I am a musician. I have been my whole life. I have played in venues across the country and abroad. I have played classical, jazz, rock, funk, fusion, you name it. The need for approval is great in creatives. The desire and quest to find and establish our own voice is what keeps artist coming back again and again. That is the true connection I have with this episodes focus.
Niki Nakayama is petite, frail looking, funny, and oh so captivating. Chefs so far in this series rely on their egos to drive not only them but their audiences into their restaurants day after day. They strive to be the loudest voice in the room. They puff their chests and they rattle their sabers. And yet, I am pretty sure that this eloquent, reserved, refined artist of a chef could outshine every single one of them.
She encapsulates the artistry that Massimo exhibits. She embodies the ideals of great ingredients like my much hated Mr. Barber. She also personifies the passion and desire for boldness that my beloved Francis Mallman lives by. The difference is that she does what she does for the audience’s approval. Every dish that she puts forth is for someone else to fall in love with. Each one tells a story and engrains a lasting experience. That is a true artist!
Niki’s need for approval goes back to her childhood, but then again, who’s doesn’t. She grew up in a strict Japanese family. The youngest sibling, she was constantly told that her older brother was to be respected and looked up to and that she would be lucky to be able to work with him someday. Her spirit would not be compressed into such a mold. She brings up a Japanese word, Kuyashii, a few times. Roughly it translates to a feeling of proving those around you wrong, and she does so, again and again.
Well, she seems to have screamed this word to the heavens on a daily basis. She was not going to let her families perception of her pending failures become reality. Even in a restaurant that was not her ideal, she was able to bring about a successful following. Luckily, she realized her unhappiness in success was due to the fact that she was fulfilling other peoples vision and not her own. She cut the chord and began her journey forward with her current restaurant, bowling over her family and her critics with her planet-sized kuyashii.
I feel that my connection to her, like with Mallman, comes from the desire to be heard for what is inside of us. Not for what others want us to play. A true artist will never hit their stride until they break from the traditions and teachings that made them the technical success that they are and risk everything to express the art that swirls around their souls.
For Niki, this comes in the form of her own version of Kaiseki or course meal. In Japanese traditions, this meal is built very simply and with the intention of expressing the pureness of the ingredients contained within each portion. When Niki presents her vision, the meal explodes with flavor, color, and a masters brush stroke. The dishes appear small in portion size, but take the eater on a journey and an experience that will stay with them forever.
Of the four chefs so far, Niki is my top choice for taking that bucket list trip, if only to experience one meal at her understated, cement block of a restaurant. Through the screen, the opus of flavors that she has composed rings in my mind with true artistic execution and sincere presentation.