Previous Orange Tuesday subject Cathy Vaughn mentioned she was watching Chef’s Table on Netflix, and she was blown away by Chef Niki Nakayama. Stratoz and I added Chef’s Table to the queue, and witnessed the artistry of Niki Nakayama’s food, and learned a new word, kaiseki. Kaiseki is a 13 course meal that originated in Buddhist Monasteries of 16th Century Japan. It was an accompaniment to the tea ceremony, and originally vegetarian, but has become a banquet of richness over the years.
Seasonality is a key to kaiseki, and respecting the integrity of the food, letting its nature shine through. These cherry tomatoes from the Lansdale Farmers Market remind me of the season of summer, of sweet yellow-orangeness. Stratoz is inspired by what we buy at the market, and it makes him happy to create with the palette of vegetables we choose.
The staff of n/naka have meetings to go through the reservation list, and look at what people have had in the past, what they like. Niki Nakayama doesn’t serve the same meal twice to someone. She keeps the element of surprise. Kaiseki reminds me of poetic forms, from my days of writing poetry. There is a sequence of cooking techniques, the ordering of raw, steamed, braised or grilled, and sequence of light and heavy, sweet and salty. Playing within this form inspires further creativity.
Watching Niki Nakayama in her kitchen is watching an artist at work in the studio with focus and expressiveness. She closes the rice paper windows of her restaurant n/naka while she is cooking so that she can simply cook and not deal with customers who can’t believe a woman is the chef, and also lets the customers focus on their food. As an introvert, I love the motion of her closing those sliding windows. As a woman, I feel anger that narratives are such rigid implements, like the customer who said her work was “cute” after he found out Nakayama’s gender. As a woman, I feel encouraged by Niki Nakayama’s process of choosing a restaurant that expresses her vision.