Top Chef Fan Favorite Shota Nakajima On Karaage And Sustainability

The most recent season of Top Chef, set in Portland, was arguably its most successful in years. There was less drama and more characters who you want to see succeed out of something like a sense of shared humanity. Cheftestants made delicious-looking food and had charming personal quirks. The show seemed to have borrowed something from The Great British Bake Off.

If it was the characters that sold it, one of this season’s MVCs had to be Shota Nakajima, the 31-year-old Japanese-American with the kaiseki experience and a Beavis-like laugh. Shota was a solid competitor, making it all the way to the finale before losing to Gabe Erales, and mostly just seemed like a pleasant dude — easy with a smile, quick with a joke, but also surprisingly introspective. These qualities no doubt helped get him voted Fan Favorite by this season’s viewers, earning him another $10,000 (to add to the $10,000 he won from Tillamook in the cheddar-five-ways challenge).

$20,000 is a far cry from the $250,000 paid to this season’s winner, but this season seems to have been about much more than winning for Shota. That feels like a corny thing to write, and an even cornier thing to write about a basic cable cooking show, but this has been a rough year for the restaurant industry, and Top Chef still commands a level of respect in its depicted field that virtually no other show can rival. It remains a star-making machine (relatively speaking) at least a decade removed from the days when any singing show was relevant.

For Shota, the opportunity couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. When he received the call to be on the show, he had just closed down his restaurant. Despite being a multi-James Beard Award finalist, he was in a deep funk.

“I felt like a straight-up failure,” he told me over the phone last week. “I was completely depressed. I had no self-confidence, I stopped seeing any of my friends. Then that’s literally when I got the call to be on the show.”

Thus far, Shota seems to have gotten everything he could’ve wanted out of it — a boost of self-confidence, a newfound support system, and the freedom to be himself. Self-knowledge aside, he also seems to have learned a few things from the pandemic as well, like how to run a restaurant more sustainably and the responsibility restaurateurs have to their employees.

When we spoke last week, he turned out to be as engaging as he was on the show, if not more so. He opened up about himself, the pressures of newfound fame, and of course, the key to perfect chicken karaage.

Since Top Chef has been over, have you noticed new career opportunities, new doors opened?

Yeah, definitely. There’s been a lot more opportunities. It’s all very new. More TV stuff here, brand work there, working kind of like an influencer in a sense. And for me, my whole career, I’ve been a restaurateur, chef, working in kitchens. I did some past TV experiences, but this is definitely kind of a whole new ball game and I’m trying to grasp it one day at a time.

Do you enjoy that aspect of your work?

I do. I mean, I enjoy working with different people and new people. I’m learning something new and this is all very new to me. I talk about it with my team all the time. They’ve been with me for years too. So they’re just like, this is really cool. Let’s try to see where we can take it.

My editor and I have sort of talked about this, that when chefs get on Top Chef , it’s sort of this coolness machine. Chefs come out way more polished and put together, and I don’t know… media trained. Is that a function of actual training or is that just because you’re doing so many more public-facing things?

I think it’s a mix. Sorry. [Switching his dinging phone to silent] My phone is just not stopping. I think it’s a mix in the sense of, there’s more practice obviously with the camera and getting used to just talking right away when someone’s asking you interview questions. But for me, personally, I think the biggest one is my self-confidence. I think I’ve gotten more confident as a person. Just in the sense of the support system that I got through Top Chef. As a chef you’re like, oh, I should be working in a kitchen, I don’t know what I’m doing. But I’ll be able to talk to Melissa King or Brooke Williamson, and they’re just like, you know what? We’ve all been working really hard and we all deserve this stuff and you should be proud of who you are and showcase that. I guess hearing those words from people I looked up to for a long time, I think it’s given me a confidence boost and I guess the courage to try to be more me.

On the flip side, do you feel any loss of privacy in terms of, do you feel pressure to be a brand and sort of watch what you say ?

I think I’ve always been very cautious of how I say things and put things out. My dad’s always been that person who’s like, it doesn’t matter what age you are, once you open your mouth, it’s out in the world. So even if you’re having a good day or a bad day, you have to always watch the things you say. That was part of me learning how to be a boss and a manager and all that throughout the years. I made a lot of mistakes, said some things I probably shouldn’t have said to staff, and reacted emotionally, which I ended up regretting afterward. But in general, I’ve been very cautious of how I present myself and trying to be a good example to my younger cooks and front-of-the-house people.

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One of Shota’s many well-composed Top Chef dishes.

What were your parents like? Was cooking something that you went to early on as a career or was it something that you did later?

I started working in restaurants full-time when I was 15. I had two full-time jobs and that’s kind of all I did. Originally I wasn’t trying to be a chef or anything, I just needed a job. My direct family is not in the restaurant business, but my mom’s side’s a baker. My mom’s uncle has a little restaurant. My dad’s side they’re all in Japan, but kind of connected to the restaurant industry. My mom and dad just, I don’t know, I think it’s a Japanese culture thing, but all we do is talk about food.

You were born in Japan and then you grew up partly here?

I was born in Japan. I came to the States when I was young. I moved back in junior high for three years. Came back, technically, for high school, but I just started working in restaurants. And when I was 18 to 23, I had this big goal of working at a Michelin star restaurant, which I had no idea what that meant. A lot of my mentors at the time told me “It’s very tough over there. I don’t think you’re going to make it.” Which I was like, “If it’s that hard, I’m going to try to prove something to myself.” I’d never done that great in school and working in restaurants was just such a refreshing thing because I finally felt like I was good at my job. So I moved to Japan when I was 23. I ended up coming back and I’ve been here since then.

In terms of your own restaurant business, what do you have going right now?

I just opened Taku back up, which is a Japanese dive bar. It’s a street-food-themed dive bar. We were doing to-go for a while, but we opened the inside two and a half weeks ago and it’s just been, with COVID being over, people wanting to go out, it’s been zero to 150.

You guys do a lot of karaage and that?

Yeah. Karaage, side snacks. We’re working on this late-night menu where it’s called 12 to 2, I’m going to call it “Shit That Shota Eats,” pretty much. It’s the stuff that I eat at home, simple soups with tofu and whatnot. I kind of give that homey, simple vibe, not trying to reinvent the wheel for that one. It’s more just casual, cozy food.

Do you have any home karaage tips? What can we do better?

I would say double frying is the biggest thing, double or triple frying, even. I think of it almost as a steamed dish, is how I try to explain it to my staff. You want to make sure the batter is on the outside correctly, and when you drop it in the fryer, if it’s not coated properly, you’re going to have that juice leak out. But if it’s coated, that means there’s this whole layer on the outside, so the ingredient itself isn’t touching any cooking heat. It’s steaming on the inside. So that’s how you keep it juicy. But once you cook and you let it rest, that’s when the moisture gets pulled out. So you want to let it rest and get that moisture to get pulled out more and then fry it so you can hold that crispy edge.

How do you get that batter on correctly?

We do a potato starch batter. Well, we marinate our chicken in soy sauce, a lot of ginger, garlic, sake, mirin, egg yolks. And then we kind of turn that into this little thick lump, and then add potato starch, turn it into a slurry and add more potato starch and then fry it. So just making sure it’s coated all the way on the outside, if there’s naked spots, that chicken’s going to come out different.

A few years back, I wrote a thing about rules for getting kicked off a Top Chef. Like making duos or cooking risotto or things like that. Did you have guidelines like that in your head when you went on? Did you come away with any new ones after the experience?

Not really. I tend to be an over-thinker, so I went the other way and I gave it zero thought. When I got selected, I was like, oh, I should probably watch a few episodes. I went to the Top Chef on Hulu and I started playing it. 10 minutes in, straight panic attack. I was like, nope, not going to do it. But I thought about what it’s going to be like the whole entire time, and by the first quickfire I was already exhausted.

So you think “just go with your gut” is the best way to do it?

Yeah. In a sense, I’ve been practicing for 17 years. So I was like, if I can’t make it at this point, I don’t know what else other practice I can do. I’m a person that works on the line always too. I work with my staff and I am a big person of timing and this and that, and making sure service is ran correctly. If it’s a restaurant that opens at five o’clock, at four o’clock, my body is already tense. There’s this time clock that runs in my head every single day. So in a sense, I think I’ve always had practice.

If you had to Monday morning quarterback your own finale dishes, are there things that you would do differently?

A hundred percent. I mean, I think when they said, yeah, it was too cozy with the rice and the beef tongue, I think I could’ve done the same philosophy, but showcased it in a different way. So the same sauces, same beef tongue, same flavoring, but just presented it differently. So, yeah, I have ran through that in my head, I don’t know how many times. Actually, when I got out, the first thing I did was, after cooking for pretty much two months straight, I came home, went shopping, redid the finale menu and I sent it to my mom and dad.

Some people have complained that the judging on Top Chef is maybe biased towards European-style cooking. I know Tom pushed back really hard when I asked him about that. Do you have an opinion on that?

No. I was worried about that originally, but there were some dishes that I was like, “I don’t know if they’ll understand this.” I put it out there and they’ve had so many different dishes, so even when Tom would give feedback, there were moments where he’d be like, “Well, this dish I don’t understand. It’s not my favorite way it was done, but I completely understand why it was done.”

So maybe in past older seasons that might’ve been a thing, but this season, I didn’t feel that. I felt I could’ve done more and they would have understood it, which is really cool. Because that’s just not something that happens in the US. Even when I worked in restaurants in Seattle, I’ll read reviews and I’ll just kind of roll my eyes a lot, because it’s just like, oh, you’re talking in a very Western way. But I do think the judges on Top Chef are very knowledgeable. Especially with the judges or the alums being there, I think it was really good because everyone probably learned off of each other from the conversations at the table.

It seemed part of your arc in the season was sort of understanding that you didn’t have to dumb things down or you didn’t have to try to translate them as much.

Yeah. Which is crazy, right? It’s so refreshing to be able to do that in America, besides the fact that it’s on national TV.

Do you take that as a lesson going forward when you’re planning stuff for your restaurants? Or do you think that’s just a function of having a really expert-level crew of people judging you on the show?

I think that’s an expert crew level of people judging me on the show. I mean, maybe if it’s New York or bigger cities, people would understand a little bit more, but just in general, I think, that side of Japanese food or something new, it’s interesting for people, but it just takes time.

Tell me where you were at when you got the call to be on the show. Was that a tough decision to make?

Yeah. It was a little bit because, not trying to be weird, but I’ve always been kind of coasting, in a sense, with my career. Since I started, I think I met the right people at the right time and I’ve always felt I was doing good at my job. As the owner as well, but with COVID, as a restaurateur, we can say, yeah, we create beautiful food, blah, blah, blah. But we have two jobs: keep the lights on and pay our employees. And at the time I wasn’t doing either. I felt like a straight-up a failure. I was completely depressed. I had no self-confidence, I stopped seeing any of my friends. Then that’s literally when I got the call to be on the show. Initially I was just like, no, this is just too scary. But then I slept overnight and I was like, this is probably the best thing that could’ve happened to me. I needed it for myself, just to kind of get myself outside.

So obviously it seems it worked out pretty well then?

It really did. It’s incredible, the connection. I mean, I was talking to Melissa this morning about — it’s hard, with the negativity that will always come with it, but making sure you push the positives in your life. As a chef and being in this restaurant, I think I’ve never been visible with myself and my feelings, and now I feel like I’m allowed to do that.

What kind of negativity do you get?

It’s small things, but for example, one of my sous chefs would hit me up and they’ll be like, “Yo, let’s hang out.” I’m like, “Oh, my schedule is booked for the next two weeks.” “I’m in town, you’re too busy for me?” “I’m not too busy for you, I’m not trying to be an asshole.” And they’ll be like, well, I guess we have different definitions of what friends mean. And I’ll be like, I guess so then. Because if you were too busy for me, I’d be happy for you. I mean, it still sucks, not going to lie, there’s part of it that really does hurt to hear those words, but at the same time, I think having the right support system and the people to be like, “No, it’s okay, it happens,” has been really helpful.

I know you had to close your restaurant before you got on the show. Do you think that the quarantine exposed anything about the current restaurant model as unsustainable? What problems do you see with the current restaurant model and how can we fix those?

For me, the biggest thing that I thought during 2020 was, “I’m so sick of convincing my employees to stay.” It was the first time I stopped in my career and looked at the things that I did. And I think the biggest thing was I felt — I guess, putting it drastically — like I was manipulating my staff to stay with me. “Hey, yeah, I am a cool guy. I am getting James Beard nominations. We have a cool restaurant. You get a rep when you’re with me. Yeah, we have booze in the restaurant. Yeah, I’ll give you Ibuprofen if you feel bad.”

Thinking about it now, I think it was a manner of manipulating my staff to be okay with being in this relationship with me. They weren’t staying for me because it was a good work-life balance, it wasn’t longevity. So what I implemented was profit sharing. I started with the labor budget when I rewrote my business structure. It was very scary because of how I was taught to run restaurants. In my mind, I broke all the rules when I rewrote it, so it was scary. But at the same time, I think it’s the best thing I’ve done because I see my team and my management stronger as people, and I see myself relying on them more and learning from them more as well — because another big thing I changed is congratulating mistakes. Being like, “Yo, I want you to make mistakes.” The only mistake that you can do is not trying. The mistakes that I’ve made in the past are, when you punish mistakes, they’ll be scared to do more things. But now it’s that whole different mentality of profit share. “No, just go out there. It’s okay if you lose a few games, we’re going to make it back together.”

Do you think it costs too much to keep the lights on? It seems like that is such a sunk cost that it makes keeping labor hard.

It is. But at the same time, in 2021, there’s online presence and not just because of Top Chef, there are so many different ways to make revenue as a business. You can do online retail, you can do outreaches, you can do this and that, and I think it’s our responsibility as business owners to figure out what that is and to follow through with it. If we try to work off this broken model of just what it is, I don’t think you are respecting the responsibility you have to take care of the people who work for you.

So you think you have a responsibility to sort of think outside of what the model is as it stands?

Yeah, and I think, especially with COVID, not just the restaurant business, I think a lot of people are kind of thinking that way. Okay, what is sustainable? What is longevity? What does it mean to actually take care of people? Especially being in the hospitality industry. I think my solution is, write the numbers to make sure how to sustain your staff. And yeah, it is a little bit easier for me to say, because I do have the Top Chef thing, but even besides it, I would say the same thing. Now it’s my responsibility to bring that revenue. Maybe it’s catering, maybe it’s this and maybe it’s, whatever it is, to bring the revenue in. And if that’s too much, then I don’t think you should be an owner.

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