TASTY BOOKS & BIG DREAMS: A RECIPE by Debbi Michiko Florence and Jamie Michalak
“A book is a dream that you hold in your hand.” — Neil Gaiman
Our new picture book, Niki Nakayama: A Chef’s Tale in 13 Bites, illustrated by Yuko Jones, is about the inspiring woman who made her big dream come true. When people told Niki that she couldn’t be a chef, she used their words as her fuel — and she became a Michelin-starred master chef. As it turns out, achieving big dreams and writing books have a lot in common. And just like one of Chef Niki’s recipes, they both require certain ingredients.
(Jamie’s ingredients in blue & Debbi’s in pink):
HEART: Chef Niki’s big dream was to create kaiseki, a multi-course Japanese meal that tells a story. But as far as she knew, no female kaiseki chefs existed. She had to overcome gender barriers to become perhaps the only female kaiseki chef in the world. Like Chef Niki’s dream, a story begins when an author follows their heart. When I first discovered Niki Nakayama on the “Chef’s Table,” her story unfolded to me like a picture book. I saw it, and more importantly, felt it. Her determination and fighting spirit moved me. At the time, Niki Nakayama seemed like an unlikely subject for a picture book. She wasn’t a historical figure or a household name yet. But the idea wouldn’t let me go, and following my heart led to working with Debbi and Yuko to make our book (and dream) come true.
FAITH: Every dream and book begins with a leap of faith. In the early days of writing this book, I thought, “maybe this won’t work” and “give it up, lady.” This happens every time I write a story. Those voices of doubt inevitably creep in. But when that happened with this book, I was buoyed by Chef Niki’s own words: “No matter what happens, I can do this. At some point, you need to trust yourself.” She’s right. Although others doubted her dream, she trusted it. The same goes for writing. To write authentically, it helps to trust your gut and write for yourself. Then edit with the audience in mind.
PERSONALIZATION: When Niki Nakayama envisioned opening n/naka, she wanted to create a modern take on traditional kaiseki dishes, infusing her own ideas and making it a blend of Japanese and Californian, like her.
I do something similar when I’m writing stories. I infuse pieces of my life and my memories into my books. I am sansei, or third generation, which means my grandparents immigrated to the States. I was born in San Francisco and grew up in Los Angeles. My characters are also Japanese and American – a third-grade girl who wants to do something before her “expert” big sister or a seventh-grade girl who is caught between her two best friends who aren’t getting along. Bits and pieces of my childhood and family traditions make their way into my stories. In Jasmine Toguchi Super Sleuth, Jasmine’s family celebrates Girl’s Day in part by dressing up in kimonos and taking photos with the special doll display, something I did with my family on Girl’s Day. Following dreams is important, and making them yours is even more special.
FAILURE: Before Chef Niki opened n/naka, she made up lots of recipes and tested them. Not all were winners. Some flavor combinations seemed like a good idea in her head, but didn’t taste right. She had to tweak and test some more. Writing is the same. The earlier drafts of Niki Nakayama were much different than the final version. But then I landed on the 13 bites structure and Debbi created the metaphor of kaiseki as a stream moving diners (and readers) along a culinary journey. We tested, tweaked, and tossed lines. Debbi and I wrote more than thirty drafts, passing it back and forth between us — and later, our editor, Grace Kendall — before it became a book.
PERSISTENCE: Niki Nakayama had to overcome big obstacles to achieve (and surpass) her dreams of owning her own restaurant and creating her own dishes that told a story, her story.
When I started out with the hope of getting published, it was quite a journey. I read craft books, joined writing groups, took workshops and went to conferences. I wrote and revised. And eventually, I took the next step and tried to find an editor who wanted to buy my work and turn it into a book.
And that’s when the rejections started to roll in. I knew it was part of the journey, but it was still very hard to hear “no” over and over and over again. I kept learning and writing and revising. And I kept hearing No. When I wrote my chapter book Jasmine Toguchi Mochi Queen, one editor told me that the Japanese culture aspect was “too narrow a focus” and not widely appealing enough. But I didn’t give up, because this was my dream, and also, I’m stubborn. Eventually an editor (in fact, the same editor, Grace Kendall, who bought the Niki Nakayama book) fell in love with Jasmine Toguchi and not only turned it into a book, but an entire chapter book series. I didn’t give up. Niki Nakayama: A Chef’s Tale in 13 Bites is my 19th published book.
For your tasty book or big dream, here’s what to do. . . . Add a heaping portion of each ingredient. Sprinkle in some humor, mix in a dash of suspense, and stir. (For a book, it also helps to have a taster or two — a trusted reader, teacher, and especially an editor — to give it a try before you serve it.)
Bake for approximately one month to 100 years.
And then, enjoy!
Debbi Michiko Florence is a third generation Japanese American, and the author of the Jasmine Toguchi series and Keep It Together, Keiko Carter (Scholastic). Debbi lives in Connecticut.
Jamie Michalak loves how food tells a story and brings people together to create more. She is the author of more than forty children’s books, including the highly praised Joe and Sparky early reader series, Frank and Bean, Dakota Crumb: Tiny Treasure Hunter, and more. Jamie lives in Rhode Island.