When Nathaly Nicolas-Ianniello opened NA/NA in Paris in 2015, not only was it the first time she had ever worked as a chef, but it was her first job in a restaurant. A daring thing for anyone to do, but she was 52, and many of her friends thought she was nuts.
Like most French chefs, Nicolas-Ianniello started cooking when she was a child — but not, as the cliché goes, at her grandmother’s elbow amid the vapors of pot au feu.
“I don’t have childhood memories of something smelling good in the cuisine,” she said, using the French word for kitchen. Raised by a single mother in the Parisian suburb Marnes-la-Coquette, Nicolas-Ianniello grew up in the era of canned foods. Dinner often meant eggs at 9 p.m.
“I taught myself to cook because I had to,” she said.
Good scents were abundant, however, on a recent afternoon in the tiny, L-shaped kitchen of NA/NA, in the 11th Arrondissement, emanating from a dessert on the evening’s menu. There was the buttery, nutty smell of black sesame streusel; the earthy, bittersweet aroma of single-origin chocolate; the saline funk of small-batch sweet miso from Kyoto, Japan.
All would be combined on handmade ceramic plates, just a few shades darker than the black sesame-miso cream on top. The almost savory panna cottalike layer is crowned with silky chocolate ganache and shards of the cocoa streusel. It is a textural delight — soft and creamy, with a crunch varying from sandy to brittle-crisp, and sophisticated flavors that flit from salty to bitter to sweet.
As both the aesthetic and flavors in this dish illustrate, Nicolas-Ianniello’s cooking is influenced by time spent in Japan, much of it during her former career as a journalist covering ecological issues.
Ecological journalism gave Nicolas-Ianniello a deeper understanding of the links among food production, sustainability and the environment. Eventually, her interest in those ties grew so overwhelming that she knew it had to become the heart of her work. And it led her, in 2004, to open a cooking school called Esprit Cuisine that focused on organic ingredients.
She also began writing cookbooks, including one written with Apollonia Poilâne of Poilâne bakery, in part about using leftover stale bread to address the very pressing question of food waste.
Although opening NA/NA in her 50s without any restaurant experience was, in a way, terrifying, Nicolas-Ianniello and her partner Charlotte Demonceau were ready for the challenge.
“At first I thought I didn’t want a restaurant, that I was too old,” Nicolas-Ianniello said. “But then I thought if we make it a little rock ‘n’ roll, and do things our way with intelligence and kindness, we could have something to be proud of.”
Doing things her way means changing the menu twice a day, every day, to be best able to react to the unpredictability of finding seasonal, fair-trade and sustainable ingredients. If the line-caught white tuna from the Basque Country (served perhaps with local haricots vert and a citrus purée), wasn’t available two hours before dinner service, off the menu it went — with or without a replacement.
The formula worked. Within weeks of opening, the 32-seat space secured its place among a coterie of new, critically acclaimed all-day Paris restaurants — the kind that transition from the homemade granola on sheep milk yogurt for breakfast to beet velouté with yuzu for lunch, to lamb brains with mint, followed by bee pollen meringue, for dinner.
The speed of NA/NA’s success may have seemed surprising. But, for Nicolas-Ianniello, it was a natural progression in a rich, full life.
“I don’t think I would have been able to do what I did so quickly,” she said, “if I hadn’t done what I’d done before.”
Chocolate Ganache With Black Sesame and Miso
Yield: 6 servings
Total time: 1 hour, plus at least 8 hours’ chilling
For the sesame-miso cream:
1 cup (240 milliliters) whole milk
1 teaspoon powdered gelatin
1 cup (240 milliliters) heavy cream
1/4 cup (80 grams) honey, more to taste
7 tablespoons (120 grams) black sesame paste (see note)\
1/4 cup (58 grams) sweet miso (see note, or use 2 tablespoons/29 grams white shiro miso)
For the ganache:
3/4 cup (150 grams) chopped dark chocolate (around 70 percent)
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons (150 grams) heavy cream
1 1/2 tablespoons (30 grams) light corn syrup or honey
1 1/2 tablespoons (20 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature
For the chocolate black-sesame streusel:
1/4 cup (50 grams) finely chopped dark chocolate (around 70 percent)
4 tablespoons (66 grams) unsalted butter, cold and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon (50 grams) all-purpose flour
2 1/2 tablespoons (32 grams) packed light brown sugar
2 1/2 tablespoons (30 grams) Demerara sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons (7 grams) unsweetened, Dutch-processed cocoa powder
Pinch kosher salt
1/4 cup (30 grams) black sesame seeds, more for serving
Micro herbs, edible flowers or berries, such as red currants or wild blueberries, for serving (optional)
1. Prepare the sesame-miso cream: Place 1/2 cup milk in a small bowl, then sprinkle gelatin over the top. Let sit for 5 minutes to soften.
2. Combine remaining 1/2 cup milk, cream and honey in a small pot, and heat until simmering. Remove from heat, and stir in gelatin mixture, black sesame paste and miso. Mix with an immersion blender (or transfer to a regular blender to mix) until smooth. Taste and add a bit more honey, if you like. Divide sesame cream among 6 shallow bowls or small gratin dishes (or ramekins), cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 8 hours and up to 5 days.
3. Prepare the ganache: Place chocolate in a heatproof bowl. In a medium pot, bring cream and corn syrup to a boil. Pour over the chocolate, then let sit for 1 minute. Stir together with a spatula until combined, then stir in butter until melted and smooth.
4. Cool ganache to room temperature, then cover and refrigerate until needed, at least 4 hours and up to 5 days. (Allow ganache to soften at room temperature for at least 30 minutes before serving).
5. To prepare the streusel, heat oven to 325 degrees, and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. In a food processor, pulse chocolate until just chopped into mini-chocolate-chip-size pieces, about 1/8 inch. (Try not to go any finer so you preserve some texture.) Transfer to a large bowl.
6. Add butter, flour, brown sugar, Demerara sugar, cocoa powder and salt to the food processor. Pulse just until the dough comes together into a crumbly mass. Scrape into bowl with chocolate, then add sesame seeds; fold to combine. Transfer to prepared baking sheet. Top with another piece of parchment paper and roll out to a 1/2-inch-thick slab. (It doesn’t have to be round as long as it’s evenly thick.) Remove top layer of parchment paper.
7. Bake until darkened all over top, and the butter is bubbling up throughout the dough, about 25 to 30 minutes. Transfer the pan to a wire rack and let cool. Break into bite-size pieces.
8. To assemble, uncover sesame cream and dollop or pipe some of the chocolate ganache on top. (You probably won’t need all of the ganache.) Top with crumbled streusel, black sesame seeds and micro herbs or edible flowers, if using.