Edible Garden Profile: n/naka Chef Niki Nakayama’s Kaiseki-Inspired Garden

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-6Chef Niki Nakayama of n/naka grows roughly thirty percent of the produce on her menu in her backyard beds. Photo courtesy of Niki Nakayama

Chef Niki Nakyama is the chef and owner of n/naka, a West LA restaurant dedicated to the Japanese art of kaiseki. Blink, and you will miss the gray, concrete facade which sits quietly on a nondescript block of Overland Avenue in Palms, but once inside the experience is anything but forgettable.

Nakayama says her backyard garden serves as “one of the biggest influences” for her menu. “The garden is a wonderful reminder to me that nature will do what it wants,” she says, “and we have to do our best to showcase how amazing the whole process is.”

The goal of kaiseki is to highlight what is in peak season right this instant. At n/naka, a symphony of dishes puts nature on a pedestal; Nakayama allows each ingredient to shine, but adds just enough seasoning, and sometimes heat, to elevate each ingredient to it’s full potential. The delicate plating mimics a natural landscape, but one that might be found in a Lewis Carroll story.

Below Niki answers our questions about sourcing Japanese varietals, garnishing with vegetable flowers and the perfect eggplant.

How many beds do you have in your yard and who helps you maintain them? 

We have five raised beds altogether. Three of which are 12×4 feet, and two are 4×4. Although I do a daily maintenance, Dan Allen from Farmscape Gardens comes every week to maintain it, as well as educate me on how best to look after it.

At n/naka you focus on kaiseki style dining. How does your garden inform your menu?

Our garden serves as one of the biggest influences for our menu. Because what we grow is reflective of what is seasonal, it is natural to create menus that highlight an ingredient when it is at its peak.

peppers and eggplant
Shishitou Peppers and Kamo Nasu Eggplant. Photo courtesy of Niki Nakayama

What specific Japanese varietals do you grow that are hard to find in LA?

Currently, we have an eggplant called kyo-nasu that grows to the size of a tennis ball. It has an incredible meaty texture that goes perfectly with sweet miso. We also have momotaro tomatoes which are known for their sweetness and mild flavors that suggest peaches.

Where do you source your seeds?

Farmscape helps me source seeds through Kitazawa Seed Company up in Oakland. And every now and then we find something special at Japanese nurseries locally.

A “thimble-sized” cucumber growing in Nakayama’s backyard.

On your summer menu is the tiniest, cutest, slice of a cucumber that I have ever seen. In his review, Jonathan Gold described it as “thimble-sized.” What other baby fruits and vegetables can we expect to see in the fall, winter and spring?

For the coming seasons, we will definitely be featuring baby turnips, carrots of all colors, beets and many more varietals of edible flowers. We’ve also at times let some lettuces flower so that  they can be used as garnishes.

 Do you use the vegetable flowers to garnish your dishes? 

Yes, definitely! We’ve used arugula, chives, white and green onions, Napa cabbage, garlic, and shiso. The flowers are great in that some varieties have an incredibly concentrated flavor that even a small petal will add just the right amount of flavor to a dish.

-3An eggplant flower. Photo courtesy of Niki Nakayama

What are you planting now?

Currently, we are still in our summer crop season. We just harvested our latest baby corn crop. We have two different types of eggplants that are both Japanese. Shishitou peppers, along with a new pepper called fushimi. We have two different kinds of shiso leaves, one that is red and one that is green. Four different kinds of tomatoes. Japanese tasty queen cucumbers. And volunteer arugula that sprouted from last season, as well as a volunteer poha berry plant from two seasons ago.

strawberries and tomatoesPhoto courtesy of Niki Nakayama

Listen below to hear Evan Kleiman’s interview with Niki about kaiseki dining.