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Shota Nakajima

Competing against himself yesterday

Ostensibly, our interview with Shota on September 23 was about his new partnership with Redhook running the kitchen at Redhook Brewlab and creating pizzas inspired by Detroit-style pies with a Japanese palate. And we did, later. But first we talked about his outlook on life.

Shota's family is all about the hospitality business; his father's family has a restaurant; his mother's family owned a bakery. The family had to hustle. "I learned early on that we make our own future," Shota recalls. He was born in Japan, and the family moved to Washington when he was very young. They returned to Japan for a few years and Shota spent those years in junior high before they returned to the US. When he was 16, he dropped out of high school. I needed a job, so I got one in a restaurant, Kiku Sushi. I also filled in with full time hours at other restaurants. It was liberating. I learned to show up and do my best, and I got praised. People liked me because they could count on me."

At 18, he decided he wanted to go to Japan and work with a Michelin star chef. "I had no idea what that meant. I saw Japanese chefs that trained in the US and those who trained in Japan. I wanted to be 'that guy' - the one who trained in Japan. I saw success as having a fulfilling life where I had a lot of experiences and met a lot of great people. I had a duffle bag and no plan. What's the worst that can happen? If I'm not dead, things are okay." His mentor was Chef Yasuhiko Sakamoto, a Michelin star rated chef and Shota worked 120 hours each week. "I wouldn't want to work at a Michelin star restaurant here. It's very different in Japan, it's like an army, extremely vertical and logical. The chef may put up with something you say in a bad way, but if it's logical, you'll get away with it. If it's not logical, you will know. I used to think, 'Seriously, does it have to be 3 ml exactly?' and the answer is yes. I was about 2-3 years in when I was at a bar with Chef when he asked me why details matter. I didn't know. In the restaurant, everyone is back of the house, and everyone touches the dish before it goes to the customer. Everyone understands how much goes into that dish. It's about pride in doing everything for that guest."

Shota stayed in Osaka for 5-1/2 years. People said he'd never make it in Japan. "I am so stubborn. They said I couldn't, so I did. I really intended to stay 10 years, but I came back to Washington to be near my family." When asked if possibly people understood his stubbornness and used it to motivate him, Shota smiles and agrees they may have used that technique.

He worked at Sushi Kappo Tamura from 2011-12 and started Kappo Kitchen catering in 2014. "My plan at age 20 was to have a restaurant at 25." It happened in June 2015 with Naka Kaiseki, a fine dining restaurant serving 10-15 courses. "I want to spread joy through food. Naka was expensive because of what we served. I switched it over to Adana in February 2017, using the same cooking methods and offering three courses. I could cook for more people, and it was more casual. Then my goal was to have a second restaurant when I was 30." That's when he opened Taku, an Osakan kushikatsu restaurant, in March 2020. When the pandemic hit, he closed both. Adana closed forever. Taku emerged as a karaage restaurant in May 2021.

"Changing Taku to karaage was really an operational choice," explains Shota. "When you have a lot of ingredients, there is food loss, money loss, a lot of time spent managing. It's too much. I love karaage. When I'm in Japan, I get it at 7-Eleven. It's great for what it is. Focusing on one thing is harder than it seems. When you're making that much chicken, you have to get the oil just right, maintaining the temperature. It's taken us a year, but we have it nailed down."

Running restaurants is not all he was doing. He started appearing on TV and gaining recognition: Iron Chef Gauntlet in 2017; Beat Bobby Flay, tempura challenge, in 2018 (Shota won); was one of Eater's Young Guns in 2018; was a national semifinalist for James Beard Awards in 2018, 2019, and 2020; was on Bravo's Top Chef, Portland, in 2020; has maybe a gazillion You Tube videos; a Zagat video. He's constantly in demand, cooking less, creating more, making appearances, working with well-known chefs and others. How does it feel to be in the limelight? "I don't feel it at all. My mother taught me early on not to compete against anyone except myself yesterday. I focus on that. Recognition is great, but it's more important to me to celebrate the times I worked hard. What someone else thinks isn't as important."

Connie Adams/October 2022

Stay tuned for next month's story on how Shota came to partner with Redhook Brewlab on pizza.

Redhook Brewlab
714 E Pike Street
Seattle, WA 98122

706 E Pike Street
Seattle, WA 98122

Shota on Top Chef, Season 18

Make Umami
Chef shop curated by Chef Shota Nakajima

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