Meet the Chef: Shota Nakajima on Reopening Taku, Japanese Comfort Food, and Good Vibes

Chef Shota Nakajima reopened his casual Capitol Hill restaurant, Taku, today, May 5, nearly one year after closing it due to the pandemic. Nakajima has simplified and recreated Taku’s menu to feature his favorite childhood food—karaage—also known as Japanese fried chicken.

I interviewed the Top Chef season 18 contestant and three-time James Beard Award semi-finalist Shota Nakajima about his journey, desire to help rebuild Capitol Hill’s community, his passion for pickled bamboo shoots, and of course, the reopening of his restaurant and bar Taku. The transcript below is lightly edited for length and clarity.

Rebecca / Seattleite: I like to start interviews with a little bit of an icebreaker. Do you have a pen and paper handy? Can you draw your favorite breakfast?

Chef Shota: My favorite breakfast? I like it, I am all for it.  I drew a bowl of rice, with an egg yolk on top and kimchi. 

What does your journey as a chef look like?

I started working in restaurants when I was 16 and had two full-time jobs working in restaurants: washing dishes, peeling onions, and slowly moving my way up. Around this age, I was talking to other Japanese chefs who trained in Japan and just knew more. So, I thought “you know what, if I want to continue doing Japanese food, I might as well go to Japan”. When I was 18, I moved to Japan and ended up working in a Michelin starred restaurant. I was in Japan for 5 years and then I came back and opened my first restaurant when I was 25. 5 years later, I bought my first bar when I was 30. I closed it last year and now I am reopening it again.

I’ve been cooking for 16 years now. I’m still doing it and I still wash dishes every day. And from day one until now I still hate peeling garlic. It’s one of my least favorite things to do.

Was there anything that you thought you wanted to do before you started cooking?

I wanted to be a firefighter. I think from when I was in elementary school until I was 14 years old. I always thought firefighters were really cool. I love fire, in a weird way. I mean I work in a kitchen, right? I don’t know, I just thought it was a really cool thing.

How did you decide to make the transition from the tireless pursuit of perfection in prix fixe dining to thriving in the imperfection in a street food format?

I originally started with Naka, which was extremely expensive. When you are sitting down, you’re spending at least $200 for yourself. In Japan, fine dining is $500. $100 or $200 isn’t too much. Over here in Seattle, the perspective is very different. What I ran into was that I wasn’t getting regulars and I am a big believer that the regulars are the ones that create the restaurant. 

Through being in Capitol Hill, being in the industry, and living in Capitol Hill, I met more friends. I thought, “I want my friends to come in and eat with me”. Just being in Capitol Hill, I always wanted to go out to bars after work and have a gathering place. I pretty much created a place that I wanted to go to. A place where all my friends can go to. It’s a gathering place. That’s why I named the bar Taku. Taku stands for the word ‘”shokutaku’”, which means your dining room table at your house. The perspective is, it’s like your second home. Before you want to go home, you go say “hi” or you come eat fried chicken. It’s not going to break the bank, it’s something you can do casually.

I think after doing fine dining I realized that what I love the most out of the industry, is creating the space, creating that culture, within the employees as well. The cooking part [of fine dining] is still a big passion of mine. I am still doing pop-ups; I have four dinners I’m planning right now. It’s nice I have a straightforward concept that I love, and it helps me walk away from it when I want to do pop-ups. It’s actually easier to do more pop-ups and cook different things and be creative. I am looking forward to that part and seeing how that goes; just doing a bunch of events and overwhelming myself. My employees and chefs that came and worked for me [at Adana] wanted to learn directly from me so I had to be there, and I had to be working on the menu. That’s one of the double edge swords for having a business like that. 

In 2020 you opened Taku, closed Adana, and then ultimately closed Taku. What are you most proud of during that uncertain time?

I think my proudest moment was going on Top Chef and putting myself in an uncomfortable situation, challenging myself. After closing, I was figuring out what I’m supposed to do, and I hit walls in so many directions. I am proud of myself for doing [Top Chef] and getting out there and I am proud of myself for not rushing it. Not rushing like I have been doing my whole life. I stopped and evaluated ‘what do I want to do and how do I want to move forward’ and setting plans. I haven’t technically been working for the last X number of months, but I have been working extreme hours for the last four months by myself. Getting it ready, setting it up, talking to people, picking up new mentors, making relationships, and finding inspiration not just within the restaurant industry but within the community too. 

Curry Karaage Burger. Photo credit: Taku

How did the opportunity to be on Top Chef come about? Obviously, you applied but why was 2020 your year?

2020 was the year because I left like I had nothing to lose. [Previously] I had so many employees. At the end I had 30 employees. I had employees for five years of my life that I was always taking care of. Even before that I managed people, I’ve always been in that management position. It was the first time in my life that I didn’t have to manage people, I didn’t have to do all those things. All I had to do was focus and take care of myself. So, I thought “why not? Why not do Top Chef right now? What am I going to lose?”

Obviously, it was a very strange time to be competing on a restaurant-centric cooking show, in the PNW; during 2020 with wildfires, civil unrest, and a raging pandemic all around. How did it feel to be participating in a show during such a challenging year for the industry and this part of the country? 

It felt surreal. We were in downtown Portland and the city was going through a rough time. All the storefronts were closed and the streets were empty. It looked like one of those movies, and then the smoke came and you couldn’t see [more than] 10 feet away. That part made me feel like I was in Stranger Things or that kind of movie, for sure. 

Within that, I think 2020 was an incredible year to go on Top Chef, speaking for myself, because I was missing cooking. I was missing camaraderie with people. I was missing learning from other people. I remember just going in the first Quickfire we had. I was having such a fun time, I was so happy to just be there, cooking with people, feeling that energy. It was stressful and the camera people got in the way but that was way more important to me.

Did you feel like you had an advantage since you’ve lived a large chunk of your life in the Pacific Northwest?

I think I would have had a disadvantage if I went down south or somewhere not by the ocean and if all the challenges are meat and cactuses and things like that. In that sense, I got lucky with the Pacific Northwest because I had a lot of familiarity with the ingredients.

What did you learn during your experience on Top Chef that you hope to instill in your restaurant?

That’s a big deep question. Grace is a word I have been focusing on. And appreciation of what we have. Gratefulness of having a job, having good people around us. I talk about my company culture and what I want us to strive for with the team every day. The biggest thing is just being grateful for what we have. Strive to be the best version of yourself. You don’t need to compete with other people. When I was on the show, I didn’t compete with other people. I was competing with myself every day. It was like the Mario Kart Ghost version; you’re racing against yourself and seeing if you can turn that corner a little better.

I think I want to encourage that sort of energy. Also, I am a lot more confident as a person. The guy who has been working for me for eight years said ‘you know what’s the most different about you? You are just a lot more confident to just say this and do that’. Work operation wise and how I need to delegate. I think just being on the show and going through that experience, meeting new friends, and getting inspired. Staying inspired is what I have taken from the show.

How has your food changed or adapted during 2020 and the pandemic?

That’s interesting because there is Top Chef mixed in too. During Top Chef I learned so much about cooking. Every single episode, every single challenge, [I’m watching the chef’s around me and I’m] learning something new. I’ve done other TV shows in the past and that was one of the biggest things I regretted; not watching what other people were doing, ignoring the producers and trying their food. This time I really went for all of that.

For me that was an extraordinary experience. For example, the Pan-African challenge. I don’t work with those spices or ingredients. I don’t do sauces like that. I remember looking around and watching Gabe cooking onions and things in a certain way. I was watching Avishar using spices and I was watching Gabriel and Sara use certain ingredients and my sauce was literally four different things that I picked up by watching people during the show within the challenge. That’s how I came up with and executed my dish. It’s such a quick learning experience because I am just staring at everything, if that makes sense. And I loved it. It was so much fun to do that. I am such an adrenaline junkie, that the pressure got me saying “okay, let’s do this! I’m up for it!”  

karaage horizontalKaraage. Photo credit: Taku

So, tell me about Taku and what we all can expect when we get to dine there?

Smiles, good food, simple good fun vibes. I keep thinking about the community right now. That’s my big goal, our team’s big goal, really our whole block’s goal. I’ve talked to every business around the block. Capitol Hill has been through so much recently. My friends and family in Japan and out of state still have the image of Capitol Hill as being extremely unapproachable and unsafe. But Capitol Hill is full of small businesses. My goal right now, as a member of the Capitol Hill community, is to bring the positive energy back to the Hill again.

Obviously, I can’t do that, and my team can’t do that alone. The only way we can do that is if the block and community work together. That’s one of my biggest goals I have right now for Taku. I am on such an amazing block, with Life on Mars, La Dive, Red Hook Brewery, Salt and Straw, and Honey Hole. It’s an amazing group of people. Every owner is super genuine, all the managers are amazing at every restaurant, and every business around the block. It’s a good fun place and I am excited to just see what I can bring to the Hill.      

I love that you are serving a F*ck it Bucket, I feel that’s what we all need in 2021. What dish on the menu is a must have?

Honestly, the cabbage salad. It’s so simple, but I’m a sucker for a really good cabbage salad. I have a really nice slicer from Japan that’s just made for cabbage. Japanese people are crazy technical about certain things, so this machine is amazing. It shreds the cabbage so fine and perfect; the blade moves as you spin [the cabbage], but the texture comes out extremely crunchy because we shock it in ice water right away. That’s how you get that crunch on vegetables. It’s very simple. We do that and have a house-made dressing from Adana, because it’s delicious, with some bonito flakes and yummy other crunchy things on top. 

Jell-O shots were an unexpected surprise on the menu. What inspired you to add them?

It’s starting to get warm and who doesn’t like a Jell-O shot?! It was harder to be approachable with Naka and Adana. With Top Chef coming out, one thing I have been talking with my managers about is being approachable. I’m just a guy who walks my dog on Capitol Hill every single day. So, let’s just make the menu as approachable and fun as possible. I want people to walk by the restaurant, look at the menu, and get a little laugh out of it because it’s funny. 

What are you most excited about in reopening your restaurant?

Having my team back and seeing my team operate and work together. It’s the best feeling as an owner to see your team drive and be successful, push forward. Operation-wise, I hired my team about two weeks ago. I had the menu set but I have not been able to be there. My team is doing everything, more than I expected of them to do. I love working with people. Seeing how people get creative and push boundaries in their way. Seeing them surprise me. 

What ingredients are inspiring you right now?

I actually got a ratio of Jerk Spice from Kiki [a fellow contestant Top Chef]. I’ve been messing around with a little bit of that. I did my base Japanese curry and added a little bit of Jerk Spice to it to give that different edge. I’ve also learned a few techniques of mole from Gabe. I’ve been mixing all those things together, but keeping the base Japanese. I’m feeling inspiration from different ingredients and little techniques I learned here and there and incorporating it in. 

Is there one food that you’re secretly obsessed with having at home?

Bamboo shoots pickled in chili oil. It’s one of my favorite things and you can get it in Asian grocery stores. It is the same bamboo shoots that are put on top of ramen, but they put it in chili oil.

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