Even before I took my first bite of this delectable new picture book, I was in love. Just look at that cover! Yuko Jones’s appealing depiction of young Niki had me grinning and giddy with anticipation. I immediately wanted to know more about her. So much joy, spunk, and pride in that adorable face — I could just eat her up!
I was not familiar with Chef Niki before reading Niki Nakayama: A Chef’s Tale in 13 Bites by Jamie Michalak and Debbi Michiko Florence (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021). A pioneer of modern Japanese kaiseki cuisine, she founded the upscale Michelin two star restaurant n/naka in Los Angeles. In the decade since its opening in 2011, n/naka has risen to national prominence as the most celebrated kaiseki restaurant outside Japan.
This beautifully written, inspiring book shows how Nakayama defied expectations throughout her life, never giving up on her dream to chart her own destiny in a profession still dominated by men.
What is kaiseki? Considered the pinnacle of Japanese haute cuisine, it’s a traditional culinary art form consisting of an exquisitely presented multicourse meal prepared with locally sourced, seasonal ingredients. Courses follow a specific sequence balancing the taste, texture, appearance, and colors of food, thereby creating a singular story embodying the chef’s essence.
What makes the cuisine at n/naka unique is how Chef Niki has integrated her Japanese and American heritage and upbringing in Southern California within the template of traditional kaiseki. Just as her meals consist of 13 courses, Jamie and Debbi chose to tell her story in 13 scrumptious bites.
With the first bite, we learn about Niki’s family and the food she grew up with. Her parents were born in Japan, while Niki was born in the United States.
Sometimes, the two cultures felt very different. But in the kitchen, they became one.
Niki’s mother cooked American food with a Japanese twist. Like meatloaf with soy sauce, rice instead of potatoes, and, on Thanksgiving, teriyaki turkey.
We then learn Niki had been passionate about food since childhood. For her, cooking was about more than feeding people; it was about bringing people together. She loved planning and preparing holiday feasts with her grandmother.
As she grew older, she “hungered to create her own life story: “She liked to imagine . . . explore . . . and invent!” Creative and independent minded, she especially enjoyed making up her own recipes.
At age 12, she had to help out at the family business — a seafood warehouse for chefs. Her dislike of this work reinforced her conviction to do her own thing when she grew up.
Niki worked hard at school, but her parents were more focused on her older brother, whom they believed would be a big success because he was a boy. Though not having her parents believe in her potential made her feel defeated and dispirited (“kuyashii”), Niki vowed to prove them wrong.
After high school she traveled to Japan, where she had fun discovering Tokyo “one bite at a time.” From there she traveled north to visit her cousins’ peaceful mountainside ryokan (inn), where she experienced her first “meal of many courses,” something so incredible it made her want to tell stories with food too.
There, Niki was served a meal of many courses. One by one, the dishes flowed like a stream.
Each dish was a work of art. Each bite burst with flavor.
The tomato’s scent brought back memories of a long-ago picnic.
The corn soup tasted of a warm, lazy day.
Together, the courses told the story of the summer.
Niki learned this storytelling feast had a name: kaiseki.
Inspired, Niki wanted to tell stories with food, too.
When she returned to California she enrolled in cooking school despite her family’s discouragement. They assumed cooking was just a hobby for her, but more and more, Niki saw it as an art form.
While in school, she interned at a sushi restaurant. Female sushi chefs were rare and the head chef had his doubts about her. But Niki worked hard to show him she was serious, and he was impressed with her determination.
Soon she returned to Japan to study kaiseki at her cousins’ inn. She encountered many naysayers; after all, there was no such thing as a female kaiseki chef. This didn’t stop Niki in the least. She traveled around the country for three years, sampling regional flavors, learning new techniques, absorbing what each season had to offer in order “to tell nature’s stories through her cooking.”
Upon returning to Los Angeles, she convinced her family to give her a loan so she could open her own restaurant. They didn’t think she was ready but agreed to help her on the condition that if her restaurant failed, she’d drop the notion once and for all.
In her heart she longed to create kaiseki dishes, but she acquiesced to her mother’s suggestion to serve something more familiar: sushi. Niki wanted to make her family proud, so she worked hard to make her sushi restaurant a success. Azami Sushi Cafe was not only known for its food, but for having female sushi chefs.
But after awhile, Niki grew tired of making sushi night after night so she closed the restaurant. What could she do next?
Slowly, she began to “imagine . . . and explore . . . and invent!” just as she did when she was little. She knew what she wanted to do; it had been her dream all along.
Niki would serve kaiseki, but she’d do it her way. She’d make it Japanese and Californian — just like her. At last, Niki’s food would shout, “This is who I am!”
It would be a huge challenge, but Niki was determined more than ever to “show them.”
She called her new restaurant n/naka. Her dishes were “art and story — her story.”
Word spread quickly about Chef Niki’s incomparable California-style kaiseki — “storytelling food” that made people happy and brought them together. With fresh caught fish, garden vegetables and edible flowers, guests appreciated the flow of “tastes and textures” that reminded them “to enjoy their present time and place.”
Niki had proven all her naysayers wrong. Not only could a woman become a master chef, she could become what is likely the world’s only female kaiseki chef.
Debut illustrator Yuko Jones brings a lot of flavorful energy and childlike charm to Jamie and Debbi’s informative and engaging narrative. Just as a lovingly prepared kaiseki meal flows with variety, balance and grace, Yuko’s delightful double page spreads are truly a feast for the eyes with their ebullient colors and textures, rich detail, variances in scale and perspective, and brilliant use of insets.
It was Niki’s face on the cover that drew me in, and throughout the story I continued to read the characters’ faces and body language — so emotive with stories of their own.
From the opening spread showing Niki serenely working in her kitchen, to her unadulterated bliss as she hugs her grandmother, to her disgust while holding a dead-eyed fish, to her sadness when she’s ignored by her parents as they fawn all over her brother, it all felt so real that I was immediately invested and continued to root for Niki till the end.
The map of Niki’s travels in Japan, complete with adorable insets of Niki eating octopus balls, ramen, and mochi (my favorite!) and the bullet train tracks moving across the page, is simply fabulous. And how I love Bite 6, showing Niki’s first kaiseki experience — those luscious dishes, the flow of tablecloth to ocean waves, which appear in several more spreads, gradually making their way to the back endpapers.
Kids will definitely be inspired by Niki’s perseverance and ‘can do’ attitude. Her story will remind them of how important it is to believe in yourself and never give up on your dreams.
Especially interesting is the concept of food as an art form; though Japanese cuisine in general is characterized by aesthetic presentation, kaiseki takes this to a new level.
The book will likely spark lively discussions about gender bias and cultural mores. I can certainly identify with the Asian partiality towards boys and the different set of expectations and “rules” imposed upon girls, however subconscious or subtle they may be.
Backmatter includes an illustrated timeline of Nakayama’s life, notes about Kuyashii and Kaiseki, and a recipe for Wonton Pizza.
Hungry yet? 🙂
Nom, Nom, Nom
Naturally, after reading this story, everyone in the Alphabet Soup kitchen was ravenous. The resident chefs, who are now big Niki Nakayama fans, were happy to see that a recipe was included in the back of the book for them to try.
In Bite 3 of the book, we learn that when Niki was little, she made mini pizzas using wonton wrappers, jarred pasta sauce and cheese. Pretty inventive, we say!
The bear chefs made quick work of it — because it’s a simple recipe yielding maximum payoff. Wanting to emulate Niki’s inventiveness (and because it was a little tricky folding the wonton edges with paws), they made a second batch using a muffin tin. They also added bits of pepperoni and enjoyed their wonton pizzas warm while the cheese was still melty. Yum!!
Enjoy this cute video of Debbi and Jamie making wonton pizzas:
NIKI NAKAYAMA: A Chef’s Tale in 13 Bites
written by Jamie Michalak and Debbi Michiko Florence
illustrated by Yuko Jones
book design by Aram Kim
published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux BYR, September 2021
Picture Book Biography for ages 4-8, 40 pp.
**Starred Reviews ** from Publishers Weekly and Booklist
***A Junior Library Guild Gold Selection
♥️ Check out this interview with Jamie and Debbi at Fuse 8’s SLJ blog for backstory about the book.
♥️ Jamie and Debbi present a “recipe” for achieving their writing dreams in this Nerdy Book Club post.
♥️ Don’t miss the fabulous Activity Kit for educators, librarians and home schoolers at Curious City!
♥️ Enjoy this video of Chef Niki discussing kaiseki with a plating demonstration:
🍣🍙 SPECIAL BOOK GIVEAWAY! 🍡🍱
The publisher is generously offering a copy of the book for one lucky Alphabet Soup reader. For a chance to win, please leave a comment at this post no later than midnight (EDT) Tuesday, October 12, 2021. You may also enter by sending an email with NIKI in the subject line to: readermail (at) jamakimrattigan (dot) com. Giveaway open to residents of the U.S. only, please. Good luck!
*Interior spreads text copyright © 2021 Jamie Michalak and Debbi Michiko Florence, illustrations © 2021 Yuko Jones, published by FSG BYR. All rights reserved.
**This post contains Amazon and Bookshop affiliate links. When you purchase an item using either link, Jama’s Alphabet Soup receives a small referral fee at no additional cost to you. Thank you!
***Copyright © 2021 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.