Chef Niki Nakayama
From the Elliot Time Studios. This is Asian each week on this. Podcast WE TALK to one Asian American celebrity about the joys the complications and everything else that comes along with being Asian American. I'm Frank Sean. And I'm GENU MOTTO THIS WEEK ON EPISODE. Eight of our podcast. We're joined by CHEF Nikki Nakayama. She's the owner of the Michelin starred. End NOCCO a restaurant here in La that you might have on. The netflix show chefs table and on the dream. Dining list to foodies everywhere. Nikki is a native Angelino world renowned for her. California takes on the traditional multi. Course Japanese becky meal. Nikki talked about her first visit Japan and the crazy things that people try to do to get a table on her restaurant. You'll also talk about the unique experience of growing up in an asian-american enclave Gabriel cheerleaders. Y- Jackson you see growing up on my high school does not look like this. We talked to Nikki before California. Governor Gavin newsom required that all restaurants halt in house dining due to the corona virus since then nicky and her crew have been making beautiful Bento and Juba. Go boxes that you can pick up at end. Neca full of delectable by the dishes like grilled me so black cod braised. Abalone steered US Salad Macho white chocolate cake. Yeah I was already kind of obsessed with Bento boxes in this. One just looks amazing. I'm drilling at the thought of it as we speak. But birth onto our conversation with the chef Asia enough is presented by little America now streaming exclusively on Apple. Tv plus in the TV APP on all devices and TV APP supported devices. This advertiser has no influence over editorial decisions or content. Look around you it's wireless world and that means everyone needs a great pair of wireless ear buds but before you go dropping hundreds of dollars on a pair you need to check out the wireless ear buds from RECON. 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Recon WIRELESS EAR BUDS BY RECON DOT COM slash Asian. Enough now you and your namesake restaurant and Napa a have established some of the best reputations in the country for what you do you've got celebrities drooling over your food You've got big fans and people like Chrissy Teigen if people coming in from all over the world trying to eat your food hoping to your food and probably doing some some pretty inventive things to get one of those risk patients but we want to know what was your first food memory. My first food memory. One of my favorite things to eat is I just love rice and then not just rice but I love eggs in races so lake any kind of eggs generally. When I was growing up in Japanese food you can eat raw eggs but in the cat so we have to like a pan fry are boil it. But it's the idea of mixing that with the rice important slice sauce on it if there's nothing to eat eggs and rice was that you making that for yourself or is it somebody else making it for you. That was my grandma and my mom making for me and then when I got to do things at home because at cravings I got very creative creative with like found ingredients. Yes let one of my best things that I felt that I created when I was young so I was craving pizza. But we don't have pizza at home and it's not like you can make pizza. So I just got like the USA dumpling. Skin and I put regular spaghetti sauce on it. Cut The craft slices of Cheddar cheese and some ham and a toasted and I was like. Oh my God. It's pizza aided and then I gave it to my sister. She's like that's bad shirts pizza. Now you're like see it was cuisine. Yes see those creative. Your Mom's food like we ain't a lot of like Japanese style American food for example like Omelette race or rice. We eat a lot of Tom. Cut Su Eight Curry rise we just had a lot of things like that but we also eight really cleanly to eat a lot of like you know Japanese. They say oh she. It's just like boiled vegetables. Soya sauce or just very simply my parents. They started as seafood market and then they would always have fish and seafood at home and I remember growing up thinking. I hate seafood. Engages won't meet. Can we just have meat in there? Like no secret is good for you. Is that household like where you can get a lot of things. But you're like I just want something else. Yeah I definitely grew up eating all Chinese food right and then I grew up in the south and so I wanted to try crystal and white castle like what was that food that you couldn't get you wanted to get McDonald's back in the days. When I was growing up that was what was nearby. It was like I looked to the left. It's McDonald's I looked at the Rights Burger King Well I wanted to ask you basically about kiosque and your experiences going to Japan and learning to cook that as a southern California born and raised japanese-american but I How would you describe Kaseke. I have to tell people when it comes to Seki that. It's the most formal way of dining in Japanese cuisine. Because it's a very completely thought out meal. It's not just you know where you randomly pick things and put it together. It's a formalized meal where you really have to think up a thing greedy and you also have to think about the cooking methods that really highlights ingredient and it's about seasonality about representing the area that you're in what. I always say that the thing that I love most about is that it's really about showing gratitude toward nature like this feeling of really appreciating what nature has to give you and then giving back by doing the best things that you can do to ingredients to highlight them and make him shine like honoring essence. Yes I didn't realize how. How much of an outsider? I was until I actually went to live in Japan because I remember going up here and thinking. Oh you know one day when I I remember like around the age of twelve hours. I think I want to go to Japan to study. I WanNa live there and Experienced that kind of life just to what it's like so different from what would've known and I thought that would would be an amazing experience for me to do it and I always had planned it in my mind. That was going to go after high school and just sort of experience the lifestyle and there was only when I actually went there. Did I realize like Oh my gosh? I think I'm so much more American than I recognized when I lived in America. Because there's just so many things that are so different from our lifestyles and there's so many cultural nuances that if you're not familiar with you could come off as being offensive to people. I felt like I had a really good education about those nuances. But it's only when I went there that I realized oh I can't walk around and eat at the same time because that's not what you do and your pen like and then. I can't sit in the subway with my legs spread out because I'm so tired like I just have to sit there properly and behave yet and I think one of the most hardest things when it comes to trying to get into what I wanted to do with cooking was finding the right place to sort of accept what I wanted to do. Luckily I had relatives there that were willing to take me in and give me that training and things like that but I felt that there are a lot of differences but at the heart of things I always feel like I can relate so it's very difficult I think at one time I really wanted to be a part of the society but then after as I got to know it a little bit more deeply I just felt like I think the best thing is just be who you are and you came home. Yeah well what was it actually like growing up here? I think one of the things that was different growing up here is unlike how it is. Maybe now there weren't as many Asian people when I was growing up and I felt like I had one Japanese class main ahead. Maybe like three Korean classmates may be there to Chinese consummates but it just felt very on some level isolating at one point. I hadn't really thought about it. Wasn't like a big deal wasn't like. I felt the need sort of not belonging that I noticed that there are differences. Thought about being as an I guess or being seeing how different you're from everyone else. Yeah you know what I didn't really think about being Asian until I actually moved to this end. Gabriel valley and that was really an unique experience because the high school I went to had. Maybe it was probably seventy percent Asian. The thing that struck me was like this is not how imagine highschool leg where all the cheerleaders and jocks that you see going on. Tv's and my high school does not look like this and That was the thing that blew my mom. I'm from Tennessee. So that was the thing that blew my mind. The most of California's there's a majority Asian highschools I was like one of you know two or three and my high school Tennessee. You know coming out here like I'm like oh I'm Asian and then there's all these other Asian people it's like I need so she moved to Arcadian eighth grade now. We actually moved to Monterey Park Area Monitoring. Yeah there weren't as many Chinese as there are now but there are a good amount of Chinese people. I felt very lucky that I have classmates. That are still my friends today. So you grew up in this very diverse Plays like I'm from the bay area and I feel like I had a similar experience in that I wasn't the only Asian person in my high school. is very diverse. But it didn't really think about my asianise ill. I grew up especially after I moved to L. A. And I wonder what your experiences like in this very multicultural Los Angeles where you always interested in other foods as well or the what was it that ultimately brought you back to Japanese cuisine. Let's see that's a really interesting question I think growing up in. La You really do get a sense of the diversity and luckily also get to try a lot of kinds of cuisine. You're exposed to different cultures. I think what made me want to stay within? Japanese food was the one experience that I had when I went to Japan and I ate this like amazing Kostecki meal and it was like. Wow this is what food can be about because up until then a hen experienced food as a very personalized type of experience like you. You know we celebrate with family all the time and for me growing up. That's like one of the best things about holidays but to have it. Just be this amazing meal that unfolded itself kind of like finding little surprises in treasures throughout. That's what I WANNA do. Do you remember any of those bites are. Could you describe any of those? The first one of the things that I tried was I had never had such like that before it was just like. What is this thing? I I know these fish but it tastes very different than those like. No we have different slices for different things in Japan. And like you have sesame sauce you have a soy sauce for cooking soups. You ever so it was like all I knew kickathon wire but is it was a very very easily. Oh to think about food in those ways was a very eye opening experience for me. Do you think being like Japanese. American has been a barrier or like an access point two K Seki in Japanese culture. I feel like it has been both when I think about trying to get into traditional cooking I think originally when I said at the opening nocco there was this concept like oh I have to do what people understand Sakiz. I shouldn't put my own voice in it. I mean there. Is this thought in my mind like Oh. I didn't even think about veering from what is supposed to. Because that's what I experienced and then as time progressed and then my one visit to Japan after opening knock in two thousand fifteen it was like talking to other Japanese chefs about me. Know what it means to them. And everybody's just like well. You really have to represent the area that you're from knows I thought to myself like. How am I doing that? If I'm not really talking about California and I'm just bringing only Japanese ingredients then it hit me like I really need to tell a story about our my personal environment. Through Christ's sake. It all came together. I was like Oh my God. This makes so much sense. 'cause I used to get someone offended when people would come in and be like well. This is Kinda sexy but it's not like what we have in Japan because we're not in Japan run. You know like if we're like if you want to experience the the very real you should go to Japan Room. That is like showcasing Japan. I mean seriously like the weather is different areas different. You're not going to experience the same thing and then it just made sense to me that makes sense like I really need to have this place where it feels like. It's talking about California. But then these are the techniques that I know and this is the philosophy that I really believe in and then to sort of put it all together as interesting so you sort of define authenticity within Cossack as being less Japanese and flavors warning. May you are here. You Are Bay and I think you know growing up one of the things that I really appreciated about having different cultures in my life is like you know what the one thing that is really amazing is like Japan. Has this amazing culture. America has its amazing culture like but how lucky and might be able to pull from both things that I really like and believe in an into take in the not. Use the things that I don't believe so I think that is one of the best things that like being here in l. a. or just like being born in another country offers you have the ability to absorb other cultures and really really think about what you believe in and not have to be like follow either. Because that's all you know. Can you describe an example of a dish that illustrates exactly that that concept so one of the things that we have on the menu that I really really like? It's using a California rock fish that we marinade in soya sauce and then we grill. Japanese-style been Japan and then we smoke it with a California rabbit tobacco. This is a very Japanese method but the flavor is also Japanese. But then we're using a California fish and then where using California herbs to dress it up a little bit more as fascinating I think. Initially it was a hard thing to try to convey to people who are accustomed to having having a belief of what Kayak is. But I do believe at this point that people come in not expecting what they would get in Japan and I think the more open minded they are when they come in to just experience what we're doing for what it is the more they're able to enjoy it and luckily. I feel like at this point. People do that when they come in. They're not coming in trying to distinguish how we're not Japanese. One thing I really love about about is even the name and knock and the and the stylistic the the form of it is very declarative and it's bold and I think it does no way like set the tone for this is your voice and Within these walls. That's what you're about to experience but was it hard for you to put your name. This is funny because I was like. I've been cooking for so long and I've been dreaming about opening like a very personal restaurant like my restaurant and I thought immune put my knee morning. I knew it was really egotistical on one level but I also feel like it's sort of a thing where like if I feel I'm going to go down in flames and it'll be great you know think. I'M GONNA put that on myself like look you WanNa put your name on there. You better be ready. That was the mindset so I wanted to ask you about how you think about authenticity. In general for Asian American cuisines and Asian cuisines like people have an expectation of authenticity. That's that's greater and so everyone who makes it and eats. It is kind of subject to the station. So yeah how do you think about authenticity? I think authenticity really comes from a deep understanding of what you're trying to convey the reason I feel like on some levels. I can somewhat alters. Some of the things that I do in Japanese cuisine is because I feel like my understanding of it is good enough that it allows me that freedom. It's only when you only skim the surface of something of another cuisine. And you try to put it in your own without deeply understanding the background to it that it feels inauthentic late. Sometimes when I've had a dish where the chef has combined a little bit of Chinese a little bit of Japanese a little bit of Korean liberal southeast southeast cuisine and then put it all together and then I understand that that's what they may have experienced growing up or eating some things but there's like a little bit of misunderstanding of or respect to those cultures by combining it altogether without having it be a very deep understanding of why those dishes tastes. They taste right. You can innovate but has it. Come from a place of knowledge right right right. So what did it feel like for you when and knock a really took off months in advance people have to wait On their computer to make your reservation I when my friends who will go unnamed told me that he pleaded with you or he sent like a very earnest. Email begging for a spot For his birthday. And you were gracious enough to grant it to him. And then he had the best meal of his life. That's amazing of like cringing as I hear this like oh no. I hope we didn't disappoint you. Know what the funny thing is when Jonathan Gold came in and wrote his piece and I saw it without knowing that I was going to see it I saw and I was like. Oh my God this is i. I think it's pretty good the nose like after it was Saturday that came out. 'cause back the news came out on Saturday in those like maybe I should just cut the heart or go out and peace it over my bed over them and then because. Oc hanging over my head thinking like and then it's just kind of like this. This feeling like Oh my God. I don't know if this is part of being Asian or just being female and being Asian but anytime something good does happen. There's this feeling Lake Wall. This is great that people are seeing all these great things about you. But then there's this other half of it where he was like. Well you have to live up to the height. You can't just be like. Oh I got this great thing and like smooth sailing. It's like no that means we have to try harder. Yeah that's so hard like why can't it just be like I got this recognition? I'm awesome? What's the craziest things done to try to get a reservation up here? The craziest thing. Somebody's done is think. They came to the back door of a restaurant and try to talk to Jeffrey. Who who like oversees a lot of the reservations and heels like hey what can I do to get a reservation and Jeffrey's like oh I'm so sorry we're booked today. We don't have spaces like when if I had used the money or and then just like no we don't have space in the U drive. My car I feel very honored that people feel that and it's really nice when people are so genuine. Lean wanting to come to eat and I hope that It just makes me feel like you know when they make such an effort that we really have to our best to sort of make. 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High school students life is changed by an urban squash coach. Apple. Tv plus is available on the Apple TV APP on iphone IPAD ipod touch Mac Slick Samsung and LG smart. Tv's Amazon Fire TV and roku devices as well as at TV DOT APPLE DOT COM for four ninety nine per month with a seven day free trial customers who purchased the new iphone ipad Apple TV MAC or ipod touch can enjoy one year of Apple. Tv PLUS FOR FREE GET APPLE TV plus and stream all of little America today. Okay let's talk about always be my. Maybe it's a ROM com which came out last year starring Ali Wong and Randall Park Alley. Plays a chef and Marcus has abandoned lives with his dad in San Francisco and in high school. They hooked up but when the movie starts alien. Marcus haven't seen each other in a while and Keanu reeves is the guy that aaliyah's dating so the filmmakers hired Nikki Nakayama to consult on the film so they could get Allie chef character right. Yes as the food consultant for it. Allie had reached out to me by email and asked she was telling me about this great project. She's doing the movie and wanted to know if I would help. Put the food together for it. So I was tasked with creating the visual foodwise or the menus for the restaurants that she had which were the ones in Los Angeles San Francisco and then she wanted me to come up with the food for the scene. The scene the there's this amazing scene which Kiana Reeves is on a double date with Randall. Anneli how do I put this? It is D- most hilarious and painfully feeling spot on. I don't know kind of like a pretentious haute cuisine where there's a scene or Keno is is served a dish and he's given headphones to listen to the whaling the anguish wailing of the animal. He's about to and he. He weeps as he has used his food. Charles see you again Mr Review to May I ask. Do you have any dishes? That claim with the CONS TIME. Yes we have meat course of Venison Sous vide comes with headphone so you can hear the sound of the exact animal you're about to consume illustrating nature's life to that cycle and of course everything you see on the table tonight is edible so as the no not the Napkins. Don't eat the NAPKIN. Marcus migrants and lettuce isn't capsulated and served dehydrated seaweed and dried fish lakes. Sorry fish food fish flakes right which is fish food. We lightly skill the body of the fishes. It swims collecting the particles. It sheds into the ocean. Oh got it so. Vich dandruff clear asparagus soup extracted with the centrifuge. The all black monochrome course the flavor of Caesar Setting. Yeah Keanu absolutely kills this see. Where did that kind of inspiration? Come from this scene for you. I think there is a lot of research on my end on what was happening in the fine dining world and there is this part of me that was like well. There's some things that can be very artistic and very artful and really create an amazing experience and at the opposite end of that based on your perspective it could be like totally crazy Like when done properly con- conceptual dining is fantastic. It's inspiring and then when done poorly can be kind of a joke and then I thought well I'm in the fine. Dining world knows looking for the right things to say via food and if we can't laugh at ourselves on some level than we're taking ourselves a little bit too serious. Did you hear from anybody after wondered if that was their headphone venison off of the menu? After this summer so I could also totally see somebody basically replicating that restaurant in doing well. Food is a big theme in Asian American films and I just wondered. If you had any like favorite film MIC food moments asian-american. Otherwise in some films will definitely eat drink. Man Woman and Like water for chocolate. Remember watching that when we're in culinary school and that makes so much sense like if you cried into food it could translate like in some films will definitely the emotions that you put into what you're making could possibly translate into live with that kind of idea when you're cooking is kind of a reminder to yourself while we're on the topic of art outside of food. There is a point in time in your life when you wanted to be a musician and you're like a singer songwriter. Sort of what kind of songs did you write? What did you write songs about? Then this is like my senior year in high school in the year afterwards. And you know when you're that age all you care about is relationships and how you can get one or if you're one that is not really the one that's right for you so a lot of like Immi- youth thinking that there are deep. I was a huge fan of Tori Amos. Oh yeah yeah so. I really liked her music. And I also thought that head I not chosen this career it would have been awesome if I could just do scoring you know because I love how music plays a part mean like enhances the visual of something. There's a a a memory wanted to share. Which is growing up. One of my earliest sense. Memories is the taste of my grandmothers both their cooking and for years as I got older. I would treasure absolutely treasure. This jar of pickled Mabuchi that my grandma made at home. She just had these like jars of bushy in her like basement. I appreciate. It doesn't ever expire because the last decade. But you know that's one of those flavors that carries so much feeling for me you're already sort of described one of your favorite childhood meals. But do you have flavors that you feel like just exists within you? Yes I feel like for me I would have to be. Does she like Suk? Because my grandma made amazing I just remember being little and just be like the soup is so good and there's like all these things in it I mean they're like I remember. She just made some Dashi Broth with some vegetables and it was like the most amazing thing that I ever had. Nfl Lake in Japanese cuisine. Just soup is just one of the most heartwarming and satisfying courses that you can have and Doshi to explain. It is made out of Dashi. The most popular ways made out of Khumbu and dried bonito flakes. And that's the kind of thing where you can go to like a Japanese market and see dried Dashi base rate in a jar but it may never ever taste exactly. Your grandma made it right. Yeah I was curious When you and Carol Got Married Carol either. How did you guys meet by the way we met online? That's cool crazy because Carol actually lived in the same neighborhood as I did. We didn't know this when we first met. Charismatic had a restaurant in Arcadia. That was a Sushi restaurant and we go as a family. All the time and I always rebel the fact that actually knew. Carol's mom before I knew hurt. That's like you. Actually you remember yes mom that also means that that you like tasted her family's Cook Offs Beautiful. Yes your parents get along. I think really good. I mean it's very formal on some levels because my mom's really shy and then cares. Mom Is Kinda shy too and my mom was like a lot older now. She's not very social but they like each other. They're really nice to one another. Did your parents react? Okay when when you guys got together my mom yes. It's time for me to actually even tell her about who I really am by then as Dzhokhar like with Asian mothers. They're like Oh and you're like eighteen. Don't date twenty five. Don't date and then like thirty just like why are you dating. Go ahead and find somebody recommends. My Mom's still refers to them as your special friends to any like Me and my sister whenever we're dating she just so such a mom. Yeah Yeah but the thing about you and Carol as you also work together which is pretty unique. Yes yes and I think a lot of people wonder how we're able to navigate that because you know we spend so much time together. The good thing is when we're working. We have very different roles that we do at work. You know I make the menu and give her ideas on certain courses and then I just don't get involved unless she needs me to so in culinary relationship like this. Was there a period of time? The getting to know you time of cooking for each other and learning each other's like style. That's a good question for us. Not Really 'cause Kerley I've always had in my mind that she's just very capable person. I just trust her if I don't trust her and have her do her thing venedetto field. Like I'm micromanaging. Which I don't really do well anyways so I just sort of leave it up to her. I think she's more left with cleaning up my hers. So it's a good way it works and what kind of foods do you guys like to eat in Los Angeles. I have a few favorite places to eat. I really like Jack Story So we go to several places out in Torrance for your body One of them is Twenty hey frank writing and then I I just enjoy very simple things in. We also like hot pots. I think Korean pots are really delicious. There's one called so guarded and then we eat at home when we're cooking we just generally do Too It's really easy as cut the visual in third in it's now time for the segment. We Call Bad Asian confession in which we ask our guests about a time when they felt like a bad Asian or not Asian. Enough so Nikki. What's one of yours came my bad Asian confession to deal with eating through Japan? So that's pretty good though. Yeah so this is really. I had this wonderful trip. Who's three weeks and my goal was to eat my way through Japan and all the things that were traditional and really get a sense of what Japanese food is about so halfway through. I've been eating like kayaking. Meola one after another one after another and then halfway through God. I just want some cheese burger. It's like a you know. I love all these beautiful things about Japanese food. I love how subtle. It's so beautiful. It's clean but at this point. I just want a really nice grilled cheese sandwich and I felt like I was being really wrong. Thank you the secret to decide. Did you find a good grilled cheese sandwich? Did Not find a good grilled cheese sandwich but I was just really satisfied just to not eat pure Japanese hello listener. Do you have a bad Asian confession? You'd like to share with us. Call US at two one three nine six five six five two. That's two one three nine eight six five six five two. Maybe we'll even serve it up on the show. Get it because this is a food episode. You get it okay. That's it for episode. Eight of our podcast was an incredible honor to have chef. Nakayama on the show as in enough is hosted by me frank song and buy genuine motto. Our senior producers Rena politics are executive producers. Abby Swanson our engineers Mike Heflin. Our original music was composed by Andrew. Ethan and this podcast is dedicated to the memory of line on more and come back next week. We're talking to Jonathan Park Aka. The rapper and actor who goes by the name dumbfounded you know. I've always thought it was an advantage for me to be Asian and You know like you stand out the open mic. It'd be like a hundred two hundred black kids on the corner. And I'd be the one Asian Dude and I knew that like at least when I started rapping people are GonNa be like okay. What is he going to say like people curious? If you like Asian enough subscribe leave us a five star review on up special. Thanks to Juliet. Turner Geoff Berkshire Re Johnston Shelby. Grant and clinched off. We hope near enjoying this. Podcast created by the journalist at the L. A. Times RIGHT NOW. Access to facts has never been more importance and the Times is in the business of reporting them. Stay connected and subscribe because your subscription supports. The production of podcasts like this one and award winning journalism visit. La A. TIMES DOT COM SLASH SUPPORT LA times to subscribe. And remember. If you'RE GONNA go big put your name on it if I feel I'm GONNA go down in flames like it'll be great.