Allium Restaurant's Lisa Nakamura Reflects on Wisdom Gained

Harley Lever
Allium Restaurant's Lisa Nakamura is widely known around Seattle for her time cooking at formal institutions like the French Laundry and as Chef de Cuisine of the Herbfarm before opening her own place. The process to looking good on paper also came with lessons learned, but while Nakamura's culinary experiences helped shape her character and that of Allium, it was not in the way that many would expect. Nakamura maintains a lax approach; bringing tiki drinks to Allium, and possibly trading her chef whites for the occasional Hawaiian shirt.

SW: What was your background growing up and how did it shape you to become a chef?

Nakamura: I grew up in Hilo, Hawaii. Hilo is a small town. It's a sleepy town on the rainy side of the island which means we don't get a huge amount of tourists. Agriculture is big. When I was growing up, sugar cane was a huge part of the economy, and I have watched it die in that area.

I grew up around quite a few family members. We would all meet at our grandmother's house which was about three minutes south of us. She had her house near volcanoes that were constantly erupting. We would go there and have pot lucks and have aunts and uncles that show up. We would go fishing. Sometimes, a cousin would climb up a tree and get coconuts. I didn't think so at the time, but I guess it was quite a unique experience to grow up eating fresh coconuts off the tree or fish straight out of the water. It also had a huge impact on food for me because it was very country. As much as I like fine dining and nice wine, and all the fancy things that accompany a world class restaurant, there's an element of cooking and simplicity that really appeals to me.

Holidays for us were fabulous. Thanksgiving was two coffee tables end to end, loaded with food. In addition to the traditional turkey and stuffing, and everything else, we had at least double of what you expect to see beyond the turkey. It was truly an eating festival. My grandfather and uncle always had papaya trees. My father did as well. So every morning for pretty much my whole life, my mother would make me eat half a papaya, which I rebelled against. Now I know how lucky I was!

That has been a huge influence in how I cook; not just how I cook but how I like things to be in my restaurant. I don't like to have that really stuffy feel because as much as I want food to be excellent, I also want people to feel comfortable. I don't care if people come in shorts. We get this phone call a lot where we get these people asking if we have a dress code. And my response is always the same, "Yes, we ask that you please show up dressed." It's as simple as that.

This is why Allium has the Aloha Fridays?

Friday in Hawaii is a big thing. It's, not that we're formal dressers in Hawaii anyway, but when we were growing up, it was time when we'd wear our muumuus and sometimes you're lucky enough to get a lei. It was a way of celebrating the end of the week. We're standing around in a very grey January day and I just thought, maybe we should have Aloha Fridays. Maybe people will come out for it, maybe they won't. Just for me, the mental break is huge. Especially in the winter time, it's so grey here.

You've taken a more casual approach with the restaurant but at the same time, you've had some very formal training and experience at the Herbfarm and French Laundry. What have you been able to take from those experiences and how is your approach now different?

I guess informal doesn't necessarily mean lesser quality. For some reason, people seem to think that if it's informal, the quality doesn't matter or the attention to detail doesn't matter but I think it still does. One of the things we do is that we try to make as much as we can from scratch. That may or may not happen depending on where you go and depending on who is running it, but I don't think that just because you're informal, you take any less care of what is going out on a plate or you care any less about who is eating.

I say informal, but there will be those who will say, "Well, you do charge pretty hefty prices." I would say, yes, we do come with a price tag. We try to serve things that are as local as possible, the best quality that we can. We try to support the people around us. Also, our labor has cost as well. What goes into a dish has more than just what you see. There is a lot of thought and training that goes behind it. It's hard to marry the two because people often think that informal is also cheap, which it's not. You have cheap and you can have informal, but one doesn't necessarily equate the other. We just want people to have an experience where they really do get their bang for the buck. That's always the challenge. I always go back and forth about what's on the plate. Are they getting a fair price, if I were buying it would I purchase this?

How do you feel that Michael Ruhlman had wrote about you in "the Soul of Chef"?

You know, I don't really know what he said about me. That person [on the cover] is me. I'm honored but I don't really think about it. I'm very flattered they would put that photo on the cover. When Thomas [Keller] told me, I was very shocked. I don't think about it because I just don't think a lot of myself, and not in a bad way. It's just, it's not about me. I mean, it is. Allium's personality—the person on twitter, the person who writes—there is a real person behind that and that's me, but in another way, it's not really about me. I'm just the means to the end. It's not about me putting it out there so you can say how great I am. It's about, did I put something out there that I really truly enjoyed? If I didn't, I'm really sorry and if I did, that's fantastic and I did my job well.

Here's the other thing. Yesterday, I was reading this article about female chefs and something about how hard it was in the men's world and she said she wanted to be up there with the guys, chicks being as bad ass as the guys. In some ways I get that. I went through that phase too. I wanted to say that you don't have to be like one of the guys. "The guys" should not be the determining standard of what a good chef is. I think what is more important for me, not just female chefs and for chefs in general is that, it's not really about you. It's really not. We have these rock star chefs and they're wonderful. I truly applaud them. In the long run, when people come to restaurants, they come to restaurants to eat.

For someone with such a prolific career, is it difficult to manage having a family?

For me, it comes at a personal price. I didn't get married until I was in my early forties. I traveled around the world, cooked in couple foreign countries. I put my career and professional development first. Part of it is being an emotional chicken shit. Let's be honest, relationships are kind of scary. It's a very safe thing to do when you can throw yourself into work. I enjoyed that. I wanted to see the world and I did. The other thing is that I've never had kids and I don't think I ever will. I think that probably is one of the hardest things for a female chef to do. For those who have gone out and done that, worked while they were pregnant and then had the kid and gone back to work, I am in total awe. I don't know how they do that.

It's a constant struggle. My husband doesn't see that much of me. I'm home in the winter times and in the summer times, he's up on Orcas. Part of that is great because absence does make the heart grow fonder, and I also don't feel quite so guilty if I'm working long hours and he doesn't feel quite guilty if he's working long hours. It also helps that we found each other having been single people for a long time. It's not a huge thing to be apart but when we are together, we really enjoy each other's company. I would say if we were a younger, newly married couple, it would be very difficult.

What challenges do you have as a restaurant owner that differ from the challenges of just being a chef?

The biggest leap for me mentally, it's still a leap I make every day, is that there is no saying, "Let me go ask the boss", because you are the boss. It's like, "Oh, I guess that's my decision huh?" That's my decision and I love it but it scares me shitless. You can't say, "You told me to do that."

I would say to anyone, not just a restaurant, but any business; you do it with this inordinate amount of faith in your abilities, whether or not it's deserved. It's really hard to be optimistic. There are days where it's very quiet and slow in the winter and you think, "God, do I suck?" and it may have nothing to do with you. Then there are days in the summer and it's just jammin'. It's these huge ups and downs. It's this sense of optimism where you believe you can do it and you're crazy enough to jump off the ledge. It's truly awesome. It's like, "Oh god, is my parachute going to hold me?" and if it doesn't, that's okay too.

Is it?

Yea, I think so. Knock on wood, and I'm knocking on my head right now, if Allium will ever go under or whatever, I'm already a much wiser person, not just in people skills but in the whole rounded picture, than I ever was going in. It's kind of like having child, like unless you have that experience, you're never going to understand that experience for what it is. No one can ever take that away from me. I really love the restaurant. I love what it has given me. Part of it is not just an expression of myself but also the wisdom that I managed to gain from it and that's huge.

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