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Seattle’s ‘Top Chef’ Representative Makes a Solid First Impression in the New Season’s Debut

Shota Nakajima’s duck dish made the top four in the elimination challenge

Shota Nakajima prepares squash for his braised duck dish on “Top Chef: Portland.”
Shota Nakajima made it through the first episode of “Top Chef” thanks to a strong showing in the elimination challenge.
David Moir/Bravo

No matter how much experience a contestant brings to the table, the pressures of “Top Chef” can be tough to take. But in the April 1 season debut of “Top Chef: Portland,” Shota Nakajima — acclaimed owner of Capitol Hill’s Taku — availed himself well. In the season’s first elimination challenge, Nakajima painstakingly prepared a soy-braised duck breast with squash and white miso puree, landed the dish in the top four favorites of the week, although Portland-based chef Sara Hauman ended up winning.

The 18th season of “Top Chef” filmed in 2020, with the production instituting pandemic-related precautions such as regular COVID testing and the contestants quarantining in a Portland hotel. There was certainly an air of anxiety throughout the first episode as the chefs — many of whom run their own restaurants, with no sous chefs in the bunch — discussed the issues they faced over the past year. Last May, Nakajima closed his multicourse restaurant Adana on Capitol Hill permanently, and Taku closed temporarily (although will soon return). “Being back in the kitchen is mentally really healthy for me,” Nakajima said on the first episode. “It’s where I’m at home.”

Beyond some of the COVID-related changes to the show’s format (as well as the addition of notable “Top Chef” alumni as judges), the familiar rhythms of “Top Chef” kicked in once the action got rolling. There was a quickfire challenge, and Najakima teamed up with fellow contestants Roscoe Hall and Chris Viaud to prepare a dish based on the one ingredient they couldn’t live without (Nakajima chose kombu). The result — scallops poached in kombu butter with parsnip puree and pickles — didn’t exactly blow the minds of the judges. But Nakajima rebounded from the so-so showing in the main elimination challenge.

Going off the very broad theme of “birds” as a nod to Oregon’s wildlife, each contestant was randomly assigned a different type of poultry and game birds. Nakajima lucked out with duck — easier to prepare than some of the other options, such as chukar — and made the most of it. Employing a technique he says he learned while training under Michelin-starred chef Yasuhiko Sakamoto in Japan, Nakajima delicately braised the duck breasts, took them out of the pan to rest, then put them back in — repeating over and over. The dish earned plenty of kudos at the judges’ table and a place in the top four. “Listening to the technique is very interesting,” co-host Tom Colicchio told Nakajima. “It clearly shows us who you are and I think you served yourself really well there.”

For his part, Nakajima says he’s “very happy that I get to represent Seattle and Japan on ‘Top Chef’” and was pleased with this top-four finish, even if he didn’t win the week. He joins several contestants from the local food scene on “Top Chef” seasons, such as Lia Bardeen (Bramble House), Carrie Mashanay (Mamnoon), and Jason Stratton (Spinasse), although there have been no overall “Top Chef” winners from Seattle to this point. Maybe Nakajima can make a push to be the first — he’s off to a decent start.

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