Here’s a little trivia for you: Name this country. I’ll give you a couple hints. It’s slightly smaller than the state of California and more than 127 million people call it home. It’s also the place where PlayStation and gel pens were invented, and it boasts stunning mountains, parks and beaches, and has a wealth of historical landmarks and a welcoming culture. That’s right, the answer is Japan. Today, we’re talking specifically about Japanese cuisine, just one of the country’s many contributions that enhances our lives. Japan’s tourism slogan is “Endless Discovery,” so let’s delve in and discover a little more about this ancient and spectacular island nation.
WOMEN IN NUMBERS: As Many as 14
If you live in the States, chances are your knowledge of Japanese food doesn’t extend past Benihana and sushi. But don’t worry. We’ve got your back and are happy to provide a little insight into some of the intricacies of Japanese nibbles. In fact, these days, from Ann Arbor to Atlanta, you can find Japanese fare that goes way beyond dramatic shrimp tossing and California rolls. One particular traditional Japanese dining experience, called “kaiseki,” consists of a multitude of courses. And by that, I mean during one meal, kaiseki diners are served between seven and 14 meticulously prepared courses! Kaiseki is an elegant and prestigious experience, and with an emphasis on including top-quality local and seasonal food, this Japanese specialty has influenced chefs of every cuisine throughout the world.
WOMAN TO WATCH: Niki Nakayama, Chef and Owner of N/Naka Restaurant
The Japanese philosophy of highlighting the best local and seasonal ingredients can only be defined as a culinary art form. No one demonstrates this more fastidiously than Niki Nakayama, chef and owner of N/Naka, the preeminent kaiseki restaurant in Los Angeles.
Niki’s Los Angeles restaurant is a family affair, with her wife serving as partner and sous chef. And these ladies are nothing if not total advocates of kaiseki, noting that, at N/Naka, the whole of a meal is as important as the sum of its parts. Like a symphonic performance, N/Naka’s modern kaiseki menu features 13 consecutive courses, each demonstrating a natural progression—and plenty of unhurried technique and unrivaled beauty. There’s no doubt Niki’s food tells a story. If her dishes could talk, her seasonal ingredients would tell you where they came from, and oftentimes, it’s Niki’s own garden or from a foraging trip in, say, the mountains of the Angeles National Forest.
Niki, who’s originally from Los Angeles, began her culinary career under the tutelage of several renowned chefs, and later spent three years in Japan, immersing herself in the art of Japanese cuisine, both traditional and cutting-edge. Her first restaurant was entirely female-run, and her second eatery was touted as a gourmet Japanese take-out spot by day and an intimate chef’s table by night. At N/Naka, diners clamor for Niki’s cuisine, even though the waiting list for reservations is three months long.
As many female chefs can attest, a career in the culinary arts often comes served with a side of misogyny, and this is certainly true in Japanese cooking, especially kaiseki. In fact, Niki is one of the only female kaiseki masters in the world, and she says she’s experienced plenty of discrimination as a female chef. But this culinary maestro doesn’t let the dudes get her down. And if you want to get a glimpse of this master at work, check out the Netflix series Chef’s Table, featuring the one and only Niki.
QUITE THE QUOTE
Dione Lucas, the first female graduate of Le Cordon Bleu, said:
“The preparation of good food is merely another expression of art, one of the joys of civilized living.”
This is Melinda Garvey signing off until next time. Remember, ladies, empowered women empower other women. Share On the Dot so more women can have a voice. Thanks for getting ready with us.
Head shot photo and background image by Zen Sekizawa.