Niki Nakayama: A Chef’s Tale in 13 Bites

Farrar. Sept. 2021. 40p. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9780374313876.
K-Gr 3–Well-chosen details in this picture book biography chart a young chef’s development as she forges her own path using food to tell her story. Growing up in her family’s Los Angeles home where Japanese traditions were observed, it seemed to Niki that her two cultures became one in the kitchen. On holidays, her family ate teriyaki turkey, with ever-present rice. Young Niki enjoyed experimenting and inventing new recipes, but her parents and others scoffed at her dream of becoming a chef. Undaunted, she attended culinary school, interned with a sushi chef, and traveled to Japan. A not-to-scale map traces Niki’s trip, sampling foods in Tokyo, then traveling by bullet train to the countryside ryokan (traditional inn) owned by her cousins. At the ryokan, she encountered kaiseki, cuisine focused on fresh, seasonal foods. Back in the United States, and with her family’s backing, Niki opened a sushi restaurant. Her hard work led to success, and won her parents’ approval. Eventually, Niki made the difficult decision to close the restaurant in order to open a new one, n/naka, featuring her innovative version of kaiseki. Now a Michelin-starred chef, Niki’s elegant dishes are “art and story—her story.” Back matter includes a time line, further explanation of Japanese terms. and Niki’s recipe for wonton pizza.
VERDICT This empowering picture book biography is both lively and thoughtful, and a strong choice for primary grade readers who enjoy exploring culture through food, as in Salma the Syrian Chef by Danny Ramadan.

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