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How Seattle’s Shota Nakajima Fared on the Finale of ‘Top Chef: Portland’

An incredible run for the owner of Capitol Hill’s Taku

Shota Nakajima made it all the way to the final three on Top Chef’s 18th season.
David Moir/Bravo

The 18th season of “Top Chef” is in the books, and Seattle’s own Shota Nakajima made a terrific run in Portland, vying for a $250,000 prize against fellow contestants Gabe Erales and Dawn Burrell in the finale.

*Spoilers ahead for those who still haven’t gotten around to watching the finale yet.*

After an intense last episode, Nakajima impressed the judges, but ultimately fell short, as Erales took away the title. The decision ended up being a controversial one, though. In the lead-up to the show, there was chatter on social media about Erales’s December 2020 departure from Austin restaurant Comedor over what the establishment called at the time “repeated violations of our policies and for behavior in conflict with our values.”

Now more details about the fallout from Comedor are emerging, including that it stemmed from alleged harassment of an employee. Though Erales’s departure from the restaurant happened after the season of “Top Chef” had already finished filming, the show’s judge and host Padma Lakshmi posted a message on Twitter late Thursday, July 1, indicating that there should be an investigation and network Bravo should “consider its best action.” Eater Austin has more on the developing story.

As for Nakajima, the end result was disappointing, but he still cooked his heart out. The contestants were asked to prepare a four-course meal with a strong progression that showcased their individual styles and told the most convincing story about why they should be “Top Chef.”

Just as he’s been doing all season long, Nakajima showcased his impeccable technique and ability to coax depth out of even the most simple dishes. His meal consisted of a sashimi starter (pickled mackerel, cured salmon, and tuna); a vegetable-focused course (sauteed water spinach with burdock root and octopus karaage); a beef tongue curry dish; and a dessert that consisted of hoji tea cheesecake with cedar-smoked gelato.

The judges absolutely loved Nakajima’s first course, and determined it was the best of the three. They were less impressed with the vegetable medley, which one judge thought was “oily” and another felt was more like a side dish than a featured plate. The Japanese curry fared a bit better — the recipe was inspired by Nakajima’s mother, and it had been a childhood favorite. But it had a few flaws, too. Though the judges praised the flavors of the curry and the texture of the beef tongue, some thought the rice was undercooked, and judge Gail Simmons felt the plating was a bit too rustic when compared to the more refined presentation of the previous courses.

“I wish I would have done a clear broth for course two,” Nakajima tells Eater Seattle. “Japanese cuisine’s classic dish in my mind is a suiji, which is dashi, a little salt and a drop of soy.”

Nakajima’s hoji tea cheesecake was a hit, a clear favorite of guest judge Richard Blaise, who praised its lightness — although a couple of others nitpicked about the smoky gelato perhaps overwhelming the more delicate notes. In contrast, few had any bad words to say about Erales’s dazzling candied Delicata squash dessert, which wowed everyone with its complexity and likely put him over the edge.

For Nakajima, the experience of competing during what had been such a difficult year during the pandemic was enough of a victory. After closing his Capitol Hill restaurant Adana a year ago and putting his new spot Taku on hiatus for months, the chef admitted he felt a little lost. Now, Taku is open for business, and Nakajima has the prestige that comes from going so far on one of the most famous cooking competitions around. He says the camaraderie he’s found with fellow chefs has inspired him to pursue more collaborations and pop-ups going forward.

“One of the biggest things I was surprised was the amount of self growth I went through as a person,” he tells Eater Seattle. “Also, the support system I found from my competitors since we are all going through similar things has been amazing.”

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