AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Now for a moment of uplift and gratitude. Thanksgiving is almost here, and we're going to meet a Los Angeles chef who's grateful for local flavors. NPR's Mandalit del Barco introduces us to Niki Nakayama, one of the only women masters of a refined style of Japanese cooking known as kaiseki.
MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: On this day we find Chef Niki Nakayama and her wife Carole Iida-Nakayama in the mountains of the Angeles National Forest. They trudge through the dry vegetation with master forager Pascal Baudar, gathering ingredients to use at their restaurant N/Naka. At one point, they come across a black mustard plant growing wild.
PASCAL BAUDAR: It has a little bit of flavor like gasoline.
CAROLE IIDA-NAKAYAMA: When you exhale after chewing it, it's almost like the fumes come out of your nostrils.
BAUDAR: That's the flavor of Los Angeles right there.
NIKI NAKAYAMA: It is the flavor Los Angles.
DEL BARCO: Nakayama sometimes uses this plant in her kitchen, and she makes sauces and garnishes out of California sagebrush, mugwort and pine needles. Baudar supplies her by scouring the Los Angeles wilderness.
BAUDAR: You have to be insane to do what I do.
DEL BARCO: We stop at a eucalyptus tree, and Baudar pulls down a branch. Leaf by leaf, he scrapes off little, white specks, which he collects into a glass jar.
BAUDAR: This is our famous lerp sugar. Basically, there's a little insect that sucks the sap of the eucalyptus and poops sugar.
DEL BARCO: It takes hours to fill up a small jar with lerp sugar, enough for an entire season in Nakayama's kitchen.
NAKAYAMA: We don't tell the guests until after they've had it what they've had. And the look on their faces is always very exciting for me.
BAUDAR: But it tastes like Rice Krispies. If you give me your hand...
NAKAYAMA: Yeah, Rice Krispies.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEWING)
DEL BARCO: Mmm (ph).
NAKAYAMA: I think it adds a really nice accent when we can sprinkle a little bit on ice cream.
DEL BARCO: Baudar has collected rocks that heat up soup bowls and pieces of bark which he's varnished to use as plates. Nakayama and her wife, who's her sous chef, have also whittled chopsticks out of mulefat branches. Chef Niki says all of this flora goes along with the Japanese philosophy of kaiseki.
NAKAYAMA: Feeling grateful to nature and trying to represent where you're at seasonally, ingredient-wise - the more we can find things that are closer by or from here, the ingredients are going to be better. Everything's going to be fresher. It's more local, more seasonal. So I think that's the heart of kaiseki.
DEL BARCO: In the front yard of their Culver City home, Nakayama and her wife also grow vegetables, fruit and herbs for their restaurant. Here at home, the chef elaborates on kaiseki rituals presented as tea ceremonies or, in her case, elaborate multi-course feasts. She says it's rooted in Buddhist tradition.
NAKAYAMA: The idea and philosophy behind it is the appreciation of nature, seasonality and focus into the moment that is in front of you, the moment at hand. And I think it's - that comes from the zen background of it.
DEL BARCO: The 42-year-old chef was born in Los Angeles and grew up working at her parent's seafood distribution warehouse. She lived in Japan, where she learned various regional techniques, and went to culinary school here in L.A. Nakayama is considered a master of modern kaiseki. She was featured on the Netflix documentary show "Chef's Table." Chef Niki meets each diner personally at N/Naka, her tasteful, low-key restaurant in Culver City.
NAKAYAMA: Thank you so much. Very nice to have you again. Happy birthday.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Thank you.
DEL BARCO: The waiting list to get in is three months long, and it's not inexpensive. For nearly $200 each, diners can enjoy a 13-course culinary experience. It's Kyoto by way of L.A. One dish features caviar on dashi foam that took eight months to prepare. Some artfully arranged dishes use a single delicate flower and microgreens from Nakayama's home garden.
NICOLE NGUYEN: You just see how much passion and...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Dedication.
NGUYEN: ...Artistic dedication that she puts into it - just gorgeous.
DEL BARCO: Like other diners, Nicole Nguyen says she comes here to celebrate very special occasions.
NGUYEN: The food is always fantastic.
NAKAYAMA: Thank you.
NGUYEN: A work of art - every dish.
NAKAYAMA: Thank you.
NGUYEN: It's beautiful. Thank you so much.
DEL BARCO: While we might not get to eat so extravagantly every day, Chef Niki Nakayama says we can still bring gratitude to every meal. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.
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