The Big Idea
Sometimes you have to break out of the tiny box society creates for you.
Questions I Answer
- How can I be more creative?
- What do I do if I don’t want to play by the rules?
- What if no one in my family supports my goal?
- How can limitations make me more productive?
Key Topics in the Show
What we can learn from the Japanese term, kuyashii, and how Niki overcame the expectation that she was to be a supporting character to the men in her life.
How Niki broke through personal and social barriers in her different environments.
The process of how Niki let go of her old dream and idea and started a new creative endeavor.
How limitations or rules can actually allow more creativity, instead of containing you.
How Niki chooses to represent herself in her kaiseki restaurant and in a male-dominated industry
Using criticism to motivate you, instead of having a negative experience and quitting.
Resources and Links
- Learn more about Niki Nakayama, her story, and her restaurant, n/naka.
- Follow Niki on Twitter
Welcome to Productivity Paradox from inkWELL Press. A podcast focused on finding true fulfillment and happiness through the power of productivity. To get your free checklist, five minutes to peak productivity, simply sign up at inkwellpress.com/ podcast. And now here’s your host, Tanya Dalton.
Tanya Dalton: Hello, hello everyone, welcome to Productivity Paradox. I’m your house Tanya Dalton, owner of inkWELL Press, and this is episode 50. Today I have a treat for you because I have an amazing guest on the show that I’ll be introducing in just a minute. But first I
want to share that this episode is brought to you by inkWELL
Press. A company focused on creating the highest quality and
most effective productivity tools you can find, so you can begin
to start living your beautiful successful like today. Check out the
complete collection of productivity and planning products at
Okay, I want to go ahead and get started with our show because I’m slightly obsessed with the documentary series Chef’s Table on Netflix. Every episode is fascinating and features amazing chefs
from all around the world.
But when I saw Niki Nakayama’s episode, I sat there as the credits rolled and I thought to myself I’ve got to have her on the show.
Her story of overcoming naysayers, pushing herself to be her
best, and opening up one of the most highly acclaimed
restaurants that’s considered a global destination for foodies, it’s not just inspirational but motivational. Niki has secured herself a
place among the four most chefs of the world of modern kaiseki, a Japanese dining discipline based in gratitude and appreciation, balances taste, texture and presentation through a progression of dishes served in a meticulous and thoughtfully curated order. It is such an honor to share Niki with you today as we discuss how she achieved her own dream. Niki, I am so excited to have you on the show, I feel like you have such an amazing story to share.
Niki Nakayama: Thank you so much Tanya, I’m so honored to be on your show.
Tanya Dalton: Well thank you. I want to go ahead and jump into your story, and I want to start by talking about as you were growing up you were
expected to be kind of a supporting character to the men in your life. I love how you’ve used that term, the Japanese term Kuyashii, to describe how you were able to push yourself both as an
individual and as a chef. Can you explain to my listeners what that means?
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Niki Nakayama: Sure. As with everything in the Japanese language, there’s so many nuances with the words that we use, but a really great way to describe the feeling of kuyashii is something akin to how when your favorite team loses, or somebody that you’re rooting for, or something that you’ve been wanting hasn’t gone your way.
There’s this feeling of kind of like, there’s a little bit of a bigger
feeling and a little bit of this driving feeling as well to want to get better or to move past that and to grow as a person. In the
beginning of my career that was such a motivating factor for me because I couldn’t help but continuously bump into situations
where it was a constant no, you can’t do this, you’re not
supposed to do this. Not just in terms of my family, but it felt like it was an overwhelming thing in my social environment as well as my personal environment. That feeling can sometimes be so
strong and can push you to become better, or do better, or for
lack of a better word to prove people wrong.
Tanya Dalton: I love that. Instead of looking at these barriers you came up as barriers, you looked at them as chances to overcome them. Yeah, I think that’s amazing because I think so many people get
overwhelmed when they see something like that. So many no’s
and they think well this is just not what I’m supposed to do and
you basically just pushed down all those barriers, right?
Niki Nakayama: I think I have attribute that in a certain to having been born and raised in the states. I think there’s a mentality, I always tell myself and remind myself how fortunate I am to have been born and
raised here. To be able to sort of nitpick the things I really love
about Japanese culture as well as the things I really love about
being born and raised here in America. There is such a wonderful way of pulling from both cultures to grow as a person. You get to choose all the things you like and then discard the things that you feel that don’t really necessarily make your life better.
Tanya Dalton: I love that, yeah.
Niki Nakayama: Yeah and then I think that fighting that kuyashii probably comes from being born and raised here because in the American culture there’s this idea that if you strive and you try hard you can
overcome barriers and do more things. Whereas sometimes in
Japanese culture it’s a lot more limiting where you’re not
supposed to test boundaries or question what has been tradition or things that are already set. I’m very fortunate to have been in
the circumstances that I have been in.
Tanya Dalton: That is great, I love how you’re talking about how you’re making choices. I want to touch on that again in a little bit.
Niki Nakayama: Okay.
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Tanya Dalton: I want to talk first about throughout the season of this podcast we’ve talked about the creative processes and how sometimes
you have to let go of old dreams in order for new ones to thrive
and begin to grow. I know for you, your first restaurant Azami was a successful sushi restaurant and it did really well. But eventually, you chose to sell it because you felt burned out and that you
couldn’t really be as creative as you wanted to be.
Niki Nakayama: Right.
Tanya Dalton: How did you know it was time to move on and let go of that dream in order to start a new creative endeavor?
Niki Nakayama: I actually came to a point where I felt that, I mean in the restaurant business it’s very common to work 13, 14 hours a day.
And I came to this point where I was telling myself I’m working
these hours and it should have more meaning for me. I wanted to do something where since I was investing so much of myself into what I was doing, that the work had to correlate to the results
that I was seeking. I thought that the sushi aspects and the sushi restaurant was wonderful, but it was always something that
wasn’t necessarily exactly the kind of food that I wanted to do.
And after striving, because it was really hard in the beginning just to open a restaurant and to learn from there each step of the way. But there was of course a feeling of I can’t let it go so easily
because I’ve been working on this for so long, but then I think
there’s a point in everyone’s life where you just want to get to this point where you really believe in what you’re doing. And when I
was ready to sell Azami, I knew that I didn’t have that belief in
that restaurant anymore and I wanted to go onto the next
chapter, whether it would succeed or not that I would have been happy just having been able to try it.
Tanya Dalton: I totally understand that feeling, having had a previous business before I owned inkWELL Press, it was the same for me in that I
loved what it did but it wasn’t fulfilling. It didn’t feel like it filled
my purpose, and yeah it didn’t make me feel whole. It was really
hard though because to me when you’ve created something, like for you your sushi restaurant, for me my first business, it’s like
Niki Nakayama: It is.
Tanya Dalton: It really is like a child in that you’ve spent a lot of blood, sweat, and tears that you’ve put into this baby of yours and then it feels so hard sometimes to say “You know what, you’re not fulfilling to me” and turn your back on it. It’s really difficult, right?
Niki Nakayama: Right, it was a moment like that and then I knew when I was going to work and when I didn’t feel I was fully committed
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anymore, I thought … the wrong feeling toward all the guests that were coming and I didn’t think I was doing the people that were
visiting us justice as well as myself. I knew that at that point it was time to sort of just close it up, close up shop literally.
Tanya Dalton: I equate that, what I went through at least, to be a little bit like the grieving process in that you’re so sad about this thing that
you’ve grown and so you have to go through all those different
stages of denial, and anger, and sadness, and it really is a grieving process of moving on. And it’s in some ways hard to motivate
yourself to move onto the new thing, but in other ways I feel like for me at least I was running towards it because I was so excited about this new possibility for me. Is that how you felt as you
opened up n/naka?
Niki Nakayama: Yes, because I had spent so much time doing sushi and just learning about the things that surround a sushi restaurant. When I finally had some time to myself to sort of look out into the
culinary world there were so many exciting things that were
happening at the time, and that feeling of wanting to try and do
those things felt like so rejuvenating. Because when I was about
to close Azami I was thinking I don’t know if I want to continue
doing this because it’s not exciting or it’s not fulfilling enough.
But when I saw that all these things were happening outside of
what I had been doing, and all these things that I could learn, that feeling came back so I was really excited.
Tanya Dalton: Yeah. The possibilities seem so exciting especially when they do seem to fulfill what you think is your purpose or what you feel is
really important to you, right would you agree with that?
Niki Nakayama: Yeah, I completely agree.
Tanya Dalton: I want to talk for a minute about limitations because we just talked about how there’s all these possibilities, but there’s some
limitations too and a lot of people feel really limited by their
situations that they’re in. And they often feel like they can’t really move past them.
Niki Nakayama: Right.
Tanya Dalton: Now at your restaurant you serve an interpretation of kaiseki, which is a traditional Japanese culinary art form with 13 courses
and very specific rules on the order of the courses, right?
Niki Nakayama: Correct.
Tanya Dalton: That’s obviously you could look at that as being very, very limiting. But do you find that these traditions and these rules
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constrain you, or do you think that they push you to be even
more creative with your menus?
Niki Nakayama: I think they actually allow more creativity because sometimes the structure helps the creative process. When you’re presented with limits you sort of think in the way of what you can do, and it
doesn’t allow for too much thinking everywhere. It allows for this very concentrated effort to think within those terms, and that
sometimes helps fuel creativity in a different way. It’s like
sometimes when we have vegetarians that come and eat with us, because I know there’s only a certain amount of certain types of ingredients I’m allowed to use, that process to be creative is
expanded so much more. I know it sounds strange, but structure is sometimes a wonderful way to have more creative ideas.
Tanya Dalton: I say that a lot, I say that boundaries set you free, it’s really the boundaries because it does allow you to kind of stretch to all the different corners of these boundaries so that you can really push yourself in so many ways.
Niki Nakayama: Yes, I completely think that. I’m the type of person if I didn’t have structure, I’d be all over the place and nothing would get done
properly. Thankfully there is structure within this kaiseki format
that allows me to explore things.
Tanya Dalton: I like what you said there about how it allows you to focus because otherwise you can feel like there’s all these things, and
instead it really kind of hones you in and it narrows you in so that you can really do what you want to do extraordinarily well.
Niki Nakayama: Yes, I think that’s an important thing to consider when people are being creative.
Tanya Dalton: Yeah, I think so too. I think, like I said, boundaries really can set you free in so many different ways. It’s all so much about your
mindset and how you choose to look at things.
Niki Nakayama: Yes, everything is about mindset. It’s such an interesting thing, I was having a conversation with Carol who’s my partner in the
kitchen as well as my partner in life, but we were saying how one of the major obstacles that we’re continuously facing is to allow
ourselves that mentality to not feel that our work is inferior.
Because it’s just such a natural thing for I think women in general to feel like we’re always less than, or maybe it’s a cultural thing as well that everything we do is not as good as others, especially in
particular men. But the ability to sort of remind ourselves that we have to let go of that thinking and allow ourselves to believe that the work that we do can be just as good. I think that’s the hardest part of anything, our beliefs and the way we think about things is
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the hardest thing to change, but those are the things that keep us from reaching a good level of success.
Tanya Dalton: Absolutely, I could not agree with you more. I want to talk to you more about what you were just talking about with being a woman in the kitchen in just a few minutes, but first I want to take a quick break for our sponsor.
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Okay Niki, I want to talk a little bit more about what we talked about before the break. And you’ve mentioned in the past that
“When people see me, they don’t generally identify that I’m the
chef.” These guests are sometimes surprised to find a Japanese
woman running such a successful kaiseki restaurant. How has that affected how you run your restaurant and how you choose to
represent yourself in such a male dominated industry?
Niki Nakayama: I’ve always thought that, I understand that we live in a culture or in a society where appearance is very important for people to
sort of be able to associate and put two and two together. And I
always thought that it would be wonderful if I could produce
something where the work just spoke for itself, and the way for us to do that was just having people not see any of us cooking in the kitchen. It’s very unusual for Japanese restaurants, well not very
unusual, it’s very common for Japanese restaurants to have the
chef serve you right in front of you at a counter so that you have this connection with the chef. But for us, I was thinking that I’m
not the type of person who can stand there and sell myself to
people easily or try to entertain people too much while I’m doing my work.
I thought it would be amazing if people just judged me purely on the work that was coming out. We for the new restaurant
because it’s different from the sushi bar where people used to see me all the time, our new restaurant n/naka the kitchen is fully
enclosed. I sort of use this as a way to sort of just let the food be the star and let it speak for itself and for people to judge their
experience as a whole. And then afterwards I feel it very
important to come out and greet to the guests to show them that we’re very grateful that they’ve come to eat. And sometimes it’s
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funny to see their reactions, in the beginning more, not as much
Tanya Dalton: I love that, you let the food speak for itself and then you come out around from behind the kitchen and then they’re surprised.
And you would hope it’s a pleasant surprise, right?
Niki Nakayama: Yes, instead of asking me for the check.
Tanya Dalton: That’s right. Well and I know though that there’s been some other reactions unfortunately because I know that you’ve shared in the past a story of a famous unnamed chef coming into your
restaurant, enjoying your food, and then realizing as you come
out from the kitchen that you’re a woman and calling your food
cute, which I can’t imagine how upsetting that was. And we
discussed in this season about how life really is a series of
choices, and that includes how we choose to react to hurtful
people like that. We can choose to let that tear us down and feel like we can’t move forward from that, or we can choose to
overcome that. How do you keep comments like that from
allowing you to want to just quit?
Niki Nakayama: I think one of the most important things is anytime, even with comments like that or any time we receive some sort of criticism, the initial reaction is always like I’m a wounded animal, I feel so
wounded by everything they’ve just said. It’s hurtful, and then a
little sadness, and then anger, and then it moves in different
stages. And then after the anger comes the looking through and thinking about the things that they’ve commented on and try to
train yourself to think okay what are the things they said that’s
going to be really helpful for me to grow? And then from then on it’s easier to be a little bit less attached to their comments and
just take what that experience is in terms of it being something
that can teach you to be better at what you do and then getting better from that. With any type of comments, positive or
negative, there’s always something that you can see that’s
positive within it, you just have to get to that point to allow
yourself to see it.
Tanya Dalton: That’s such a good way to look at it, I love that choice.
Niki Nakayama: You have to keep reminding yourself that there’s something good that’s going to come out of this and you’ll find it. Just give it time, allow yourself that moment to grieve, or be angry, or be unhappy with the things that have been said, but you can always get
better from it.
Tanya Dalton: It’s true, it’s true, I have to say that I often say “I love it when people either underestimate or undervalue me because it just
gives me an opportunity to prove them wrong.” It makes me want ©Productivity Paradox Page 7 of 10
to push myself twice as hard to do twice as good because I just
how dare you think these things of me? You have no idea, yeah.
Niki Nakayama: Right, it’s a wonderful motivating factor if you allow it to be. And it’s okay to feel bad about it, but in time you need to not feel bad about it anymore, but think about how those things can push you to be better. I think that’s the best way to take any type of
Tanya Dalton: I definitely agree, I like what you’re saying there about pulling out what really is the goodness in there and growing from that, even if it is just the okay I’m going to prove you wrong.
Niki Nakayama: Right, it’s totally okay to feel that way.
Tanya Dalton: Yeah. And it’s okay to be hurt too because we’re human and it is hurtful when someone says something to us that makes us feel
small, no one likes to be felt small. And that’s okay and it’s okay
to acknowledge that, but we can’t internalize that and let that
define who we are.
Niki Nakayama: Totally.
Tanya Dalton: We have a choice in that we define who we are, we don’t allow others to define us.
Niki Nakayama: Yes, I completely agree.
Tanya Dalton: One of the things I want to talk about because I think this completely sets you apart in your restaurant with the way that
you treat every person that comes in to eat. They’re not just a
customer at your restaurant, you truly treat them like a guest and you feel this huge responsibility that you go as far as keeping
records as to what each guest has ordered throughout the years. And you challenge yourself not to repeat dishes, and to create a brand-new experience every time a guest orders. I think that is an amazing challenge for yourself, but how do you keep yourself
from being overwhelmed by this challenge?
Niki Nakayama: It’s a two-fold answer. On one level I try not to think about it too much because I think I if I overthink it then it becomes something that’s very, very difficult to live up to. And on another level, it’s
this understanding that having these types of challenges really,
really help us grow. It helps me try to develop new menu items
and I think it’s sometimes a necessity because if I had it my way, I think as with every human being, it’s just easier to do something that we’re familiar with. But with this challenge I think even
though I’m not ready to change, it’s a forced change, and
sometimes forced change is really wonderful for growing.
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Tanya Dalton: Definitely, I completely agree with that. I love how you continually challenge yourself so that you grow even more into the person
and into the chef that you truly want to be. I think that that’s so
admirable and your story to me is just so inspiring. I’d love to
know what advice that you would give to someone that has self
doubt about starting down their own path?
Niki Nakayama: The best advice that I have to give somebody I think is there is a very important element to understand yourself. You need to know what your limits are and what you’re capable of to a certain
degree so that you allow yourself the space to grow from there. I think self understanding is a very important thing for anyone who wants to challenge themselves. And after they get to that point
where they can understand themselves a little bit more, then they have to start learning to trust themselves.
Tanya Dalton: Yeah, I think there’s a lot of truth to what you just said there. I think that’s exactly right, you have to believe that you’re going to be able to do that once you discover what it is you want to do.
Niki Nakayama: Yes.
Tanya Dalton: I just again, I really think that your story is inspiring and I’m so happy that you were able to come onto the show. I really
appreciate you taking the time because I know you run an
incredible restaurant that has so many accolades and is so well
known. Just you taking the time to speak with me has been such an honor for me, so thank you.
Niki Nakayama: The honor is mine, thank you so much. I’m very honored to have been on your show.
Tanya Dalton: Thank you. Isn’t Niki and her story truly amazing? I love her attitude and I love the way that she thinks about things. Niki is a
standout chef profiled in the Netflix documentary series Chef’s
Table, I would really encourage you to check out Niki’s episode.
As I mentioned at the beginning I’m slightly obsessed with the
series, but Niki’s episode if you’re going to choose one is truly so amazing and inspirational. I think you will really get a lot out of it even if you’re not into food or cooking, I think it is a beautiful
episode about a woman in pursuit of her goals and her dreams,
who actually achieves them. I think you’ll end the show feeling
inspired for your own dreams and goals.
Okay, next week we are going to be talking all about how to actually motivate yourself to start that passion project you have
on your mind. I’m really excited because as we begin to near the
end of this season, we’re getting into the parts where we’re really digging into you making the steps to really make those goals and
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dream happen. I look forward to seeing you here again next week, until next time happy planning.
Thanks for listening to Productivity Paradox from inkWEll Press. To get free access to Tanya’s checklist, five minutes to peak productivity, simply register at inkwellpress.com/podcast.