#DecolonizeBookshelves2022 Books Early Readers Features Genre Lifespan of a Reader Non-fiction Wednesday Nonfiction Picture Books Reading Themes

[Nonfiction Wednesday] Defying Kuyashii through Cuisine Art and Storytelling

... in Chef Niki Nakayama's picturebook biography.

Myra here.

We are delighted to dedicate our Wednesdays to featuring nonfiction titles, as per usual. We would also be linking our nonfiction choices with our reading theme throughout the year, when we can.

This year, we hope to feature books that fit any of the following criteria:

  1. Postcolonial literature and/or [pre/post] revolutionary stories
  2. Stories by indigenous / first-nation peoples / people of colour
  3. Narratives of survival and healing, exile and migration, displacement and dispossession
  4. Books written or illustrated by people who have been colonized, oppressed, marginalized

Niki Nakayama: A Chef’s Tale In 13 Bites (Amazon | Book Depository)

Written by Jamie Michalak and Debbi Michiko Florence Illustrated by Yuko Jones
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2021) ISBN: 9780374313876 (ISBN10: 0374313873) Borrowed via Overdrive. Book photos taken by me.

The first few lines in this story can serve as a mentor text in writing. Immediately, the reader is hooked and drawn to where the story will lead:

Niki Nakayama was born in the United States. Her parents were born in Japan. Outside of Niki’s house was Los Angeles. Inside of her house was Japan.

There is a distillation to the writing that is exact, precise, and piercing. This tension between being both Japanese and American is at the core of Nakayama’s story, and her struggles being raised as a girl within the Japanese culture that puts a premium on boys and men and their accomplishments.

… no matter what she accomplished, her parents had big dreams for one person only – Niki’s brother.

Growing up, Niki Nakayama had to contend with the feeling of kuyashii, which in the Afterword is described in this manner:

In Japanese, there’s a word for the defeated feeling that happens when people put you down or say you can’t do something: kuyashii.

Niki transformed this feeling into one of empowerment. This is not easy, especially since she fell in love with a profession that has been traditionally practiced exclusively by men:

… as far as she knew, female kaiseki chefs didn’t exist. In Japan, recipes and cooking techniques were handed down from fathers to sons, male mentors to male apprentices.

Yet Niki refused to be discouraged. To the naysayers or the people who thought she could not actualize her vision for herself, she vowed, “I’ll show them!” And that she did. Evidently, she is a woman who knows her own mind, and she is determined to elevate the gastronomic experience of every diner to one of art and storytelling. I also watched Chef’s Table Episode on Netflix that features Niki Nakayama, and fell even more in love with her entire discipline and how she imbues both heart and soul into food preparation. One other thing I discovered from watching the episode is the fact that Chef Niki is married to her sous-chef who also happens to be a woman. I hope that children’s literature would eventually evolve into a more complete and fuller account of the life story narratives of eminent women of color, including the people they choose to love – because that deserves to be celebrated too.

I will make sure to visit her restaurant when we find ourselves in Los Angeles again. So, I just googled n/naka – which is Chef Niki Nakayama’s restaurant in Los Angeles – it seems to cater mostly to the A-listers – the Hollywood people – with over 300 USD per person for the 13-course meal. Maybe in another lifetime when our family can afford this kind of gastronomic experience.

For those who wish to know more about Niki Nakayama, I found this Youtube teaser video featuring Niki Nakayama on Chef’s Table as shown on Netflix:


#DecolonizeBookshelves2022 Update: 7 out of target 100

Myra is a Teacher Educator and a registered clinical psychologist based in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates. Prior to moving to the Middle East, she lived for eleven years in Singapore serving as a teacher educator. She has edited five books on rediscovering children’s literature in Asia (with a focus on the Philippines, Malaysia, India, China, Japan) as part of the proceedings for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content where she served as the Chair of the Programme Committee for the Asian Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference from 2011 until 2019. While she is an academic by day, she is a closet poet and a book hunter at heart. When she is not reading or writing about books or planning her next reads, she is hoping desperately to smash that shuttlecock to smithereens because Badminton Is Life (still looking for badminton courts here at UAE - suggestions are most welcome).

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