So far, Seattle's local contestant is one of the show's top contenders. His after-the-fact campaign is just as impressive as his kitchen skills.

The line materialized fast. By 11:10am last Saturday, a queue of 80 stretched down Pike Street and well around the corner. Neighboring bar Life on Mars started selling bottled drinks—presumably nonalcoholic ones—to the people waiting outside in the sun with their dogs and the occasional stroller.

A passerby pulled off his headphones to ask, “Excuse me, is something really cool happening? I’ve never seen a line like this before.” That’s a strong statement on a block that’s also home to Seattle’s first Salt and Straw, but on this sunny weekend, another Portland phenomenon was driving this turnout.

When Top Chef kicked off its new Portland season in April, Taku owner Shota Nakajima was among the 15 contestants wielding their knives in pursuit of fame, fortune, and sponsored prizes. Since then, he’s waged a multi-platform fan immersion campaign unlike anything I’ve seen before in my (admittedly limited) history of watching competition shows. He coaxes viewers onto social media, into his YouTube stream, and out onto this Capitol Hill sidewalk for the latest in a flurry of popups with fellow Top Chef competitors.

Nakajima worked on these event plans and videos nonstop in the months before the show aired. “Getting everything ready, mis-en-placing my station correctly,” as he puts it.

In the season’s second episode, he happened to partner up with Columbus, Ohio, chef Avishar Barua and discovered they had a sort of Wayne and Garth comedic energy. (And a plate of lobster sunomono that won the episode.) Those crowds on Pike Street came to see the duo in person, at Nakajima’s sole remaining business. That day only, Taku set aside its usual identity, karaage bar, to become “Shota and Avishar Go to White Castle.” Ads and merch for the event mimic the poster from its namesake 2004 stoner comedy.

Patient fans could catch a glimpse of Nakajima and Barua—and fellow contestant Byron Gomez—hustling back in Taku’s open kitchen as they placed their orders for fish sliders and crinkle-cut fries dusted with furikake. A symbolic 420 meals were gone in less than two hours.

Clearly shows like Top Chef offer a career kickstart, but this time around the stakes feel pretty high. Nakajima has watched mentors make public appearances and had his own TV experiences, including Iron Chef Gauntlet in 2017. The hindsight was always the same, he says: Those moments, that jolt of career momentum, are so rare. He could have done more with it. He felt this more keenly when he arrived in Portland, after closing his elder restaurant, Adana, for good, and shuttering Taku just weeks after it opened.

After each episode, he drops a corresponding recipe video on his newly minted MakeUmami YouTube channel. They have surprisingly high production values. The most watched entry thus far stars Nakajima and another charismatic teammate, Portland chef Sara Hauman. More than 1,800 people have watched them break down their unexpected pairing of smelt and rabbit, another episode-winning dish.

He doesn’t see episodes until they hit the air—“I get anxiety every Thursday,” he says—but after filming wrapped, his restaurant still shuttered, he got to work on a plan to make the most of viewers’ newfound awareness of his food. It’s not just about recognition, or the fun of grinding out novelty sliders with some buddies.

As the show often notes, this crop of contestants arrived in their Covid-safe filming bubble last September, coming from shuttered restaurants, decimated dreams, and months spent on the couch rather than in the kitchen. This vibe this season—and on contestants’ subsequent Instagrams—suggest this group of competitors is particularly close after coming together under such fraught circumstances. “It’s been amazing the support system we’ve created through one another,” says Nakajima—through texts, through honest talk about financials and recovery plans, and sometimes through flying across the country to make stoner food together.

“I’m lumping everything into my company, just so I have a plan B,” he says. Last year, he didn’t have one of those. When the unexpected struck, he had to lay off all his staff. He thinks about that as he tells his team, “let’s turn this into a food business, not just a bar or restaurant.”

Business tactics aside, Nakajima’s a preternaturally positive guy who talks about his desire to bring “a fun energy” to the city’s food scene after a grim and grueling year. “When I talk to friends in Japan, or in the restaurant industry, they have negative images of Seattle, that it’s dangerous,” he says. “I want to be part of the community, and was thinking about what I can do.”

So far it seems to be working. Taku returned in early May, its identity tweaked from kushikatsu bar to karaage shop. It goes through 600 pounds of chicken a day, according to Nakajima. His flurry of events—a popup with Byron Gomez and Sara Hauman, last week’s benefit dinner for We Got This Seattle—sell out fast. The chef teases a future foray into retail and “one more fun little project” that will open, hopefully, before the end of the year. He's nailing down a very special Top Chef–related visitor for a future event.

Though it will be hard to top last weekend’s popup. An homage to a film where a pair of Asian and Indian dudes blow smoke rings around their respective cultural stereotypes feels especially appropriate during a season of TV that centers competitors’ identities rather than their speedy chiffonade. The turnout gave Barua a boost, says Nakajima, since he was bounced from the competition on the show that aired just two nights earlier.

Top Chef airs a new episode every Thursday (hey, that’s tonight). Next up: Restaurant Wars.

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