Chef Niki Nakayama began her career working at the renowned Takao restaurant in Brentwood, California. Determined to explore new techniques, Niki set out on a three year adventure, where she would work her way through Japan, whilst experiencing an eclectic mix of regional flavours. Immersed in the essentials of Japanese cuisine, Niki Nakayama opened her first restaurant upon returning to Los Angeles. Azami Sushi Cafe became an immediate LA staple, being recognised by LA Times and Zagat as well as earning Citysearch’s “Best of Sushi” distinction in 2006. Following this, Niki Nakayama progressed to her second venture, a gourmet Japanese take-out by day and a stunning eight course chef’s table by night. The restaurant allowed Niki to fulfil her passion for, as she states, ‘creating a thoughtful and cohesive series of dishes that provides a personal experience for each diner’. Now, Niki’s most recent restaurant, n/naka allows her to compile all of her ten year’s experience into her work. n/naka formed the subject of a whole episode of Chef’s Table, the popular Netflix TV show. This is where I first learned of Niki Nakayama, and her incredible ability. My girlfriend and I were captivated by her creativity and burning desire for perfection in her work – it was absolutely inspiring. I was very excited to have the chance to interview Niki, and seek further inspiration by learning of the books that have influenced her. Please enjoy my interview with the immensely talented chef Niki Nakayama.
When someone asks you ‘what do you do for a living?’ How do you respond?
I tell them that I cook for a living.
I have a tendency to read multiple books at the same time. I spend so much time working that reading books helps remind me that there is more to life. That said, I am reading a book called The Course of Love by Alain de Botton, The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, and the cookbook from Manresa: An Edible Reflection by David Kinch and Christine Muhlke I like to alternate between the books depending on the kind of day I’ve had.
When you think about your childhood, what book comes to mind?
I have two very important books from my childhood. The first one, Go Dog Go by PD Eastman and The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. Go Dog Go will always be the book I remember my mother by because she sat down to read it to me along with teaching me how to read. I still believe to this day that after learning from this book I was magically capable of reading every book in the first grade. The Giving Tree was also a very impactful book growing up because I remember feeling so sorry and sad for the tree because its love was never ending towards the little boy in the book. It was sad to me because it left me wondering if the boy understood how much he was loved.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
When I was young I wanted to be everything: a doctor, lawyer, journalist, secret agent, super hero, you name it. It was only in when I turned 12 that I thought I wanted to do music professionally (piano, guitar). I had that idea in my mind until I was 19 when I realized I didn’t have the discipline or patience to sit through hours of practice to be good enough. I decided then that I needed to focus on a real career and that’s the moment I started my path into culinary arts.
What do you think your school aged self would think of the present day you?
I think my school-aged self would be surprised at how disciplined I’ve become and perhaps a bit impressed that I’ve managed to stick to cooking for the past 20 years without giving up.
If you could wrap up a single book and gift it to yourself as you left education – which book would it be?
I would give myself The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho because when I think about my life and all the things I’ve experienced, I’m often amazed by the many things that turned out for the better because I listened to my heart.
Does your reading have routine?
I enjoy reading before I sleep and on my days off.
Is there a particular time or place that you like to read?
I love to read in the afternoon when there’s natural light coming through the windows while I sit on the sofa.
Which book has had the biggest impact on your career so far?
A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle because it made me aware of my ego.
Do you have any books that you strongly associate with someone important in your life?
I think there’s an important book for every stage of my life and that sometimes includes an important person, or just another stage of growth. At this very moment, The Course of Love by Alain de Botton is quite impactful because it makes me want to be a better partner to the person I love.
What book have you recommended the most to friends and family?
The Undefeated Mind by Alex Lickerman because it encourages the mindset that one can always turn any situation into something that is meaningful and helpful. I like the idea that nothing is ever really bad.
Do you prefer fiction or non-fiction?
I think it’s safe to say I like both equally; it depends what I’m in the mood for.
Do you think reading is important?
YES!!!! It helps keep me sane.
What’s the best book you’ve read in the last 6 months?
The Course of Love by Alain de Botton, I’m always referring to it when I talk to my friends.
Do you prefer real books or digital books?
I prefer to have real books when I buy books on cooking. I buy most other books through my digital reader but, if I happen to love the book a lot, I will find a hard copy to keep on the shelf.
Name a book that you feel every human should have to read by law.
What is the book that you feel has had the single biggest impact on your life?
This is a very hard question because although there have been impactful books in my life, they are also tied to very specific times in my life.
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert
Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Another Country by James Baldwin
What books or subject matter do you plan on reading in the next year?
I’m always looking for books that inspire me. Whether it be on how to be a better person or better chef, books that make me want to grow as a human being are always on my list.
If you were to write an autobiography – what would it be called?
I thought about this question for 20 minutes and could not come up with a single thing…maybe, I’m Taller Than I Look.