Review of Niki Nakayama: A Chef's Tale in 13 Bites

Niki Nakayama: A Chef’s Tale in 13 Bites
by Jamie Michalak and Debbi Michiko Florence; illus. by Yuko Jones
Primary    Farrar    40 pp.    g
9/21    978-0-374-31387-6   $18.99

Michalak and Florence dish up a sumptuous celebration of chef Niki Nakayama. Born in Los Angeles to immigrant parents, Nakayama grew up in two cultures. “Outside of Niki’s house was Los Angeles. Inside of her house was Japan.” But Niki’s mother combined the two cultures for family meals, cooking American food with Japanese influences — meatloaf with soy sauce, rice instead of potatoes, and Thanksgiving turkey with teriyaki sauce. Niki wanted to do things her way, too. When young, she would experiment with food, creating such treats as wonton-wrapper pizzas. On a trip to Japan after high school, she learned about kaiseki, a meal of many courses, a “storytelling feast,” which begot the passion on display at her current Los Angeles restaurant, n/naka. In an effective matching of book design and content, Nakayama’s story is dished up like a kaiseki meal: thirteen bites, from her early years in “Bite 1” to a gorgeous dish resembling an abstract painting viewed from above in “Bite 13.” A palette of rich, vivid colors; playful shifts in perspective; and a text emphasizing active verbs highlight the artfulness of Nakayama’s meals and the spirit behind them. Not just about food, but also the importance of gathering, love and laughter, and the can-do spirit of a girl finding her path in life. Back matter includes “Ingredients” (timeline), “Kuyashii” (an explanation of the “Yes I Can” spirit), more information about kaiseki, and the recipe for wonton pizzas.

From the November/December 2021 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Dean Schneider

Dean Schneider teaches eighth grade English at the Ensworth School in Nashville, Tennessee.

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