Social Media Handles:
Los Angeles, CA
Short Business Description:
Kaiseki dining experience prepared by chef Niki Nakayama.
When we arrived at Niki Nakayama’s namesake restaurant, n/naka, the chef and her team were unloading a 37 lb tuna, breaking it down themselves, and preparing the kitchen for that night’s service. The whole environment was so authentic and unpretentious that we quickly forgot n/naka is one of the city’s most sought-after dining experiences. Niki Nakayama is one of the few women in the restaurant business, one of the fewer women in Japanese cuisine, and perhaps the world’s only female Kaiseki chef. (Kaiseki is a multicourse Japanese meal with deep roots in the Buddhist experience.) In short, she is a bad-ass. She is also extremely hesitant to draw attention to the fact that she is the one preparing the food, preferring to let the food speak for itself. But at Above the Glass, if we see a trailblazing woman, rarely will we let them keep their story to themselves. We were fortunate enough to hear from Niki on how she became the darling of the LA food scene, a woman in a man’s world, and how she manages to keep her focus on a life of purpose despite all of her success.
Before opening n/naka, what did you do?
Right when I wrapped up my sushi restaurant on Melrose, my sister dragged me into a new project with her in Arcadia (where we all lived), that was a Japanese deli by day and I did pop up dinners at night.
Can you tell us more about your restaurants philosophy and cooking principles?
At n/naka, we do a type of Japanese cuisine called kaiseki. It is the most formal way of dining in Japanese cuisine. What I love most about kaiseki is that it is all about gratitude. It is a way to show appreciation for nature and all that it has to offer. I love it because it is cooking in a way that appreciates ingredients and doing our best to make them “shine.”
Did you have any formal business training before launching?
I did not have any kind of formal business training before launching but I was fortunate enough to grow up in an environment with parents that owned and operated their own businesses. My mom taught me book keeping and my dad made me do collections in junior high school. I also did tons of filing which gave me tons of paper cuts and I swore I’d never do office work. At least now when I cut myself, it feels a bit more heroic.
What was your biggest fear before launching a business?
My biggest fear before launching my first business was failing. So I had to honestly assess how much I was truly willing to do and how far I was willing to go to make sure that it didn’t happen.
Your Glass Ceiling Turning Point
Was there any specific moments that led you to launch a business?
When I opened my first restaurant, I was nowhere near ready in terms of my skills, my knowledge, my understanding of the responsibilities. I was also blindly gutsy and I wanted to create an environment where I could learn on my own and at my own pace without being judged by anyone but the people I was serving.
You are a very successful woman working in very male dominated industry, has that affected how you do business?
I’ve never consciously thought about how I do business differently than men, but I have always been aware of how I’d do it differently from the other people I know, in my case those people happen to be men.
How did you get the courage to make the jump into entrepreneurship?
I think it was because I was young and had blind faith as well as having a strong sense of determination and stubbornness.
Is there anyone in particular who influenced your journey?
I have been influenced by a multitude of people at every stage of my life. When I think back, I have had mentors supported me along with people who have doubted me. Every one of them has influenced my journey because they all had something important for me to learn from.
The Business of Your Business
How did you finance your business?
I was fortunate enough to have my family help me financially at my first restaurant. From there, I worked really hard to pay them back and eventually saved enough for myself to continue on my own and finance my dream project.
Do you have any business partners? What do they do?
My only business partner is my wife Carole (Iida-Nakayama), who’s also the sous chef at n/naka.
What were the first steps you took when you decided to open the restaurant?
I’d like to refer to n/naka for this question. The first step I took when deciding to open this restaurant was finding the perfect location.
What obstacles have you face that you were most surprised by?
Learning how people perceive you will affect your level of success.
What are the long-term goals for your company?
To do more things that contribute to making the world a better place. Carole and I hope to utilize our abilities to contribute more to society and to our planet.
Where do you find inspiration?
I feel like inspiration finds me. I have to do my part by reading, studying, and learning everywhere and anywhere I can, and when I’ve done enough to deserve something amazing, inspiration comes along and I just do my best to catch up.
Where do you like to eat when you go out in LA?
One of my favorite places to eat at is Seoul Garden near Korea Town. They have an excellent Shabu Shabu that’s really satisfying on so many levels.
What books or magazines are on your nightstand?
I have way too many cookbooks by my nightstand, and even more books in my kindle that span many topics. Mostly, I like reading things that motivate me to try harder.
Which apps do you use the most and why?
I use google maps because I’m always going somewhere, and audible because I need something to listen to while I’m trying to get there.
Favorite books about business:
Thinking Fast and Slow, Flow, Contagious, The Undefeated Mind
Sources for news:
New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal for business news.
Are you part of any professional networks?
WCR (women chefs and restaurateurs)
What do you do to stay sane?
I love to run, bike, swim, play guitar, watch shows on Netflix and HBO
Do you have any health tricks?
Korean Spa, it’s the closest thing to a Japanese Hot Spring in Los Angeles.
What is the best thing about running your own business?
The best thing about running my own business is that I am able to stay true to my beliefs and my vision of how I’d like the business to be.
The most difficult?
The responsibilities don’t end when I leave work and the obligations are more intense as an owner.
What are you most proud of?
I am incredibly proud to be surrounded by a team of incredibly kind and caring people who genuinely care about our guests and their experience. I feel an incredible amount of support from everyone around me.
What do you wish you had known before you started your own business?
I’m not really sure, but I know that patience and persistence makes up for a lot of frustration when dealing with things that are unknown.
At what point did you think, “I made it”?
I’m still trying to make it.
What advice would you give to people who are just starting out in business?
The best I advice I can offer is, before starting a business, having a solid vision of what you want that business to be will help guide you in the right place. It’s also very important to know your own strengths and weaknesses.
Photography by: Katrina Dickson