050: Pursuing & Achieving Big Dreams with Niki Nakayama | Tanya Dalton Skip to the content
Niki Nakayama podcast interview on The Intentional Advantage
December 26, 2017   |   Episode #:

050: Pursuing & Achieving Big Dreams with Niki Nakayama

In This Episode:

Overcoming naysayers and pushing herself to do her best work, world-famous chef, Niki Nakayama, opened up her own highly acclaimed restaurant, n/naka. Niki discusses how she broke through personal and cultural expectations to go after her big dream. Learn about an inspiring woman who is pursuing her goals in spite of limitations, rules, and criticism. After today’s episode, you’ll be motivated to take action on your own big dreams and goals.

Show Transcript:

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

Show Transcript

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  

your child.  

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.