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  • Writer's pictureChris Marhevka

On Tempura and Temperament: Top Chef favorite Shota Nakajima's Recipes for Success



I was second in line on the first day of Food & Wine Classic seminars. I turned to look behind me and took in the scent of fresh coffee that filled the air as the doors to the St. Regis flung open and large group of guests shuffled into the line. As an avid Top Chef fan, I knew that Season 18’s finalist Shota Nakajima, Chef/Owner of Taku in Seattle, was an early frontrunner, fan favorite, and a consistently innovative contender, so it made perfect sense that the crowd was eager to see him. Self-described on his season as a chef of traditional Japanese cuisine, challenge after challenge, Shota’s dishes boasted pristine flavors, inventive interpretations, and striking presentation. On this day, Shota would be demonstrating the Japanese art of tempura.


Once we were all led down the stairs and settled into our seats, Shota walked onto the stage with his signature chuckle and a wide grin. He reviewed his menu of the hour, which included tempura Oreo in wagyu fat, shrimp tempura, tempura shiso leaves, and a side of matcha salt and grated daikon radish. Shota assured his audience, “Anything can be tempura!” He took a beat to ponder, and mused, “That should be on a shirt.” Full disclosure, I would 100% buy that shirt.


From a technical standpoint, Shota provided a great deal of content, taking care to make the facts informative but accessible. Shota mentioned that the known origins of tempura actually date back to 1500s Portugal, before being perfected, as cuisine often is, by the Japanese. He gave a basic rundown to the uninitiated, defining terms like dashi (the basic Japanese stock), kombu (a commonly-used seaweed), and bonito flakes (thinly shaved dried skipjack). In making a dashi, Shota shared a textural tip - to keep the water temperature under 70 C, because over 70 C, the kombu begins to leech a “slimy” texture. He continued, “If you’re cooking in a restaurant, know your dashi ratio. Talk to your chef and get an understanding of their ratios, because what’s salty to one chef may not be salty to another.” Typical dashi is 1:1:1 for umami(savoriness), soy(saltiness), and mirin (sweetness). Shota said tempura dashi is 5:1:1.


Shota floated back and forth, from end to end of the decked-out Monogram kitchen as he demonstrated the proper way to peel and devein shrimp. Then he gently scored the shrimp widthwise, making multiple cuts from top to bottom, cutting approximately halfway into the protein each time. He held it up to the crowd, saying, “This is to prevent them from curling up as they fry.”


Alongside Shota for his demonstration was fellow season 18 contestant, Byron Gomez, executive Chef of Colorado’s 7908 Aspen, which recently closed. Byron’s impressive résumé also includes work at Café Boulud, Atera, and Eleven Madison Park. The pair made for a brilliant tag-team, injecting lively banter, fascinating tidbits, and a candid peek behind the curtain of Top Chef’s magic, particularly sharing what the process was like under the circumstances of COVID-19.



When describing the competition, Shota said,


“It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life, and it’s because there’s no break in-between, so you’re consistently grinding. Especially, we were in the pandemic, in the middle of downtown Portland, so we couldn’t leave. We couldn’t really have our own space to relax, so you’re always in this tense environment. I was there for about two months without a day off. No phone. No nothing. Nonstop. Mentally exhausted. Physically exhausted. No real escape for your time by yourself.”


Despite the intense challenges, Shota and Byron were very grateful for their time on the show and both agreed that they were judged fairly in the competition. Byron explained that “fairness” was difficult to ascertain during filming, stating, “Well, I mean, I didn’t really know what everyone else was making. Because you don’t really know, you don’t see everyone’s dishes. The first time I saw everyone’s dishes was when the season premiered. It aired, and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s how that got plated!’ But then you get PTSD, and you’re like ‘Fuck that! I don’t want to watch that.’” The crowd laughed, then Shota added, “Like halfway through, you start to hear heels, and you’re like, ‘Oh no. Padma’s coming," and you’re like, ‘dontcallmynamedontcallmynamedontcallmyname, I just want to be in the middle, leave me alone.'”


All jokes aside, Byron assured an audience member that the judges were very encouraging, stating, “To answer your question, they’re pretty fair. They all want you to win. They want you to do well. And you know, they’ll throw you hints. And you’ve got to really listen.” Shota said, “And I would say, that includes the producers too. They want you to do well with your career afterwards. I’ve talked to all the producers afterwards. They’ve given me advice. They’ve connected me with alums. I’ve run into ‘I don’t know what to do here’ and they're responded with ‘Hey, reach out to this person!’ So they’re there to help you. They want you to be successful.”


Shota also spoke highly of the Top Chef alum camaraderie, sharing, “When I got on and after I finished (Top Chef), all these alums helped me out. They taught me, ‘Hey, these are the things you’re going to expect. These are the things people are going to ask of you.’ You really want to learn how to say no to certain things. You want to know what your value is and talk about all those things and not be shy about it."


On advocating for oneself, Shota stated, “I think for a lot of us in the restaurant industry, it’s new to us. Us chefs, a lot of times we’re treated like artists, so we go to events, we’re asked to do cooking for 500 people, but they only have a budget of $300 for food. 'We’re gonna pay you…nothing.'” The crowd laughed at the absurdity, but Shota continued, expression unchanged, to emphasize that this is a serious and commonplace issue. He continued, “That’s something I actually talk about very vocally because it’s a very hard business already. We work a lot of hours. When I ran my restaurant for 5 years, I mean, the first 3 years I was literally splitting Chipotle in half, and that was my meal. I want to teach these people who are going on these shows and really be open and talk about it so they feel more comfortable talking about it as well.”


I appreciated Shota’s ability to be honest about his career, the challenges of fame, and the importance of self-worth. As much as this was a tempura demo, it was also a masterclass on how the proper temperament can foster incredible fortitude and remarkable creativity. Near the end of the presentation, I was able to ask my own question to Shota, which was, “Any advice for young chefs starting out in the industry?” His response was, “Quality people. Surround yourself with good people, people who are going to help you push your boundaries.” Shota was clear to differentiate craving notoriety from becoming a great chef. He said,“Be okay with what you have. Settle with what you have. That shouldn’t be the mentality. It’s not about having more, it’s about striving for more, because that’s what makes you into who you are.”



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