SPOILER ALERT: Sorry, Seattle — if you saw Thursday night’s “Top Chef” season finale, you already know that hometown hero Shota Nakajima lost out to “master of mole” Gabe Erales of El Paso, Texas. Described by Padma Lakshmi voice-over as “a true technician of Japanese cuisine,” Nakajima also earned points in the four-course-dinner final competition for cooking with heart, making both exquisite sashimi three ways and a homey, delicious-looking version of his mom’s Japanese curry with braised beef tongue.

Alas, the judges seemed to misunderstand Nakajima’s second course — octopus karaage with water spinach and burdock root — calling it “like a vegetable side dish.” And while some loved the curry (“stunning” and even “emotional”), it was judged “a little staff-meal-y” (that’s got to sting) while the rice was found underdone (that too). Meanwhile, third finalist Dawn Burrell continued getting in her own way (damn it), while Erales took the “Top Chef” title.

Update: After the shooting of the “Top Chef” season concluded last year, Erales was fired from his job as executive chef of Comedor in Austin for reasons that remain disturbingly opaque. The Austin Chronicle reported that an email announcement from the owners said that Erales was “no longer with the restaurant due to his misconduct.” It appears there may be more to come on this — as there very much should be — with host Padma Lakshmi tweeting, “As someone who has been sexually harassed, this topic is a serious one and merits openness. We filmed Top Chef in October of last year & were not aware of the allegations now coming out about Gabe. This should be investigated & the network should consider its best action.” She also clarified that “no one has alleged sexual harassment on the record or otherwise to Bravo/Top Chef and we judges didn’t have any indication of inappropriate behavior from Gabe during his time on set.”

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What was the pandemic “Top Chef” experience like for Nakajima? Here’s what he has to say about gaining a whole new group of BFFs, whether romance happened, what’s next for him and more — including, on a serious note, his thoughts on the recent allegations against chef Edouardo Jordan.

You can judge Nakajima’s chicken karaage yourself at his Capitol Hill spot Taku, now open for takeout — he’ll have it up and running as a bar, too, sometime later this month.

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You were so good. It’s not fair! What happened?!

I don’t even know! [laughs] Small mistakes; dumb mistakes. The first thing I did when I got out was I went to Uwajimaya, and I shopped, and I redid the whole entire final menu — I cooked for my parents. They loved it. Then I started talking about the flaws that I had in like course two and course three — not thinking clearly and editing myself when I needed, because I could have totally edited the menu five or 10 minutes before. But I think it was just nerves, and honestly, just being so at the end [of the show] and physically exhausted, mentally exhausted. I know that’s just an excuse to make myself feel better.

But at the same time, I think there’s a reason why I lost — I always kind of take things in that way — because it gives me a fire. You know, I don’t think I would have pushed this hard this whole entire time on the marketing and working with the rest of the [“Top Chef”] team members. And now I have this amazing community of people in the “Top Chef” group that I can call friends for the rest of my life.

You and your “Top Chef” fam — it seems like you all got really close.

I think being podded because of the pandemic was a big part of the bonding. I approached the whole entire thing with no filter — these people, I live with them, so they know a lot of my flaws and whatnot, but they know me as a person really well, too. So I wasn’t scared to be vulnerable and open up 100%. And I think just that everyone was kind of looking for that at the same time — I saw other people within the group doing that, too. And I’m sharing my management information [with them], like, “Hey, I think this is a more fair, sustainable way of how the industry works. What do you guys think?” And getting everyone’s honest opinion.

And we all went through the same thing — it’s really overwhelming, putting yourself out there on national TV. And the weird fact of [how] our job is based on social media — the amount of likes, and how we’re doing, and even if we try not to compare with other people, it does make us insecure and gives us anxiety. And we talk about how we cope with those things and we empower each other — being like, you know what, it is OK to shoot for the stars, it is OK to be proud of ourselves because we have worked really hard. And, you know, let’s uplift each other.

There’s a rumor that you started dating someone on the show …?

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I have heard a lot of that rumor, but: no. I’m assuming it’s Sara [Hauman] that people are talking about. Sara is, I’d say, one of my closest friends, and we have an amazing relationship. But I have this with everyone else, too — that’s been the amazing part. Like, when I’m feeling weird, I know I can call people, and it’s just a very supportive thing. And I just feel very fortunate and lucky that I have that in my life right now.

So you’ve been doing the recipes and the videos on social media, and the IRL dinners with the other cheftestants — do you foresee carrying some of that forward?

Yeah, I’m planning to do more and more events. I love events. I love the fact that I get to know people. I’m already planning three events right now, and next year, I’m shooting to do a lot more.

Will you be sharing any of the recipes from the four-course finale dinner that you made? Maybe your mom’s curry with the braised beef tongue?

I’m going to post on my [Instagram] story just being like, “Hey, which one’s your favorite? Which one would you want to learn about?” I’m going to take a poll.

What was one of the top moments doing “Top Chef”?

One of my favorite experiences — a fan reached out to me saying that their kid started asking to bring Japanese food for lunch after they said they didn’t want it.
I remember growing up and being ashamed, asking my mom to not pack lunch, just Lunchables for three or four years of my life, which saddened her at the time. The fact that I can help inspire young kids to be more confident in sharing their food has been a mission of mine.

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So, aside from not winning the quarter of a million dollars and the title of Top Chef …

I was so close! You have no idea how upset I am at myself. [laughs]

… what was the worst part of the whole experience other than that?

You know, honestly, not seeing my dog. Is that weird? He’s been such a big emotional support animal in my life, from 2020 when I spent time with him, 24-7. So not having him all of a sudden — that was just weird. Besides that, I missed having just rice every single day. You know [laughs] — it’s a lifestyle thing. We ate a lot of pizza [on set].

This is a tough one: A post on social media during the taping of the show — not your social media — made it pretty clear that Edouardo Jordan was going to appear on one of the episodes. He has since been accused by 15 women of sexual misconduct or unwanted touching. He did not, in the end, appear on the show. Can you talk about your reaction to the allegations?

It’s — it’s hard. It’s — it’s hard, what he did. I’ve seen him as a father, which breaks my heart. It’s hard for me to respond, because I’m still processing what it is. I knew him as a person, too.

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Do you have any thoughts on what we can do to finally put a stop to sexual misconduct in the restaurant industry?

I think what we’re doing has been good. A lot of people are more aware — I’m more aware. I didn’t know — I trained in Japan, and Japanese restaurants, they don’t have that kind of culture. So I’m glad I’m aware of it. It’s made me put management structures, in writing, in place. I shared that with the “Top Chef” people. If those allegations didn’t come out, I don’t think I would have processed this as seriously. I’m going to try to keep doing my part. I’m learning more about it, especially from the other “Top Chef” contestants — we’ve actually had very open discussions about it. I just want to hear everyone … to understand what it is.

You’ve had such a bananas past year — closing a restaurant, trying to open a new one right before the pandemic, a car accident, “Top Chef” — what’s the path forward?

For a long time, my goal has always been to create a great restaurant and create a great culture, treat employees right — creating that right team with me that wants to keep pushing that balance and that boundary with me. It’s been a lot of fun.

I’m rethinking my company completely in that sense of like, OK, what does it actually mean to give the promises that I give. So I’ve set it into a profit-share structure.

I do want to open a[nother] restaurant in Seattle, because I love cooking — it’s why I got into it. But I’m waiting for that right gut feeling. I’m looking for a little tiny space [so] that I can do a pop-up at least once a week or something in Seattle, just to start cooking. If there’s anyone out there with a great space, let me know.

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Is there anything about the whole “Top Chef” experience that people wouldn’t expect?

Something I didn’t think would happen was the amount of personal growth I went through. I feel like a different person. I feel more confident in being open, and I’m able to be more vulnerable with people — that’s helped me immensely in managing and in being happy. I did not think I was gonna get that out of “Top Chef.” I thought I was just gonna cook food. 

I went through such a crazy experience. And, you know, I felt naked; I felt like I failed. Not just “Top Chef” — the whole entire experience of 2020. I’m ready, though. I’m ready to try to do something correctly.

Anything else?

Hey, next time, Seattle. Sorry! [laughs] Next time.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.