Power Players

10 of the Most Influential People in Seattle Food and Drink

The chefs and owners who shape Seattle hospitality.

By Allecia Vermillion December 9, 2021

Shota Nakajima. Photograph by Carlton Canary.

Shota Nakajima Shares the Limelight

The Taku owner parlays his Top Chef buzz into revenue for his employees.

Shota Nakajima remembers working for big names early in his cooking career. “They get super busy with their appearances, and I’m stuck in the restaurant.” With the boss out generating buzz, “I’m working twice as hard but it’s not showing up on my paycheck.”

These days, Nakajima’s the one making appearances and brandishing buzz. In 2020, he competed on Top Chef’s 18th season, hoping some reality TV shine could help build stability for his business. The chef had just said goodbye to his flagship restaurant, Adana, and closed his new bar, Taku, laying off all his staff. 

During those weeks cloistered in Portland for filming, Nakajima made it all the way to the finale. Viewers voted him the fan favorite; once he was back in Seattle, they lined up en masse for the popups and special dinners Nakajima organized. This flurry of events was a countdown of sorts to the reopening of Taku. But Nakajima also used his new platform to support the pandemic-battered city, auctioning off dinners to benefit organizations like We Got This Seattle.

Even when Taku reopened—serving up Japanese-style fried chicken by the sandwich, bowl, or literal bucket—the requests kept coming. Nakajima estimates he spends more than half his time on appearances, podcasts, or other activities that sprung from his Top Chef notoriety. Meanwhile, a thorny combination of low wages, a punishing workload, safety concerns, and bottom-line management have contributed to a staggering staff shortage, and lots of turnover, in the restaurant industry.

Nakajima now profit shares with his company’s managers; any time he earns money for an appearance, they get a percentage. This way, he says, “If I go do more, my managers have more.”

Right now, just one employee benefits from this policy. But with a new line of bottled sauces and some additional projects on the way, that number seems likely to grow. So do those profits.

Caitlin Braam

Local laws can’t seem to keep up with the Yonder Cider owner’s ideas. The shutdown-era cider shop she launched in her Phinney Ridge garage prompted a lone complaint, a chorus of support from thirsty neighbors, and a city council vote to expand flexibility for home-based businesses. Then Braam worked with liquor regulators to green-light Washington’s first joint beer-cider taproom in Ballard.

Mark and Brian Canlis

When the pandemic decimated fine dining, the entire country watched—and learned from—the Brothers Canlis and their pivots. But the third-generation restaurant owners have innovated since the moment they took over Canlis in 2007. Their biggest feat: deftly drawing both longtimers who come for the Canlis salad and a new wave of fans through popups and scavenger hunts.

Emme Collins

When her family moved to Seattle from Brazil, staple cafeteria food like corn dogs came as a shock. Now, she ensures Seattle’s schoolchildren grow up seeing their culture represented on the menu as Seattle Public Schools’ executive chef. Credit Collins for helping kids love tikka masala and chicken tinga, and ensuring flavors from the city’s myriad cultural groups feel as quintessential as burgers or fries.

Image: Daryn Ray

J. Kenji López-Alt

One of the most influential voices in American cooking relocated to Seattle in 2020. With a YouTube channel, New York Times column, and touchstone cookbook (with another due out in March), he educates lay cooks on the science that yields good food. In his new hometown, López-Alt fastidiously documents his family’s restaurant meals on Instagram, leaving a surge of eager customers in his wake.

Yenvy Pham

Her family recast Seattle’s eldest pho shop, Pho Bac, as an au courant destination still centered in Vietnamese culture. Then she jumped into coffee with Hello Em, celebrating Vietnam’s rich caffeine traditions. Pham’s advocacy for Little Saigon—as part of the area’s community development group, but also as a straight-up connector—helps shape a neighborhood in transition.

Geoffrey Barker and Andrew Pogue

Fair Isle Brewing’s founders designed their new Ballard taproom with a permitted kitchen area—and visions of fancy beer pairing dinners. The pandemic scuttled those plans but shaped the brewery’s unexpected new identity: popup tastemaker. The taproom food schedule has become a proving ground for our next big names, from Karachi Cowboys’ Pakistani soul food to breakfast sandwich sensation Hi Helen.

Paul Zitarelli

His SoDo-based wine store, Full Pull Wines, does nearly all its sales via newsletter. Compelling daily dispatches illuminate northern Italy’s regional styles or promising new local wineries. This unconventional business model has proved so successful (Full Pull will sell more than 20,000 cases of wine this year) that Zitarelli can procure Washington bottles almost impossible to find elsewhere.

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