About the Holiday
Children benefit in many ways from close relationships to grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and other extended family members. This month and next, as family gathers together for special holiday events, it’s a terrific time for adults to share family history and their own stories of growing up with the younger generation. Letting kids know how much they’re loved by everyone in the family helps them develop a sense of belonging, a good self-image, and confidence. Reading together is a perfect way to spend time together and get conversations started.
Niki Nakayama: A Chef’s Tale in 13 Bites
Written by Jamie Michalak and Debbi Michiko Florence | Illustrated by Yuko Jones
This true story opens with an invitation to listen as Niki Nakayama talks about her journey to becoming a chef in thirteen bites. “Come. Sit. Taste…” Bite 1: Niki was born in California but her parents were born in Japan. “Outside of Niki’s house was Los Angeles. Inside of her house was Japan.” While the two cultures often felt disparate, in Niki’s family’s kitchen “they became one.” Niki’s mother always put a Japanese twist on American dishes, with soy sauce or rice or teriyaki.
Bite 2: Close to New Year’s Eve, Niki’s grandmother took her to the grocery store to shop for the holiday dinner. Niki was excited. She loved buying all the ingredients for the feast to come: an opportunity to share “a table of love and laughter” in addition to the food. As Niki grew older, she created her own recipes and determined that she would get away from her family’s seafood-selling business and do her own thing.
Niki’s dreams seemed to get little attention from her parents, who doted on their son and encouraged his success. But Niki new she could be successful too. “Kuyashii! Niki thought. ‘I’ll show them!’” After high school, Niki traveled to Tokyo, Japan, tasting all the delicious food on offer. Later she took the train to where her cousins owned an inn. There she was served a meal comprised of many dishes, each “a work of art” and each with a delicious memory attached or story to tell. “Niki learned this storytelling feast had a name: kaiseki.”
When Niki returned home, she told her mother she wanted to go to school to become a chef. Her mother discouraged her, but Niki went anyway. “She began to see food as art—a carrot as a mountain.” And while her family thought her cooking was just a hobby, Niki thought “Kuyashii! ‘I’ll show them!’” Niki got a job at a sushi restaurant. “Female sushi chefs were rare,” and the head chef didn’t think she could handle the work. “‘You’re just playing chef,’ he joked.” But Niki told him she wasn’t playing.
After working there and learning all she could, Niki decided to travel back to her cousins’ inn to study kaiseki. But there was a big obstacle. “As far as she knew, female kaiseki chefs didn’t exist. In Japan recipes and training was only handed down to males. People told Niki her dream was impossible, but she thought she could do it. Niki studied for three years and then returned to Los Angeles to open a sushi restaurant of her own.
Instead of being happy for her, her family was dismissive. At last she convinced them to give her a loan—but it came with the stipulation that “if the restaurant failed, she would have to close it and say goodbye to her dream forever.” Instead of the kaiseki dishes she wanted to serve, her mother thought sushi would be a better choice. Against her own wishes, she agreed. In a year, customers were lining up for her food. But making sushi was not what she really wanted to do.
She closed her restaurant and wondered what to do next. Then, after much thought and exploration, she had her answer. She wanted to serve kaiseki that told her story—both Japanese and Californian. “Niki called her new restaurant n/naka. Naka means ‘inside’ in Japanese. Finally, Niki was inside her dream.” Through thirteen courses she told her stories—never serving customers the same meal twice. Now, every night tables are full of love and laughter, and Niki showed everyone that she could be a master chef.
Back matter includes a timeline of Niki Nakayama’s life from her birth in Los Angeles in 1974 to the awarding of two Michelin stars for her restaurant n/naka in 2019; a discussion of the words kuyashii and kaiseki; and a recipe for wonton pizza.
Jamie Michalak and Debbi Michiko Florence’s biography of Niki Nakayama is an enthralling story of self-confidence, obstacles overcome, and success that will inspire readers to stay true to the voice inside themselves. Telling Nakayama’s story through thirteen bite-sized vignettes that reveal formative moments in her life that informed her journey is a captivating and effective way to show Niki’s growth as a chef as well as to explain the meaning and experience of kaiseki.
Readers will respond to Michalak’s and Florence’s straightforward text and the details of the hurdles placed in her way. One take-away for adult readers is the importance of recognizing, encouraging, and supporting their children’s dreams and talents—an awareness that can lead to ongoing discussions with kids as they grow, learn, and get involved in activities.
Yuko Jones’ lovely illustrations take readers into Niki Nakayama’s home to see her interacting with her family and the foods that so inspired her life’s work. Jones’ images of Japanese delicacies are particularly beautiful, giving kids a strong understanding of the courses served during a kaiseki meal. Niki’s self-assurance in the face of her family’s protests and her male-dominated culinary school class as well as the rarity of female sushi chefs is stirring for all readers. Jones’ final page spreads reveal the gorgeous dishes Niki serves and the inviting atmosphere at her restaurant n/naka.
A captivating and impactful biography of a contemporary chef and role model, Niki Nakayama: A Chef’s Tale in 13 Bites is a must for home, classroom, school, and public library collections to inspire all kids who are contemplating their place in the world now and in the future.
Ages 4 – 10
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2021 | ISBN 978-0374313876
Discover more about Jamie Michalak and her books on her website.
You can learn more about Debbi Michiko Florence and her books on her website.
To learn more about Yuko Jones and see a portfolio of her work, visit her website.
You can learn more about n/naka and view a gallery of Niki Nakayama’s spectacular dishes on the n/naka website.
Family Stories Month Activity
Niki Nakayama: A Chef’s Tale in 13 Bites Activity Kit
Educators and families can find an extensive Activity Kit and coloring pages to accompany classroom or homeschool lessons or just for fun on Jamie Michalak’s website and Debbi Michiko Florence’s website.
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