CHEF SHOTA NAKAJIMA sits at a picnic table in the middle of the street. It’s the afternoon of Nov. 2, 2020, the Seattle weather unusually pleasant as the year wears on during the COVID-19 pandemic. His dog, Dodger, wriggles joyously around our legs and tries to climb into my lap. We’re in a temporary outdoor dining zone, but nobody else is around — Capitol Hill, the neighborhood Nakajima calls home, bustles a lot less these days. At nearby Victrola Coffee, they used waxed-paper squares to hand over lids for our to-go cups. The restaurant that the picnic tables adjoin is boarded up, a precaution taken for the bizarre impending presidential election.

Nakajima and I have been talking regularly since the first statewide dining-in shutdown on March 15, 2020. He’d had the notable bad fortune to open his second place, a little bar called Taku, just five days before that. I wanted to track what this unprecedented time would be like for an independent chef, and his path has already taken remarkable twists and turns — including permanently closing his first restaurant, Adana — during what’s become a crisis for the entire industry. We sit socially distanced, and when we take off our masks, he looks different in a way I can’t quite place.

Nakajima’s been out of touch for two months, saying he’d be off the grid, no phone. It dawns on me that he’s looking far more pulled together than the rest of us at this point — he’s lost that coronavirus shagginess. He’s excited about something big he’s just wrapped up while incommunicado, but he can’t give any details. “A crazy-exhausting experience,” he says, but, “It was a blast — a lot of cooking.” In the world of restaurants, all this can only mean one thing: TV.

The announcement finally came in February — Nakajima’s on the new season of “Top Chef,” shot in Portland, premiering April 1. 

Seattle’s Shota Nakajima, far right, during a challenge on Season 18 of “Top Chef,” premiering April 1. Nakajima is no stranger to reality TV kitchens — he was on the Food Network’s “Iron Chef Gauntlet” in 2017, and the next year he bested the namesake host in a tempura challenge on “Beat Bobby Flay.” (David Moir / Bravo)
Seattle’s Shota Nakajima, far right, during a challenge on Season 18 of “Top Chef,” premiering April 1. Nakajima is no stranger to reality TV kitchens — he was on the Food Network’s “Iron Chef Gauntlet” in 2017, and the next year he bested the namesake host in a tempura challenge on “Beat Bobby Flay.” (David Moir / Bravo)

A semifinalist for the James Beard Rising Star Chef award for the past three years, Nakajima comes from a food family — on his mother’s side with generations of professional bakers in Tokyo and an aunt whose family runs a traditional hot springs inn in Yugawara, and on his father’s, a cousin who’s a chef at Michelin-starred Kyoto restaurant Hyotei. Nakajima’s parents raised him here, less than pleased when he dropped out of school at 16 to wash dishes and peel onions at Kiku Sushi in Bellevue. Two years later, he went to Osaka, attended Tsuji Culinary Institute and apprenticed with Michelin-starred chef Yasuhiko Sakamoto. He returned to Seattle to open his first restaurant in 2015 ― per his goal, by the age of 25.

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Nakajima’s preternaturally sunny disposition and outgoing personality belie his culinary drive, but the curious combination got him on “Iron Chef Gauntlet” in 2017. The next year, he bested the namesake host in a tempura challenge on “Beat Bobby Flay.”  

Since mid-March 2020, as COVID-19 times have stretched interminably on, his life’s been what he justifiably calls “a roller coaster ride.” He weathered months of shifting, unfulfilled plans; he made the difficult decision to close Adana forever, reckoned with how to handle Taku, watched his team scatter. He got in a car accident and dealt with an extremely painful case of shingles. He sadly missed two planned trips to see his 8-year-old son in Japan.

Throughout a year of struggle in the pandemic-benighted restaurant industry, he’s maintained an almost absurdly positive attitude. Now everyone who always watches “Top Chef” — and everyone who’ll tune in just because it’s in the Pacific Northwest, or just because it’s the pandemic — will know his and Taku’s name, will witness his beaming charm and culinary expertise.

Things seem to just work out for chef Shota Nakajima — he mentions the word “lucky” nearly every time we talk. Positivity begets positivity, possibly. But what looks like taking things in stride, landing on his feet or just plain luck from the outside comes with some serious business acumen — careful choices he’s made, and groundwork he’s laid, all along the way.

“THEY SAY THERE’S NO BAD TIME to open a bar, but you know what …” Nakajima laughed, hard. In the middle of April 2020, instead of the Japanese dive bar he intended — cocktails, kushikatsu, late-night fun with Osaka-style comfort food — his new place, Taku, had become pandemic-times takeout only. He’d changed half the menu, selling T-shirts alongside to-go single-cup sake and bottles of booze. “I don’t know what kind of business I’m running, but I’m working it out, day by day, with my team,” he said. He’d gone from 30 employees at both his places down to four; some of them had been with him for years. But he noted that former team members were regularly stopping by, and that a group text shared memes, photos, info about grants and general updates, keeping people connected.

Financially, Nakajima admitted, “It is very tough — I’m not gonna lie.” He was in the process of negotiating with the landlord of his first restaurant, Adana, hoping for a rent cut. For the Taku space, he’d secured a very favorable deal at the outset — no doubt from that landlord wanting his cachet. Even so, when the pandemic ended Taku’s grand opening after less than a week, Nakajima was “pretty broken, the first few days,” he said. “My brain just wasn’t catching up — I’m pretty tough, but that was a little bit much.” To combat an anxiety atypical for him, he’d mostly given up alcohol, something he’d carry forward through the year. “It feels awesome,” he said. “I know everyone’s drinking” — he laughed — “but if I’m not 100%, I gotta change my lifestyle.” 

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Another COVID-19 lifestyle choice: He’d gotten his adorably morale-boosting, year-and-a-half-old border collie just a week and a half before. Everyone at Taku already loved Dodger, and it was bountifully clear that Nakajima did too — the mental health benefits of the pandemic pet already reifying. He was “less panicked” than he’d been.

“I’m pretty good at digging out,” he said.

MAY 2020 WAS NOT GREAT for Nakajima. He got T-boned — his car totaled — and then came shingles. But he was happy, he said, to get a new (albeit used) vehicle out of the accident, and he found time to head out to the woods with Dodger, hunting for mushrooms, sleeping anywhere. And on May 21, as his friends — most from the industry, some former employees — carried boxes out of Adana, he said he wasn’t “crazy-sad” about dismantling his dream.

Nakajima had opened the place serving a high-end, local, seasonal Japanese menu in a kaiseki-inspired, prix fixe format, calling it Naka. But when it struggled, he adapted — forsaking any haute pride, he renamed it Adana and downscaled the menu, adding fun, affordable bar food like the cute comfort-food sandwiches known as sandos in Japan. Over the five years since, the sleek space had been home to celebratory dinners, get-togethers with friends, happy hour drinks; Nakajima’s own home was upstairs in the same building, making for the world’s shortest commute.

But with the pandemic, Nakajima said, “I just kind of like have a gut feeling that it’s going to be too hard, and I won’t be able to run two restaurants successfully and be happy about it. … And that’s kind of my biggest thing. I always want to be happy, because if I’m not happy, that shows in my work, and my employees see it, and I’m not a good boss.

“I did get to do a lot of things in five years — it’s kind of how I see it,” he said, looking on the bright side. “I made a lot of friends.”

Bodhi Builders owner Chris Kinkae, above, and employee Calvin Ocasia, left below, take down wooden framework as Adana is cleared out on Thursday, May 21, 2020. A friend of chef Shota Nakajima, Kinkae built the special framing for the space. (Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Times)
Bodhi Builders owner Chris Kinkae, above, and employee Calvin Ocasia, left below, take down wooden framework as Adana is cleared out on Thursday, May 21, 2020. A friend of chef Shota Nakajima, Kinkae built the special framing for the space. (Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Times)
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Nakajima had also recently closed Taku, but, he said, temporarily. Pandemic takeout was barely penciling out, and when he shared the numbers and asked for input, his team “unanimously said, ‘Let’s take a break and come back strong.’” He’d chosen to close Adana permanently because it was bigger, hence more of a risk than Taku. The staff would get unemployment, but not him — how would that work? “I’m OK — I don’t spend money anyway,” he laughed. He’d been buying stocks since he was 17, “kinda my side hobby,” and might have to sell some, he said.

In closing Adana, Nakajima noted, the key proved to be a stipulation he fought hard for with the lease, five-plus years ago — he didn’t sign a personal guarantee, “which made it a lot easier to get out …”

“A lot of restaurant people will sign personal guarantees, and [then] even once you close your business or restaurant because it’s going under, if they want to, the commercial building will have the legal right to come after your personal assets,” Nakajima remarked. He’d cannily kept Taku a separate enterprise, “so once this is closed, like, there’s nothing they can do.”

One of chef Shota Nakajima’s James Beard certificates awaits on a table as the Adana space is cleared out on Thursday, May 21, 2020. (Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Times)
One of chef Shota Nakajima’s James Beard certificates awaits on a table as the Adana space is cleared out on Thursday, May 21, 2020. (Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Times)

Inside Adana, it looked as if the restaurant was getting messily undressed. The lacquered plates, wooden bowls and iron teapots that had ferried food and drink sat stacked all over bare tables, all for sale. Elegant bar seats upended on the bartop poked spindly legs in the air. Pizza boxes littered what looked like a tableful of detritus, but under one lay a framed James Beard certificate. Here was Nakajima’s worn canvas knife roll. There, a page of handwritten notes for a spectacular-sounding 11-course menu, including an amuse-bouche of “SOMEN W/ SEAWEED, IKURA, SUNGOLDS,” tempura of “SMELT —> ZUCCHINI FRIES, LEEK ASH KEWPIE, TOMATO SALT.” Elsewhere, a starred entry for a “QUARANTINI SPECIAL”: a cocktail of gin and Emergen-C. 

Back outside, Nakajima said that to exercise his culinary creativity, he’d hold multicourse pop-ups at Taku, and that though it was smaller and more casual, he’d already “put a lot of love into it.”

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“I always like challenges, in a weird way, even though this is a weird challenge,” Nakajima observed. “So I’m excited to see what I can do, if that makes sense.” He called it all financially “kind of rough. But you know — my family and my friends, no one has coronavirus. Everyone’s healthy — knock on wood.” 

Shota Nakajima stands in Adana’s doorway as he and friends cleared out the space on Thursday, May 21, 2020. (Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Times)
Shota Nakajima stands in Adana’s doorway as he and friends cleared out the space on Thursday, May 21, 2020. (Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Times)

GEORGE FLOYD WAS KILLED four days later. The pandemic raged on. Seattle’s CHOP (Capitol Hill Organized Protest) — the zone occupied by protesters rallying against police violence and institutional racism in the wake of Floyd’s death — rose up right along what used to be Capitol Hill’s Pike-Pine dining-and-drinking corridor.

Four blocks from the East Precinct’s barricades, Nakajima’s would-be bar, Taku, got tagged, the neon light broken, a break-in attempted. But in mid-June, Nakajima said that his concern about CHOP was “not the people who’re there, but the people who’re going to take advantage of that.” His worry about the pandemic: “Wear a mask! … It shouldn’t be a political division — it’s about health for people, for society.”

A couple of weeks later, on July 1, 2020, a phone check-in was set to the blades of helicopters as police cleared the protest zone, a half-mile from Nakajima’s home. It felt hard, irrelevant to ask him the same old questions. He had not yet decided when to reopen Taku. “I don’t think people should be going out …” Nakajima opined. “People need to be taking this corona thing more seriously.” He’d heard from owners who’d reopened that customers were scant. But, more importantly, he aimed to protect his would-be employees’ safety, while also “allowing people to stay safe financially on unemployment.” He was still messaging with his former team occasionally, getting less response from some.

Nakajima predicted that we would backtrack, in terms of reopening — by fall, his prediction would come true, as Gov. Jay Inslee closed dining rooms again to combat another spike in COVID-19 case counts. The next time I tried to reach him, around the end of August, he was gone, filming “Top Chef” in Portland.

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WHAT’S IT LIKE to be on “Top Chef” during a global pandemic? Nakajima says the safety protocols were so strict, “It felt way more safe than regular life.” During an initial hotel room quarantine — seven days, solo, for all the “cheftestants” — Nakajima says, “I counted the birds on the wall[paper] many, many times — I got to kind of know them.” He laughs. After that, the cast of chefs became a pod together, living in the hotel, with the crew divided into pods, too. “We were in a very strict bubble,” he says, “and I mean, very, very strict — to the point that I smoked way less cigarettes, because I didn’t have the freedom to.” He laughs again.

Senior vice president of production Patrick Schmedeman says via email that crew mask protocols were strictly adhered to, while overall, “thousands of [COVID-19] tests [were given] over the course of production.” Nakajima jokes: “5 a.m. COVID test — my favorite thing to wake up to.” They also ate a lot of pizza — apparently, Bravo opted for ease when it came to “Top Chef” catering, so much so that by Day 4 of two months of filming, Nakajima already just really wanted rice. (His mom took care of Dodger.)

Nakajima’s done some restaurant consulting, calling getting paid by the hour “a lot more profitable than trying to run Taku” yet. He’s thinking about creating a YouTube channel, not cooking, but “chefs hanging out and talking.” Another plan’s in the works — no details, just that “if it does end up working out, it would be the biggest project” yet. He hopes to parlay being on “Top Chef” into “sending positivity out to the world in the way I can … to just spread love to the community,” working with younger chefs and “giving them more opportunities” instead of running a restaurant top-down. He speaks of hope that the pandemic will act as a reset for the restaurant industry, with spaces opening up — figuratively and literally — for fresh energy, “none of the B.S. bad, old culture of weird politics.” 

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Nakajima says he’s humbled by and grateful for the “Top Chef” experience. But it didn’t just land in his lap. A Bravo casting exec says via email that he applied “years ago,” and that they’ve been following his career, watching and waiting.

“I’m excited,” Nakajima says now. “I’m excited to see what this year’s going to look like in the industry. I know it’s been a lot of negativity — a lot of heartbreaking moments within Seattle — but I hope people can start focusing on … the good things and the good energy, and that people start re-creating and rebuilding.” He wants to help.

He says that “2020 — it was a blessing in disguise, in so many ways.” And that “getting Dodger was the best thing that happened, by far.” He’s looking forward to seeing his son. 

“I always try to look at the positive things in the future, not the negative things in the past,” Nakajima says.