For Niki Nakayama, the art of cooking all comes down to feeling. Always one to follow her intuition, Nakayama’s instincts guide her path as a chef, and it continues to be the driving force behind every dish she creates. At n/naka, her highly acclaimed, two Michelin-star restaurant in West Los Angeles, Nakayama secures her place among the foremost chefs in the world of modern kaiseki—a traditional Japanese dining discipline based in gratitude and appreciation that balances taste, texture, and presentation through a progression of dishes served in a meticulous, thoughtfully curated order.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, CA, Nakayama began her career at the popular Takao restaurant in Brentwood, following her graduation from culinary school in nearby Pasadena. After embarking on a three-year working tour of Japan immersing herself in the deeply nuanced methods and flavors of both traditional and contemporary Japanese cuisine, including the art of traditional kaiseki, Nakayama returned to her hometown to open Azami Sushi Café on Melrose Avenue.
After eight years—during which she became known for her omakase menu—the chef branched out to host elaborate chef’s table dinners that resulted in Nakayama’s modernized kaiseki dining experience, which has become the signature cuisine of n/naka. As Nakayama describes, “I was ready to put my name on something, ready to take that leap and challenge myself—and ready to take the traditional kaiseki philosophy and make it my own.”
Today, n/naka serves as a global destination for modern kaiseki with a California twist, at which Nakayama serves world-class, artfully curated, and exquisite dishes in a progression designed to reflect the mood of season, time, and place. One of the toughest reservations to get in LA, n/naka’s books typically fill up three months out, a testament to Nakayama’s resonance in the international culinary world. Critics also take note—the restaurant has appeared on the Los Angeles Times’ “101 Best Restaurants” every year since opening in 2013, and continues to catch the attention of media including T Magazine (The New York Times), Food & Wine, Conde Nast Traveler, Eater, Vogue.com, and many more.
Nakayama is also a James Beard Foundation Award finalist in the category of Outstanding Chef this year (2023). Nakayama’s devotion to sustainability also plays out at n/naka, with currently 70% of its ingredients sourced locally—a rarity in Japanese fine dining. At 2017’s Food on Edge symposium in Galway, Ireland, she explained how the pillars of kaiseki, to integrate your surroundings into the cuisine, find harmony with these sustainability initiatives. For Nakayama, the kaiseki philosophy allows her to show a deep appreciation for the beauty of nature, with the purpose of, “highlighting natural flavors, presenting them in their purest way without over-complication, and serving them how they were meant to be in their peak season.”
In March 2021 during the pandemic, Niki and her business partner and wife, Carole Iida-Nakayama, launched n/soto in the West Adams neighborhood of Los Angeles as a takeout only restaurant focusing on bento. It opened its doors in April 2022 as an izakaya-inspired Japanese restaurant. Translating to “outside” in Japanese, “soto” refers both to the pandemic during which the restaurant was born that closed people off from the outside world, as well as the menu’s exploration of Japanese cuisine as interpreted throughout Los Angeles.
Outside of the restaurant, the chef can be found at her Los Angeles home spending time with her wife and pets. One of her favorite pastimes, playing guitar, “allows for decompression,” she says, when she steps away from the kitchen.