Lessons from Niki Nakayama

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lessonsfrom / Monday

Welcome to week 3 of A Summer of Learning. This week is going to be slow in the US because of the 4th of July. I find this extra time useful to relax and reflect on the past few weeks. Hopefully, you can find the time to do the same. But for today, I’m going to be recounting lessons I learned from watching and reading about a world-class chef, Niki Nakayama. For a similar post, check out the very first post on this blog!


Niki Nakayama is the founder and head chef of Naka. This modern Japanese restaurant is clean, with a fanatic attention to simplicity. Everything is methodical – if a guest is a returning customer, they will not get the same dish again (there are logs of each customer visit). When a chef is this famed, there must be a few meta lessons to learn from them. Let’s dive into the ones that stuck out to me:

Let go of the ego, focus on the work

When Niki received negative comments after the diners learned that she was a women, she closed the window that allowed the guests to peer into the kitchen so that the food would be the center of attention. You don’t know who is cooking, you judge the food on its own merit.

While controversial (one can make an argument that this is caving in to misogyny), it is a completely ego-less approach. This is a far step from the archetype of the tattooed, egomaniac chef.

The meta-lesson to be taken away from this is to find ways to separate ways to remove yourself from your work if your involvement will impede its success. I’ll be the first to admit that this is very hard to do, but we must strive towards it.

Learn the rules to break them

As an amateur, it can be tempting to assume that you know better than the experts. While it can be true (this is my favorite exception to this rule), the path to mastery is usually paved with structured, deliberate practice. Niki did such an apprenticeship in Japan for half a decade. It was only after she learned what Kaiseki was that she was able to put her own twist on it. We usually don’t see the back story of success but the years of hard work are what set the masters apart from us mortals. It’s important to remember this when we are just starting out.

I’ve faced this struggle with this blog. It’s extremely easy to compare my mere hundreds of site visits to the hundred thousands views on blogs that I read. But I don’t have a front row seat to the years of work that they put into developing their audiences.

“I will prove you wrong”

This idea of success being driven by a need to prove someone in your life (usually someone close like a parent or friend) wrong has always struck me as a bit weird. I understand the sentiment, but I don’t understand why someone would do a lot of hard things (presumably these are hard things to do given that they are being told that they are impossible) to prove a single person wrong.

Getting to know Niki’s story told me a lot more about this sentiment. Being told you can’t do something is excellent fuel when you start the journey. It is great for sprinting. As you develop a passion for the work itself, it becomes unnecessary. It’s like letting go of crutches.

Thanks for reading today’s post. I’ll be back tomorrow with lessons from a book by a Ryan Holiday.

1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Best of the blog – A Summer of Learning

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