Tell Us Something Good

Tell Us Something Good, Shota Nakajima

The Top Chef Star Tells Us about the May 5 Return of Taku, His Favorite Foraging Spots, and More
April 19, 2021
Chef Shota Nakajima, who's featured on the current season of Top Chef, announced today, April 19, that he's reopening Taku on May 5 after nearly a year of closure. (Stephanie Forrer)

For the latest installment of our "Tell Us Something Good" celebrity recommendation series, we talked with three-time James Beard Award semifinalist Chef Shota Nakajima, who announced today that his beloved Capitol Hill restaurant, Taku, will reopen on May 5 with a new karaage concept after being closed for nearly a year. He told us about the reopening, his upcoming Cooking with Friends auction event this weekend, and, of course, his appearance on Top Chef Season 18. Plus, he shared some of his favorite Seattle restaurants and cafes, tips on how to forage mushrooms, and even a recipe for horsetails. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and concision. 


On Top Chef: Portland

What was it like being thrown in with this group of talented people after months in quarantine and this very tumultuous year

Number one, I’m very grateful. I was at the stage where I needed to figure out what I wanted to do. I was trying to find where my ambition was. I was starting to get lost, and this was a very good wake-up call, a good way to get myself back into it and challenge myself. 

It was a crazy year, but I'm very happy with 2020—not really financially, but mentally. It's been one of the best years, because I've been able to stop and come up with a game plan for the company I’ve always told my employees I’ve wanted to run. I feel like having that stop helped me clarify the direction I want to take. 

Watching the show, it seems that the contestants have amazing rapport, for example when you and Avishar [Barua] work together [in Episode 2]. Did you make any lasting friendships? 

Within the last 24 hours, I've talked to Roscoe [Hall], Sasha [Grumman], Brittanny [Anderson], Gabe [Erales], Avishar… Within a week I talked to everyone. 

Are you planning a big tour to eat at each other's restaurants after restrictions lift?

I'm trying to invite people out here to have fun. The biggest way that I try to give back to the community is bringing positive, fun things for people to look forward to. I’ll try to bring the new friends that I made and introduce them to the beauty of Seattle. Maybe they'll open a restaurant here someday, if they fall in love. 

Can you tell me a little bit about the Cooking with Friends auction event that’s coming up with fellow contestants Byron Gomez and Sara Hauman? 

Byron hit me up. He's like, “I'm going to come to Seattle.” I said, “Cool, I'll set an event up. Let's do something simple, fun.” Sara lives in Portland. So I was like, “Hey, you want to do something?” So we're just going to do dinner and have fun cooking with friends.

Obviously, it's a reality show with big surprises, and sometimes you get the rug pulled out from under you during challenges. But you always seem calm in the kitchen, even if you all have to sprint back and forth and everyone’s getting really sweaty.

I was having such a blast. I think it was special for me this year because I hadn't had the opportunity to have fun cooking like that in such a long time. So for me, just being in that kitchen, cooking with amazing chefs, I was like, “Whatever comes, I'm gonna have fun.”

What was it like shooting in such weird circumstances—in a group, but also in quarantine? 

I was just going with the flow. I have this mentality—the production people could tell you—I'm great at taking naps. It's probably one of my strengths. Anyway. 

I felt like I was in a pandemic movie. Portland was going through tragic times—the smoke was going on….

Were you actually shooting during the smoke event? 

Yeah. We [the contestants] all stop once in a while and we're like, “That was so crazy.” 

Portland got really bad—did you ever think you would have to leave the city?

The biggest thing about Bravo! is they make sure we all feel safe and they check with us to make sure. I felt fine the entire time. It was rough when I’d go outside for a second. It was like Stranger Things, the upside-down world. I was like, “This is creepy! We're going to go into a Quickfire [Top Chef challenge] and things are going to attack us!” 


Closer to Home 

What have you got going on locally? What's going on with Taku?

Next week I'm doing the pop-up with Byron, and then the following week, I'm planning to soft-open. The first few days will be to test it out. I want us to be able to focus on opening correctly, so we're going to do a shorter week. Then, the following week on Cinco de Mayo, it’s our grand opening.

I have two concepts that I really, really like. I think by this Friday [April 16], I'll have an answer of which direction I go. [Ed.'s note: According to the restaurant's April 16 press release, Taku will feature karaage (Japanese fried chicken) with sides like furikake fries and cabbage salad.]  But it'll be a straightforward, super-fun concept, something that I grew up eating. My mom used to put it in my bento box all the time. I was thinking, what would I want to eat every single day? 

Over the past year, what has it been like being a restaurant owner and executive chef? 

I don't think I was a restaurant owner or executive chef for this last year. I closed Adana in May, because I got in a car crash and I got shingles, and I just took it as a sign. I was going to the chiropractor five times a week. So, I didn't really work or cook besides on Top Chef last year. I started working more full-time again in December, pre-planning. 

There's a big part of me that felt bad because I could have done a lot for the community. I have all the praises for the people that kept going: Eduardo [Jordan], Tamara Murphy, Melissa [Miranda]. But I had to take a break for myself. 


Tell Us Something Good

Do you have any particularly awesome restaurants to recommend in Seattle right now? 

Anything in the International District: Gan Bei, Maneki, all the old-school ones…I miss dim sum. Dim sum is probably the biggest thing I miss in Seattle. Before COVID, I was going to dim sum like twice a week. That's where I did my meetings. 

What's your favorite dim sum dish?

Either the sticky rice or the chive dumplings. So crispy on the bottom…I’m going to get hungry. 

I've been going to Taurus Ox a lot. I love the chocolate shop that’s also on Capitol Hill—Rey Amargo. It’s pretty new. Good old HoneyholeSalt and Straw… That Thai place across the street, Ayutthaya, that place is amazing. It’s been there for like 30 years. So if you get the owner and ask him about things he's seen in Capitol Hill, you can hear some crazy stories.

What’s gotten you through the pandemic, TV-wise or movie-wise?

I watched a lot of Naked and Afraid. But I didn't actually watch a lot of TV. I was out in the woods for the most part, hanging with my dog. I'm a big camper, big forager. 

I have an antsy personality. I don't like sitting down and not doing anything.  I like walking around, seeing something crazy, picking mushrooms. And if I sit down and watch a movie, I will fall asleep like that. [pretends to sleep for a second]

So you're mainly foraging mushrooms? 

Whatever I find. Nettles are in right now. Sometimes I'll find weird moss stuff that's good for tea. I just go be a weirdo in the woods with my doggo and my car.

I just found out that horsetails are edible… 

They’re bitter, so you want to pick them when they're small. How Japan does it is you get hay ash, or baking soda, and then you want to cook it through with a little bit of water, then strain it and then run it through water to get the bitterness out. It’s delicious, it has this richness. In a little puree, or even in a dip, it’s really, really nice.

Do you have a go-to dish that you make with the mushrooms? 

Different every single time. It depends on what I have. I'll catch fish out there, too. I've stuffed trout with a mushroom-nettle puree. I got the fish a few feet away from the nettles and mushrooms and then smoked it for three hours, super low and slow. And it came out delicious. 

I don't want to give away your prime foraging spots, but can you give us an idea of where you like to go? 

Go out to the mountains anywhere. Just make sure you study the basics of safety in the woods. What do you do when you see a bear? When you see a mountain lion? Are you carrying pepper spray? Just be safe. I don't want anyone who doesn't know what they're doing to be lost in the middle of nowhere. 

Even in the city, things grow.

Now I’m curious. Can you give us an idea of where you can forage in the city?

I've seen chanterelles in Seattle. I've seen morels in Renton. Walk around and look for them and stop looking at your phone. Just enjoy mother nature. Go on Google and look up big parks, and just go to those big parks and walk through the woods. Down south has better mycelia. 

You've got to stop me. I can keep talking about mushroom stuff forever. 

What do you like to listen to? 

I listen to a lot of inspiring stuff. I wake up at five a.m., six a.m. Actually, my dog wakes me up and we walk. Then I listen to motivating stuff, whatever I find on YouTube. I’ll look up “motivation speech” or “how to keep pushing yourself.” Start moving my body and then get my day going. Think about what I want to do. 

Then when I come back, I usually write everything in my notebook. I have a three-notebook system—one’s for ideas, one’s more project-based, and then there’s the completely organized one. 

It sounds like you have a strict routine, but there are areas for chaos. 

A lot of chaos. You could ask the people who work with me.

Do you like to follow people online? 

I have friends and people that I follow up with all the time. I’m the type of person that's probably on 30 calls, 40 calls a day. Even for two minutes, just to say hi when I have time. Some people might think it's weird, but you know, some people might not. 

Have you bought anything during quarantine that has made your life better? 

I got a planter box in 2020. That was a lot of fun, because I never really had time to garden. I have my next year’s crops rooted right now. They're sprouting, little tiny things. 

What are you growing? 

Leeks, yomogi which is a Japanese herb, I have some kale, shishitos, edamame…and a bunch of herbs downstairs. I set up this self-watering thing, so I don't even have to check it.

What do you miss most about Seattle from before the pandemic? 

Working in a full restaurant. Very, very much. That's my happy place. That's my adrenaline rush.

What are you looking forward to most when things get back to normal? 

I'm looking back into re-creating the company. I just hired my team back. I'm focusing on creating the company that I promised some of these guys eight years ago. We had great conversations when I called them. I think I have that energy and that force behind me; I understand it better from taking that break. I'm really excited to see how this is going to work out. It's so different from how I used to run a company pre-pandemic. 

I think the biggest problem that a lot of chefs get is, “Oh, hey, you're a chef. Do you want to do an event for us? It'll put your name out there. You can do it for free, or I'll give you a shot.” That shouldn't be a thing anymore, right? If you're going to hire a consultant, a lawyer, you're walking into that conversation assuming that you're going to pay money, because they're professionals and they do it for a living. 

If any of my chefs helps me with events, hey, it's a bonus fee. You already get paid on salary, but every single time you do an event, this is your cash. Then there's a conversation every three months of how much you're going to get paid. 

I have profit shares going for my salary, and for the company and for Taku. If Taku makes money, [the employees] make money. I make money too, but they actually get a fat chunk on top of their paycheck. 

I'm still very wary about people's health. I have some health issues in my family as well that I need to be conscious about. So when I open Taku, I'm only gonna open for to-go until all my employees are completely vaccinated. I’m not planning to open the inside, because if I don't want to risk it, I don't want to ask anyone else to risk it. I just don't think that's fair.

I’ve got to do my best. I don't want to do midnight shots. I don't want to turn 21-, 22-year-old kids into alcoholics. I've seen enough of that in our industry. That’s another thing we’ve been talking about: building a normal, good company that takes care of people in a safe, smart way that financially makes sense for everyone, too. You get health insurance when you work 25 hours. 

I think the biggest thing that I realized in 2020 was, for my number twos and threes and fours that have worked for me for years, I was sick of convincing them to stay with me. I want people to stay with me because I genuinely have a good company.

Is there anything you'd like to add? Anything you want to plug? 

Please, please, do please tune in Thursdays [to Top Chef]. I hope I make you guys proud. I tried my best and it was such a blast. It's so fun. I want people to enjoy and be part of it with me.