NIKI NAKAYAMA: A Chef’s Tale in 13 Bites – An Interview with Debbi Michiko Florence and Jamie Michalak
When you think of it, celebrity chefs haven’t had the easiest time of it when it comes to picture books. Remember A Birthday Cake for George Washington (who doesn’t)? A rather extreme case in point. Still, the nice thing is that not all books go that route. Some picture books about celebrity chefs actually have an interesting and accurate story to tell.
Now I’m not very up on my chefs, but I appreciate the food that they put into my belly. And you know who does know their chefs? Debbi Michiko Florence and Jamie Michalak. So much so that they have now written Niki Nakayama: A Chef’s Tale in 13 Bites. It’s a picture book biography with a delicious core. The publisher describes it this way:
“Niki Nakayama: A Chef’s Tale in 13 Bites is a picture book biography that tells the story of the powerhouse female Japanese-American chef and her rise to fame
As a child and adult, Niki faced many naysayers in her pursuit of haute cuisine. Using the structure of a traditional kaiseki meal, the authors Debbi Michiko Florence and Jamie Michalak playfully detail Niki’s hunger for success in thirteen “bites” — from wonton wrappers she used to make pizza as a kid to yuzu-tomatillo sauce in her own upscale Los Angeles Michelin-starred restaurant, n/naka.”
So I had to ask some questions. And when you have questions, why not talk to the creators themselves?
Betsy Bird: Truth be told, picture book biographies of Michelin star winning female chefs are few and far between. I’d love an origin story here. How on earth did this book come to be?
Jaime Michalak: The seed was planted way back in 2015 when I saw the episode about Niki Nakayama on “Chef’s Table.” Her story fired me up, and it moved me. As I watched, a picture book unfolded in my mind. There are so many rich layers to Chef Niki’s story.
First, she’s a female in a male-dominated culinary world and her dream of becoming a master chef was consistently dismissed because of her gender. But instead of feeling defeated by the doubters, she said to herself, “I’ll show them!” And she went on to became one of the only female kaiseki chefs in the world.
Kaiseki is a Japanese multi-course meal that tells a story about the season, so the concept of food as storytelling intrigued me, too.
But above all, Chef Niki’s story is about breaking tradition and daring to forge your own path. Her story is empowering. Debbi felt the same (and she loves food as much as I do), so we partnered up.
Debbie Michiko Florence: I remember watching Niki Nakayama’s episode on “Chef’s Table” and feeling pride and joy seeing a Japanese American woman overcome obstacles and naysayers to achieve her dreams. It’s not often I learn about contemporary Japanese American role models. I know there are many out there, but they are not often featured in media. It would have meant the world to me as I was growing up in Los Angeles and to my daughter when she was growing up to have role models like Niki Nakayama. So when Jamie reached out to suggest we team up to write a picture book biography about Niki Nakayama’s journey to success, I was thrilled and excited.
BB: Writing a picture book memoir of someone living is far different from writing such a book of someone dead. You have the advantage of being able to potentially get more input and information from your subject. On the other hand, people can guard their stories closely. Did either of you have a chance to interview Niki herself?
JM: It’s also tricky because that person is going to read the book, so you better get it right!
Thankfully, Chef Niki has been supportive and open. This book is such a one-eighty from anything I’d ever written, which are humorous early readers, so I knew I’d have to earn her trust to interview her. As an introduction, I sent her a letter along with a package of favorite picture book bios, so she’d have a sense of what hers might look like. Then she was kind enough to allow me to interview her over the phone and again in person in LA.
Debbi and I followed up with more questions whenever we found a hole in the story. We learned a lot about Chef Niki’s childhood and family meals. She even sent us family photos of holiday feasts, although they didn’t make it into the book.
BB: The funny thing about the book is that while some might hinge their storytelling on how the subject had a family that supported them all the way, Niki’s success can be at least partially attributed to her overwhelming desire to prove everyone wrong when they didn’t believe in her! Which I kind of love. This is a book born out of infuriating attitudes towards women. Was that the thrust of the book from the start or did you gradually come to that later?
JM: This was the aspect of her story that hooked me, and it was the thrust of the book from the start — this feeling of kuyashii, or defeat, that she turns into fuel when people underestimate her. She’s not going to let someone else tell her who she is. What I also love about Chef Niki is how mild-mannered she appears on the surface, while she has this roaring fire within. She’s not loud or flashy; she kicks down walls with her actions instead. That’s an important message for kids, especially in a world where it’s easy to be underestimated if you’re quiet.
DMF: I am third generation Japanese American and I grew up in Los Angeles at a time when I was surrounded by a fairly large Japanese American community. It was the 70s and my parents had rules – girls must be quiet (and ladylike), girls were not bossy, girls should not disagree with their elders. That being said, I was lucky that my parents supported anything I wanted to do – play basketball for a Japanese American league, take guitar lessons, read any book I wanted, and have all the pets because I was a very big animal lover. (Although they were very unhappy when I brought home a pet snake.) Knowing how important sons were to Japanese families, I once asked my dad (who had two daughters) if he was ever sorry he didn’t have any sons. With no hesitation he said, “Of course not. I always wanted daughters.”
So, learning about Niki’s struggles to gain acceptance and support as a girl in her family was painful for me to watch, but also made me appreciate her determination and fighting spirit. It intrigued me. Fighting against gender bias has always been an important topic for me, since I raised a daughter, so writing to this theme for Niki’s story was at the forefront for me.
BB: Artist Yuko Jones brings such a playful attitude towards the material. I’m thinking, for example, of the moment when Niki is in the seafood warehouse as a child, holding a fish by the tail, her little thought balloon just contains a scribble. What, to your mind, was the advantage of having a Japanese artist illustrating your book? How do you like the final product?
JM: Working with a Japanese or Japanese-American illustrator was important to us all. There are cultural nuances in Yuko’s illustrations that another illustrator might have left out or portrayed incorrectly. We were blown away by the final art. This is Yuko’s debut picture book, and her illustrations are stunning and full of details that I’m still discovering with rereads, such as vignettes framed in plates and the stream motif that echos how the thirteen courses flow at n/naka.
DMF: As Jamie says, having a Japanese or Japanese American illustrator was a huge priority. I wanted the art to be beautiful and accurate, and Yuko Jones succeeded for sure. It also took some pressure off of me to have another Japanese person on the team. I didn’t have the singular pressure to fact check, because I knew Yuko would not only know important Japanese facts, but also understand cultural significances. Like how Niki and her family members are never wearing shoes in the house. Representation matters, and accurate representation free of stereotypes matters even more. Yuko’s art is as you say playful, fun, and gorgeous, but also it’s spot on. I love her art!
BB: So I gotta ask. Have either of you had a chance to eat at n/naka yet? And, if so, how was it?
JM: Yes! An n/naka meal is an experience. You really are tasting a story. I went in early September, so the dishes told a tale about of that particular moment in time — the thirteen courses began with summery ingredients and progressed to a dessert that incorporated pumpkin and the colors of fall. And there’s a story arc to the meal, just like you’d find in a picture book.
Every detail is carefully thought out — from the selection of plates for each course to the arrangement of the dishes themselves, which are works of art. And of course, the food is delicious. It’s based on traditional kaiseki, but with unexpected flavor combinations derived from Californian ingredients. It’s Japanese and Californian, just like Chef Niki.
DMF: Unfortunately I have not had the pleasure and honor of eating at n/naka, though I hope to in the future. However, I have been traveling to Japan all my life and have had more than a few opportunities to eat traditional kaiseki meals. It is an amazing experience – each dish is exquisite in both appearance and taste. It’s like eating art.
BB: Finally, the million dollar question: What are each of you working on next?
JM: I have a couple of very different food-centered books coming out — Frank and Bean: Food Truck Fiasco, the second installment in this series illustrated by Bob Kolar. I got to live out my fantasy of being a food truck owner, even if it was through a hot dog and baked bean! Also, Come On In: There’s a Party in this Book, illustrated by debut picture book illustrator Sabine Timm, who creates hilarious characters from found objects and food.
DMF: I’m excited about my upcoming books! I’m working on first pass pages of my next middle grade novel coming out in May 2022 with Scholastic: Sweet and Sour about friendship, first crushes, betrayal, and revenge starring Japanese American characters. And I’m also diving into writing the next four Jasmine Toguchi books (FSG 2022 – 2023)! Jasmine will be traveling to Japan with her family and I’m thrilled to get to revisit childhood (and more recent) experiences and locations, particularly the cities/towns where my maternal and paternal grandparents lived. I’m so happy to be spending time with Jasmine again.
The only problem with interviews like this one is that they always leave me hungry by the end. I’d like to thank Debbi and Jamie for taking the time to talk with me and to Brittany Pearlman and the folks at Macmillan for setting this up.
Niki Nakayama: A Chef’s Tale in 13 Bites is out September 14th in libraries and bookstores everywhere.
Filed under: Interviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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