Our Top Chef.
Let's just say he won. Courtesy of Bravo

This interview was originally published in our Friday news round-up.

SPOILERS AHEAD: If you're a fan of Top Chef: Portland, you've probably heard by now that Seattle's Top Chef king Chef Shota Nakajima (of Taku and formerly Adana) did not win the Top Chef crown last Thursday. He came in as a close runner-up, maybe due to some funkily cooked rice on his third course. Still, he was the clear frontrunner this season, almost exclusively getting perfect praise.

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Texas's Gabe Erales beat out Shota and fellow competitor Dawn Burrell for the title, and then he immediately inspired controversy. It starts with this report that came out last December, which announced that Erales was fired from his job at the Comedor in Austin after returning from filming Top Chef. The details were initially vague, but new information came out Friday afternoon, including confirmation that the restaurant fired him for violating the company's policy against harassment for his actions against a female employee.

More from Bethany Jean Clement at the Seattle Times:

After season 18 of Top Chef finished filming in Portland last fall, Erales, it has emerged, was terminated as executive chef of Austin’s Comedor for “repeated violations of the company’s ethics policy as it relates to harassment of women,” according to the Austin American-Statesman. Erales has admitted to cutting an employee’s hours after the end of a “consensual sexual relationship” with her when he returned from the Portland taping, also telling the American-Statesman that he continued communicating with her in an unprofessional manner.

That's not the only shadow over the season. Seattle's Chef Edouardo Jordan, accused by 15 women of sexual misconduct or unwanted touching, was a part of the finale episode, but the show edited him out after the allegations went public, reports the Seattle Times.

So, will the show's outcome change? It seems up in the air. We're supportive of the crown retroactively going to Dawn, too, but obviously we're rooting for our Capitol Hill karaage master.

Earlier Friday morning, before updated reports on Erales came out, I called up Shota, the show's fan-favorite. We talked about the show's bubble, his future plans for his Capitol Hill restaurant Taku, restaurant workplace cultures, and Dragon Ball Z—but we didn't talk about Erales, since I became aware of the new details a few hours after we talked, so our interview is regrettably dated. Shota hasn't given comment on those updates.

Here's our conversation from Friday morning, edited for length and clarity.

CHASE: It's the morning after. What's going through your head?
SHOTA: So much. I don't even know where to start. Rollercoaster of emotions, you know. Just a bunch of people hitting me up and calling me. Overwhelmed and humbled would, I guess, be the words I would use.

You told us you were watching the finale at your parents' house last night. How was that?
It was so much fun, but then when the rice was a little crunchy, my mom was like, "What? You messed up on rice?" We got a good kick out of it.

I assume you've known the outcome of Top Chef since filming it last year. What's it like to have to process this again after already having dealt with it?
Honestly, it's a little crazy. I think the amount of personal growth I'm seeing, because I have to reflect on myself, has been insane. I think I needed it. I feel like I'm a happier person and more confident.

How long were you filming in that bubble in Portland?
For two months. Late August until late October.

So were you living and working in the Capitol Hill neighborhood over the summer, with CHOP and everything?
I closed Adana right away at the end of March. Then I did Taku to-go until May-ish. Then I got into a car accident. Then I got shingles. Then I had health issues for like a month and a half, and I just couldn't afford to keep it open. So I closed Taku as I was getting better, and that's when I got a call from Bravo.

Those seem like two really isolating experiences—healing from the car accident and then filming in a bubble in Portland. And now it's the reverse, with all this press.
You know what it's like? I don't know if you've ever watched Dragon Ball Z...

...I've definitely watched Dragon Ball Z.
So, you know, it's like when you get destroyed and demolished in Dragon Ball Z—but then, when you get better, that's when you all of a sudden become stronger? That's how I feel 2020 was from everything: COVID, closing, car accident, Top Chef just ripped me apart. And I was like, you know what? I feel a lot better as a person right now.

You know, that makes a lot of sense.
[Laughs]

Are you considering opening up other places beyond Taku?
I have a few offers right now, so I'm just trying to see what feels right.

You initially planned to open Taku as a kushikatsu restaurant but changed it to karaage as the pandemic started, yeah? Are you planning on evolving it further?
It's going to be karaage-based. We're planning on evolving the menu slowly, adding on one or two things as we go. A bunch more side dishes, but still a karaage-based restaurant.

The neon sign outside of Taku is so great. Who designed it?
The designer was Shogo Ota with Western Neon.

In Bethany Jean Clement's fantastic profile of you in March, I saw that you're also a painter. Did you use those skills when designing the interior of Taku?
I drew everything.

Really!
I drew everything, and I asked my contractor and architect to make sure it's legal. [Laughs] And I was like, put plywood on everything, and then I'm going to put stuff on top of it. I was there from like 12 to 4 AM pretty much for two weeks straight, just putting stickers, putting stuff on the wall, inviting friends to come over.

In your most recent interview with Bethany, you said you're doing a profit-share structure for Taku. What does that mean exactly?
Making sure that there's an incentive for people and they see it on their paychecks. It means for every project that I have, giving a percentage off if you're working on it with me, even including the little events that I do. I think the biggest thing about us industry people: no one teaches us about business and how it works and how to negotiate; how to be like, "Hey, I deserve 15% because I do this, this, this, this, this," you know?

I wanted to check-in, too, about the differences between working in kitchens in Japan and kitchens in the States. In that interview with Bethany, she brought up the allegations against Edouardo Jordan and misconduct in the restaurant industry. You mentioned that Japanese kitchens don't often have that kind of culture. Could you talk more about what that means?
I'm not gonna say all Japanese kitchens because I don't know. Obviously there are a lot of things I don't know in this world. But at least in the restaurant we worked at, everyone just worked. There wasn't a lot of side talk or going out after work or whatnot. If there was, it would be more, like, just a conversation about how to work. Everyone had a more professional mentality, at least in the place I worked.

It was shocking to see that that was going on as much as it was. You know, I have seen in the industry over here, after opening Naka, that there are people who drink and get out of hand. I don't see to the extent that some people are talking about, in my eyes, because I'm an Irish dipper. I have always been an Irish dipper. I get overwhelmed in crowded places, and I just want to hang out with my dog.

It's a lot. I'm still processing everything.

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Now that the show's wrapped up, what are you up to this weekend—just hanging out with your dog?
Well, I got 4th of July [at Taku] and we're sold out. So I've got to go prep that today.

I'm still doing a lot of videos. I want to keep pushing videos, show different Japanese little snippets here and there, things I like to cook. I'm trying to keep that fun energy and vibe going. For me, I think that's the way I try to live life for myself. It's just trying to think about, all right, how do I make someone smile? Is it a little cooking video that looks good? Is it going in and saying hi to my staff and doing some fun project with them? Every day I try to do everything that I can to be a good person and have fun and work hard.

I think that comes through, especially on TV.
I hear a lot about the really strict culture of a chef talking down to you. I'm hoping that maybe some people thought the way I approached it [on Top Chef] was cool, and being like, 'I want to be more like that guy,' as opposed to the guy that's yelling. Slowly but surely, you know, through inspiration, it could turn into a kinder industry.