can know the right steps to make it shine.


Interview by Brad Wete