When I was 10 years old, my dad's job moved us from California to Japan where we lived for four years, two in Okinawa and two in Yokosuka. Even though I was a picky eater at that time, I couldn't resist the delicious rice and noodle dishes prepared at the outdoor markets. Just thinking about them today still makes my mouth water. So reading Niki Nakayama: A Chef's Tale in 13 Bites is a special treat for me. This book tells the true story of a girl who loves to cook and travels from her Los Angeles home to her family's home in Japan. Throughout her journey, she learns the true meaning of kuyashii and the art of kaiseki—two key ingredients she pours into her Michelin star restaurant today!
Beautifully illustrated by Yuko Jones, this picture-book biography proves how delicious determination can be. Today authors Debbi Michiko Florence and Jamie Michalak share their experiences creating Niki Nakayama.
You don't often see co-authors on picture books. How did that work—did you each write individual drafts and merge them into one manuscript? Or were you responsible for writing different sections of the biography?
DMF: Neither of us had co-authored a book before we decided to write NIKI NAKAYAMA together, so we pretty much made up the process as we went. I felt like we worked really well as a team. To be honest, while I do like researching, it's not the thing that brings me the most joy, so I really appreciated that Jamie did the bulk of the heavy-lifting there. She shared an early draft along with all the resource information and I got to do the thing I love most - revise! From there we went back and forth, revising and sharing, discussing and collaborating until we had a draft we were both proud of.
JM: I first saw Chef Niki's story back in 2015 on the Netflix Chef's Table series, and her story unfolded to me like a picture book. It was inspiring and moving. Plus, Chef Niki's food is visually stunning and her kaiseki dishes tell the story of the season. The combination of a strong woman, nearly impossible dreams, and storytelling food hooked me. I wrote to her asking if she might be willing to be interviewed for a book—and she said yes! After interviewing Chef Niki and dining at her restaurant, n/naka, I did a lot of research (and eating) and wrote the story. But I eventually realized that another framework would work better — the 13 Bites structure — and wrote a new draft. This was perfect timing for partnering with Debbi. She's equally passionate about Chef Niki's story and food, and she's a wonderful writer. She brought fresh eyes and new insights. One great aspect of writing with a partner is that you have a built-in editor for your work, and vice versa. So she'd revise and I'd make suggestions, and she did the same for me.
Was there one aspect of Niki Nakayama's life—a specific scene, quote, or image—that guided you throughout the writing process?
DMF: There's a line from the book that perfectly encapsulates the connection I felt to Niki Nakayama's life that I carried through in my heart and head as we wrote this book: "Outside of Niki's house was Los Angeles. Inside her house was Japan."
I'm third generation Japanese American and I was born in California and raised in Los Angeles not far from where n/naka is. Growing up, I spoke a mix of Japanese and English with my parents and my grandmother who lived with us. Inside our house were a lot of decorations from Japan. Like Niki, I ate a mix of Japanese foods and American foods. In fact, it wasn't until middle school that I learned not everyone ate spaghetti and pasta with a side of rice. We had Japanese rice with almost every meal. But outside of the house, I felt as American as the next kid. It was this blending of cultures that I wanted to carry through in this book.
JM: The aspect of Niki's life that drew me to the story is her fighting spirit. In Chef's Table, she said, "In Japanese, there's this word called kuyashii, which is when somebody puts you down or says you can't do something and you have this burning desire to prove them wrong." Throughout the book, whenever anyone doubts her, she uses it as motivation. Since I'd never written a picture book biography before, I sometimes doubted myself during the research and writing process, and then Chef Niki's own words pushed me along: "No matter what happens, I can do this. At some point. you need to trust yourself." It's a great message for readers of any age.
While researching this book, which fact surprised you the most?
DMF: Because I first learned about Chef Niki and her amazing journey on the Netflix show Chef's Table, I can't say I was super surprised by anything I learned from researching. I was, however, continually impressed and amazed by Niki Nakayama's fortitude, perseverance, and determination to make her dreams come true.
JM: I was surprised to learn that she originally wanted to be a pop star! That didn't make it into the book, but I love the idea of her being a professional musician. The snacks she made as a kid were also fun to hear about. Her childhood recipe for wonton pizzas is in the book, and they're delicious.
Why do you think kids can relate to Niki Nakayama?
DMF: I think almost every child at some point feels discouraged. Even as an adult, I was (and still am) inspired by Niki's journey to success. Kuyashii! I'll show them is a soundtrack in my head, now. So I hope that kids can relate to Niki's journey and be encouraged to follow their dreams.
JM: Kids can relate to being discouraged and also doubted. It's difficult to know what to do with other people's doubt when you're a kid—or even as a grown-up. What I hope young readers take away from this story is that they don't have to let other people's opinions get them down. Instead they can take that doubt and use it as fuel. They can dream big and work hard to accomplish anything.
Which sources were invaluable to writing this biography?
DMF: Jamie! 😀
JM: Obviously the Chef's Table episode, which I watched many times. But the most important source was Chef Niki herself. She was gracious with her time, and I interviewed her over the phone, in person, and via email when Debbi and I had follow-up questions. Also, reading a ton of picture book biographies—too many good ones to name—helped when selecting the best moments to string into a story.
How did you select the timeframe for your book?
JM: It begins with Chef Niki as a child because kids are interested in reading about other kids their age. So we start when she's in about second grade and end with the moment after n/naka becomes a huge success.
What's your #1 tip for writing true stories?
DMF: For me it's about passion. I need to feel passionate or at least some kind of connection to the subject/person in order to write about it/them.
JM: Find the heart of your story. It's probably what drew you to it in the first place. What's the emotional center that will resonate most with readers and make them think, "I've felt that way, too"? Keep your story tightly focused. Even a most interesting moment might not make the cut if it doesn't support the heart of your story. But that's what backmatter is for.
If you could pick the ideal place for a Niki Nakayama storywalk, where would it be?
DMF: The Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles CA.
JM: Ooo, that's a good one. Any elementary school would be great, too.
What other books would you recommend to readers who love Niki Nakayama?
DMF: Magic Ramen by Andrea Wang, illustrated by Kana Urbanowicz; Soul Food Sunday by Winsome Bingham, illustrated by CG Esperanza; Ramen for Everyone by Pat Tanumihardja, illustrated by Shiho Pate, Sandor Katz and the Tiny Wild by Jacqueline Briggs Martin and June Jo Lee, illustrated by Julie Wilson
JM: Yes to all of those. Also, Chef Roy Choi and the Street Food Remix by Jacqueline Briggs Martin and June Jo Lee, illustrated by Man One; Jasmine Toguchi: Mochi Queen by Debbi Michiko Florence, and illustrated by Elizabet Vukovic; and A Girl Named Rosita: The Story of Rita Moreno by Anika Aldamuy Denise.
TRUE STORY TIDBITS
- This book is on three shelves in my TrueStory Bookshop:
- Women's History
- Asian and AAPI Stories
To take a peek inside the book, checkout my BookTok.
Every day is a good day for a true story but here are some special tie-in dates for Niki Nakayama—A Chef's Tale in 13 Bites:
- January 1: Japanese New Year
- March: Women's History Month
- March 8: International Women's Day
- May: AANHPI Month
- June: Pride Month