Niki Nakayama: A Chef’s Tale in 13 Bites, by Jamie Michalak & Debbi Michiko Florence/Illustrated by Yuko Jones, (Sept. 2021, Farrar, Straus & Giroux), $18.99, ISBN: 9780374313876
Niki Nakayama, the master chef behind the California restaurant n/Naka, shares her story in this lovely picture book biography from children’s book authors Jamie Michalak, Debbi Michiko Florence, and illustrator Yuko Jones. Beginning with Ms. Nakayama’s childhood in California, the story gives us 13 “bites”: 13 defining moments in the chef’s life, to parallel her 13 course menus at n/naka. The Japanese-American chef developed a love of global cuisine as a child; her mother blended Japanese and American foods and flavors together to make meals like meatloaf with soy sauce, or teriyaki turkey for Thanksgiving dinner. Ms. Nakayama began creating her own recipes as a child, eventually traveling the world to sample cuisines from different cultures. When she returned to the United States, she apprenticed as a sushi chef, ultimately opening her own restaurant, n/naka, where she now creates 13-course tasting “storytelling” menus. Back matter includes a timeline of Niki Nakayama’s life, an explanation of terms used in the story, and the chef’s own childhood wonton pizza recipe. The story flows from moment to moment in the chef’s life, touching on frustrations like having her family dote on her brother, and having her family agree to finance her first restaurant, but agree to give up her dream if it was not successful. Spreads show Nakayama and her family gathering at their own table, and families gathering to eat at n/naka, illustrating the power of community that eating together brings. Spreads show colorful foods from all over the world sprawl across pages, and diners speaking different languages as they enjoy a creative master chef’s food.
You can visit n/naka’s website and see Chef Nakayama’s profile; you can see a promo for her Chef’s Table episode on Netflix below.