The female chef who makes Japan’s most elaborate cuisine her own

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When we were done eating, Nakayama came out to say hello. She is five feet tall and slender, with long black hair that she ties in a ponytail around the collar of her white chef’s jacket. Some chefs circle around and rejoice, but Nakayama emerges to greet one table at a time, for a brief exchange of gratitude before each diner leaves. As the staggered meals of the first round of n/naka were coming to an end, the Noren the curtains between the dining room and the kitchen flapped and flapped at the almost constant passage of the chef.

Nakayama and Iida live a mile from the restaurant, in a mid-century modern house they share with three rescue dogs and Iida’s mother, Mieko. Their house, like the restaurant, is sober but warm. For Nakayama, her greatest appeal was a hidden room in the basement where she could keep her records, electric piano, and guitar collection. As a teenager, her passion was music; she studied piano for a year after high school, then on a whim traveled to Japan, hoping to pursue a career as a singer-songwriter. After a few months in Tokyo, feeling aimless, she traveled to Niigata, a port city a few hundred miles north, and spent the summer working in the kitchen of a traditional restaurant. ryokan inn owned by one of his mother’s cousins. As many ryokanit served exquisite kaiseki meals to its guests.

One recent morning, as I sat with Nakayama and Iida at their sunny kitchen table over a breakfast of miso soup, rice, pickles and an onsen egg, Nakayama remembered his time working at the inn. When off duty, Nakayama is exuberant and discursive, a lively conversationalist who stretches her words with a hint of Valley Girl drawl. She described waking up to a plate of pickled vegetables. “Suddenly I was, like, Huh, I really like this little dish where I put food on it, and it looks like a little mountain!” she says. “I really like putting that last carrot on top so it looks alive!” She returned to Los Angeles to attend cooking school, then worked for a year in the back kitchen of an upscale Brentwood sushi bar. In 1997, she returned to Niigata, this time as an official apprentice of Masa Sato, the kaiseki chef at her family’s inn. She stayed for three years. “The education I received was not a matter of skills, it was a matter of taste,” she said. “I learned the taste of real Japanese cuisine. Japanese cuisine is not about trying to mix lots of flavors; it’s about the ability to season well, how to add the right amount of salt, at what temperature everything is served. It was the best education I could have received.

Nakayama hoped to open a kaiseki restaurant in LA Her family, who had agreed to provide funding, worried that kaiseki might be too exotic for LA diners and urged her to consider a more conventional restaurant. In 2000, she opened Azami Sushi Cafe, on a commercial strip near the neighborhood line between Hollywood and Fairfax. She tried to distinguish Azami from the city’s legion of similar restaurants, offering freshly grated wasabi and exceptional fish at good prices acquired from the family seafood business. But she found the work mind-numbing and harbored a disdain croissant for its customers’ taste for California rolls and spicy tuna tartare.

It also became increasingly clear to her that being a woman was a job responsibility. The traditional sushi world, like much of Japanese society, remains highly segregated by gender; women interested in becoming itamae struggled to find sushi masters willing to employ them. Women who enter Japanese gastronomy often end up leaving after a few years. Yubako Kamohara, the head chef at Tsurutokame, a women-run kaiseki restaurant in Tokyo that opened four years after n/naka, told me, through a translator, that the industry doesn’t was unwilling to “respond to women’s needs”.

Even in Japan, you are much more likely to see a non-Japanese man behind the sushi counter than a Japanese woman. Nakayama told me, “I’ve worked with male sushi chefs who had no sushi experience, who had just been sales people, and who just jumped into the sushi bar because they wanted a new career – and those people have a lot more respect than me. “Sushi chefs have concocted all sorts of pseudoscientific reasons why women don’t belong behind the counter. When Yoshikazu Ono, the son of famous Tokyo sushi chef Jiro Ono, was interrogated by the the wall street journalwhy there were no women featured in the documentary about his father, he explained that “because of the menstrual cycle, women have an imbalance in their tastes.”

Azami received rave reviews on local restaurant blogs, but Nakayama felt she was sometimes painted as a novelty for what the LAist website called her “girl-powered sushi.” One evening during dinner service, three men walked into the restaurant and stood just inside the door. Nakayama recalled, “They were obviously Japanese, obviously businessmen. They saw us”—Nakayama and his female sous chef—“and they paused. I remember they turned around and looked at each other and said, ‘Let’s go.’ And they left. And me being me, of course, in my mind there was a mental middle finger going up, “Don’t come back. But I kept this feeling with me: “That’s why people don’t take me seriously, because I’m a woman. ”

Nakayama sold Azami in 2008 and made a down payment on the n/naka space. She rented the building to another company for a year and spent two years after that renovating it. During that time, she worked as a chef at a grocery store owned by her sister in Arcadia, the Los Angeles suburb where they grew up. In the evenings, Nakayama transformed the small storefront into the San Gabriel Valley’s most unlikely hot ticket — a “secret Japanese chef’s table,” Chowhound wrote — cooking eight-course meals for a handful of patrons a night. . Most of them had heard of the diners by word of mouth, and few knew anything about the chef. Nakayama began to look forward to the time when she would come out of the closed kitchen to thank the guests for coming and see the look of surprise on their faces.

Nakayama’s original plans for n/naka called for an open counter between the kitchen and the dining room, like in many Japanese restaurants, where a few lucky diners could sit down and be served, kappo style, straight from the hands of Nakayama. When the health department rejected the plan, she installed a pair of traditional shoji screens, mounted on sliding rails, which she keeps closed while on duty. “The more I thought about it, the more I realized it was better for people not to be able to see me,” she said. “I’m probably not aggressive enough to say, Hey look, this is who I am, this is what I do, this is me, me, me.” She continued, “If you don’t look at us, we’re allowed to be who we are, and what we do comes across a lot easier.”

The evening after my meal at n/naka, I joined Nakayama and Iida for dinner at Matsuhisa Restaurant in Beverly Hills, where, three decades ago, Nobu Matsuhisa became a sushi superstar. Neither woman had ever eaten there, even though the place held an important place in Iida’s family history. In the 1980s, his father, the chef of a sushi counter in Arcadia, opened a second restaurant, where Matsuhisa now occupies. The expansion, she said, was “this stereotypical story of the chef who wants to make a big name for himself.” Iida’s mother was impatient with the company, which was far from home. “Being here is a bit tricky for me,” Iida said, as the three of us sat at Matsuhisa’s 2-meter-long sushi bar, adding, “I’ve never seen the place that caused these problems.” Her father stubbornly held on for years; eventually he sold his lease to Matsuhisa and Iida’s parents divorced.

When Matsuhisa opened in 1987, its Japanese fusion caused a stir among the Hollywood elite. Robert De Niro was so captivated that he convinced the chef to partner with him in a new venture, which became the Nobu Empire. Even on a Sunday evening when we visited, Matsuhisa was packed with people. We were at the back of the counter: my shoulder was pressed against a wall, and Iida continued to be jostled by the animated gesticulations of a large man on her right. Nakayama, in the middle, kept his chair back to carve out some space. A platoon of sushi chefs, all men dressed in white, sliced ​​sashimi and rolled maki in front of us.

Iida ordered in Japanese from one of the chefs, a few pieces of tai (black sea bream) nigiri and a roll of salmon skin. Nakayama and I each had the omakase, which went down like a hit list of the soy and sweet dishes that made Matsuhisa’s name, including the jalapeño hamachi and the iconic slice of glazed black cod. with miso.

Iida told me that the first time she visited Nakayama’s house, she noticed a series of Post-its taped to the walls of her office. Each had the same message: “n/naka”, followed by four hand-drawn stars. The restaurant, then a few months old, had yet to receive any reviews. Nakayama described the notes as a promise to herself, and also as a trial: a way for her to feel comfortable with the recognition she hoped was on the way.

Nakayama draws a distinction between success and fame. She speaks warily of culinary stardom. At Matsuhisa, when I asked her for her professional opinion on our meal, she was studiously polite. “Nobu-san has been doing this for so long, and it’s so admirable of him to bring out this whole vision of Japanese cuisine,” she said. “There isn’t a single restaurant that doesn’t try to copy it. And it’s so popular, and it’s been so long since he’s done it, that…” She gestured to the black garlic kiwi scallop sashimi in front of us. “It’s not, like, ‘Wow!’ I mean, it’s ‘wow’, but it’s not’wow.’ ”

A waiter brought in flutes of Nobu champagne, a house-brand brut grand cru. “Nobu has champagne!” Nakayama cried. “Oh my God, Carole, we’re so late!”

Nakayama has told me several times that she’s had enough of talking about the experience of being a female chef, but she often brings up the subject. As she and Iida drove me back to my hotel after dinner, they chatted about their friend Dominique Crenn, the acclaimed San Francisco chef who last year became the first woman in America to earn the full three-star rating. Michelin for his restaurant, Atelier Crenn. Crenn writes the menus in the form of poems, each line corresponding to a dish. Both Crenn’s style and that of the n/naka have been described as “feminine”, which Nakayama finds absurd.

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