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.


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