Top Chef Season 18 Fan Favorite Shota Nakajima on Restaurant, Career Plans

Georgann Dolfay

Shota Nakajima came into Season 18 of Bravo’s Top Chef with one goal in mind: to make it to the top four. Well, the Seattle-based chef did a little (read: a lot) better than that, not only earning a spot as one of this season’s finalists, but he was also […]

Shota Nakajima came into Season 18 of Bravo’s Top Chef with one goal in mind: to make it to the top four.

Well, the Seattle-based chef did a little (read: a lot) better than that, not only earning a spot as one of this season’s finalists, but he was also voted Fan Favorite, winning $10,000 furnished by S. Pellegrino Sparkling Natural Mineral Water.

Even though Shota didn’t ultimately take home the top title for Season 18, he was “so honored” to compete in that finale, which aired on Bravo on July 1. “I remember walking into the kitchen and looking at these two amazing chefs and overwhelmed with joy being like, ‘Yo, I don’t know why I’m here, but I’m here cooking with these guys right now, and that means something,'” he told The Daily Dish during an interview in late June. “And again, like, being really proud of myself for being there, ’cause I wasn’t even, you know, thinking of being there.”

Shota’s journey to Top Chef, let alone the Season 18 finale, hasn’t been an easy one. “I didn’t really go to school. I dropped out, I needed to get a job, and I started working in restaurants,” he said. “And I just worked and worked and worked. You know, growing up in schools, a lot of teachers were like, ‘Oh, he really can’t do it. He can’t [go to] recess, he’s gotta do this.’ And now — now that kid’s on Top Chef, you know?”

He found his culinary calling early on in life, working for a highly acclaimed sushi restaurant at the age of 16, according to his bio on BravoTV.com. Shota, who was born in Japan and raised in Seattle, would later move to Osaka when he was 18 years old to learn from Michelin star-rated Chef Yasuhiko Sakamoto.

Shota would go on to bring what he learned during his time in Japan back to the United States, opening two restaurants in Seattle, each with a fresh take on Japanese comfort food, Taku and Adana. Sadly, just a few months before he competed in Season 18 of Top Chef, Shota closed Adana.

So, after this chapter of his culinary career had come to an end, Shota said that he entered Top Chef with a “nothing-to-lose mentality.” “Honestly, I just missed cooking with people. And that’s one of the big reasons I went on,” he recalled. “How do I, like, sharpen myself up again? Get ready for what I need to, because I just wasn’t working at the time.”

Shota would go on to win one Quickfire and four Elimination Challenges in Season 18. But when it came time to cook in the finale, he said that he “wasn’t really thinking that it was a competition at this point.”

“I was just trying to cook the best I can. I think that [I] was mentally pretty tired, physically tired as well. [I] just kinda coped in the sense of, like, you know what? I’m just gonna cook, and I think that happened around the, like, I’d say especially around the family one, [the] Tillamook challenge. I think that was my personal breaking point of just like, shoot, I am just mentally tired, physically tired,” Shota explained. “Do you know Dragon Ball Z? So, when you get defeated and get beat down and come back, your score gets way stronger. You become super strong, right? And that’s kind of what I felt like at the family challenge-ish era. And each challenge, I was like, you know what? I’m just gonna go. You know? I don’t know what it was, but that’s how I felt. It’s my nerdy way of explaining myself.”

For the Top Chef Season 18 finale, the final three chefs were tasked with creating the best four-course progressive meal of their lives. Shota prepared sashimi three ways (mackerel, cured salmon, and tuna with soy sauce); sautéed water spinach, sautéed burdock root, white miso burdock root purée with octopus karaage; beef tongue curry with braised turnip and Fukujinzuke pickles; and hoji tea cheesecake with cedar smoked gelato.

“You know, every single challenge, even the ones that I’ve won, I have different dishes that I wanna do. So, I think that’s hard for my personality to be happy with what I serve. But even if I serve the best whatever, I’m like, oh wait, but I could’ve done this and I could’ve done this, and that’s the fun part for me though. It’s not like being hard on myself,” Shota reflected on his finale courses. “That’s the part that I enjoy because that’s when it’s like [an] oil painting, right? You have your first layer, and then [you] have time to sit back and relax and forget about it for a second because you have to let it dry. And while you’re doing that, you’re still looking at it, thinking about it, and then you add more things. That’s when it turns into something. So I’d say all the dishes, including everything in the finale, I was proud of everything, but I would definitely evolve everything more.”

Now looking back on what he prepared, Shota has one regret about the finale. “So, I would’ve done a clear broth. I don’t know why I didn’t do a clear broth, ’cause that is, like, Japanese cuisine to the core,” he said. “I wish I would’ve done, like, the most simplest clear broth dish with nothing hidden, no protein, just a very simple clean one and explain why I did the dish because it’s the first soup base that I was taught as the basis of Japanese cuisine — and introduce that to the finale.”

With the competition being so “mentally draining,” Shota said that he tried his best to clear his head while he waited for the winner of Top Chef Season 18 to be announced at that final Judges’ Table. “I was in a mindset of just not thinking about anything and almost in controlled peace,” he said. “I remember I was standing there just counting, like, ‘Three breaths in, three breaths out, three breaths in, three breaths out. Oh, there’s Byron [Gomez]. Three breaths in, three breaths out.'”

It wasn’t until Shota actually competed on Top Chef that he realized “how hard it is.” “It’s grind, grind, grind. Work, work, work. Hustle. But, you know, I actually appreciate that, and I’m not complaining about that because I don’t think I would’ve grown as much as a person unless I did that and I’m so grateful for that,” he shared. “I didn’t win, but I always think things happen for a reason, and I do genuinely believe that I didn’t win for a reason and it’s giving me the energy and strength to do more and learn more and, you know, besides working more. And I’m loving myself right now for being in that mental state.”

Shota said that he also learned to “appreciate every moment” during his time on Top Chef. “There’s times where you do a bad challenge, whatever it is. You put yourself down, but [the] reality of it is the next challenge is a completely new challenge, and that’s how I approach life now, too,” he said. “Yesterday, I might’ve done a bad job or might’ve made mistakes, and, yeah, I’m gonna hold myself accountable and I’m gonna realize these things and I’m gonna apologize to people that need apologizing and take the actions I need to. But after that, I’m gonna think about tomorrow, what I can do for tomorrow, and the positive things for the people around me.”

Shota said that’s how he tried to approach every new challenge on Top Chef, especially after his corn dog dish landed him in the bottom during the drive-in movie challenge, the only time he was in danger of being eliminated during the season.

“Like, you know, after that, the next challenge, I remember being thrown off and, yeah, that’s kind of when I started to think that way. I was like, yo, I can’t be thrown out. And it’s like, boxing. I did boxing for a long time, too. It’s like, [it] doesn’t matter what happened in round three. Round four, you gotta go back in and take that ring back for yourself, and you gotta have that mentality. And the hardest part about it is the fight against the words in your brain, you know? From the influences of people around you — the this and that,” Shota said. “That’s one of the things that I talk about with my fellow peers from Top Chef that I think is super important is you gotta keep believing in yourself. And the more successful and more things we start to do, the more people are gonna try to hold you back, but, like, never forget that you just gotta do you and love what you do and believe in yourself and surround yourself with people that believe in that. And surround yourself with people that wanna congratulate the little wins here.”

Shota has found those people among his fellow cheftestants, all of whom he has kept in touch with since Season 18 ended. “I call everyone like an annoying little brother being like, ‘Hey, what’s up? How you doing?'” he said, agreeing that the Top Chef Season 18 contestants are something of a family now.

“I think the fact that everyone was so nice and we have this weird relationship, we’re all going through the same thing where, you know, like, I can feel comfortable being [like], hey, guys, I’m feeling super anxious this week because, you know, like, the corn dog challenge, for example, the drive-in, I was feeling super anxious. Like, I was having a hard time sleeping that week ’cause I knew I did a really bad job and people were gonna see it, and I already knew it was gonna happen,” he continued. “But the fact that I had these amazing friends to be able to be vulnerable [with], tell them that I’m worried, and that I’m scared, and them, you know, understanding that and being able to talk about things, I think that’s been the most special part for me.”

Shota has also been able to connect even more with the the All Stars since this season of Top Chef ended. “You know, I wish I had more time to interact with them because you know, they were judging us, so they had to stay professional, which I completely understand. But I’d say afterwards is the coolest part. After the finale, until now, the amount of communication I’m now allowed to have with these people and the advice I’ve gotten from the judges that judged us,” he shared. “Like, ‘Yeah, that was a bad service, but let’s move onto the next one. What do you guys need? What are you guys going through?’ So [in that sense], it’s been an incredible community of people I’ve been introduced to, and I can’t be more grateful. And I just picked up so many good mentors in my life, it’s ridiculous.”

Even Top Chef alums who didn’t appear in Season 18 have lent their support to Shota, including Season 12 winner Mei Lin. “She’s never too busy,” he said. “Most of the Top Chef people are never too busy to talk.”

After Season 18 of Top Chef, Shota went right back to work at his eatery, Taku, in Seattle. However, he is now thinking of new ways to expand and pivot his culinary endeavors. “I’m actually getting into doing retail sauces and extending my business into doing more creative work. 2020 was kind of a big year for me in general where I [looked at] my business, thought about what I wanna do, how I wanna live my life, how I wanna wake up every day,” he explained. “I’m focusing on recreating a good company. A good company where it’s more project-based, gives people ownership in their job and a sense of, hey, if you have a project, you can come to me. And tell me how much money you need, what we wanna invest in, how you wanna run the project, and what percentage of the cut you’re going to take out of this.”

With this sort of project-based model, Shota said that he hopes to combat the problem of high turnover in the restaurant industry. He also wants to show younger chefs “what it is to be successful and be good in society and work with integrity and care about your staff.”

Shota said that he also hopes to continue to share what he’s learned — and still learning — about Japanese cuisine with the masses. In fact, he’s been showing fans how to cook just like him on YouTube, and he plans to drop even more culinary knowledge on social media in the future.

“There’s a lot about Japanese food that I don’t even know about yet, that’s in different regions and different areas. I always think there’s always more to learn, if you’re interested. When you hear [about] Japanese food, just try to learn more,” Shota said. “I think it’s fun. I like learning about things, and there’s a lot of history behind a lot of these foods, too, which, if you’re a history nerd, you’d probably have fun with.”

Shota has done lots of cooking in person this summer, too, reuniting in the kitchen with some of his fellow Season 18 cheftestants, such as Avishar Barua. He and his Restaurant Wars team, Byron, Maria Mazon, and Jamie Tran, also reprised their chef’s table concept, Kokoson, for a special pop-up dinner in San Diego earlier this month.

Of course, Shota has been enjoying his time in the spotlight. His “childhood dream” came true when he got to throw out the first pitch at a Seattle Mariners game in July. He was also “excited” to appear on The Talk in August.

And Shota will soon be back on our screens. He is set to appear in Top Chef Family Style as one of the Top Chef alums lending their expertise in the new family culinary competition series. Top Chef Family Style begins streaming on Peacock on September 9, and you can get a first look, below.

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But will we ever see Shota back in the Top Chef kitchen as a competitor one day? “Yeah, I’ll pack my knives right now and fly out. A hundred percent. You know why? ‘Cause it was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. I met the most amazing people, from the producers to the camera people. I made so many friends. It’s ridiculous how many friends I’ve made,” he told The Daily Dish. “I’ve grown so much as a person. I’ve realized more about myself, my weaknesses and my strengths. And I learned a lot about cooking on top of that. And that experience itself, I would never trade that back for anything.”

Ending Season 18 of Top Chef as a runner-up is still winning to Shota. “Maybe I haven’t got the title, but you know what? I think I won a lot of other things,” he shared. “And I’m just very humbled every day.”

Want more Top Chef? Catch up on the Bravo app.

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