Ali Wong Reveals Real-Life Inspiration Behind Her 'Always Be My Maybe' Chef Role

The actress looked to Niki Nakayama of the acclaimed L.A. kaiseki restaurant N/Naka, who was brought on to consult on the film's $1,600-per-person joke menu.

In Always Be My Maybe, the Netflix romantic comedy released May 31, Ali Wong stars as a L.A. celebrity chef who reconnects with a childhood friend (Randall Park, who co-wrote the script with Wong) while opening a restaurant in her native San Francisco. Niki Nakayama of the acclaimed Culver City kaiseki restaurant N/Naka was her key inspiration.

"There’s many ways I identify with her," says Wong, a stand-up phenomenon who, like many, was first introduced to Nakayama through her breakout episode of Chef’s Table, which chronicled her business partnership with wife Carol Iida and unconventional pathway in Japanese cuisine. "She’s a woman who, like me, works in a male-dominated field and only works at night, and it was when she really started doing her own thing that people paid attention, which was interesting to me: paving your own way and finding your voice takes risk and time and failure.” The pair, who live near each other on the Westside, have since become friends, planning hangouts with their families: "We’ll go get yakitori."

Wong brought Nakayama onto the film as a food consultant. The chef — whose restaurant received two Michelin stars on June 3 (she borrowed a dress from Wong for the announcement ceremony) — helped spoof the excesses of high-concept cuisine for a key set piece at what the actress terms “this douchey restaurant called Maximal,” which was staged inside the Contemporary Jewish Museum in Vancouver. Nakayama’s contributions to the $1,600-per-person joke menu included clear asparagus soup extracted with a centrifuge, venison consumed while listening to the sounds of deer through earphones, and an Instagram-baiting dish of black ink pasta with black mussels and black bread, served on a black plate. Says Nakayama, "It’s making fun of the culinary world on one level but paying homage to its creativity on another." 

Wong observes that their respective crafts are closer than they may appear. “What’s true of comedy as well as food,” she explains, “is that you have to constantly innovate but maintain your point of view."

A version of this story first appeared in the June 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.