Exclusive Interview: Chef Shota Nakajima at Naka, Seattle

Henry Freed ( Line Cook), Shota Nakajima (Owner / Chef), Aaron Ingersoll (Executive Sous-Chef), Sasa Yuki ( Chef de Cuisine)

Naka has been open for 9 months and the week it opened, I was on my way back to Vancouver from Seattle. I haven’t been able to book this restaurant until my recent visit. I was excited and didn’t know what to expect.


Chef Shota Nakajima was recently nominated for the Seattle “30 under 30” award by Zagat which honours the top upcoming chefs under the age of 30. According to the editors at Zagat: “These individuals represent the next wave of culinary talent in Seattle. While they may not be a household name just yet – we anticipate these folks will be among the next generation of superstars in Seattle.” This fact I learned afterwards and I am thrilled I had a chance to sit in his restaurant and meet him personally.

The last time I had a kaiseki meal in Japan was in Kyoto. I wanted to try a kaiseki in North America from a chef that trained in Japan. Chef Shota began his culinary journey at the age of 16 in restaurants around Seattle. At the age of 18, he moved to Japan to go to a culinary institute called Tsuji in Osaka, Japan. After graduation, he got an apprenticeship under Chef Sakamoto who runs a Michelin star restaurant in Osaka, Japan.

Interestingly enough, it turns out that Brushstroke restaurant which we visited in our recent New York City trip is a collaboration between Tsuji Culinary Institute and David Bouley. What a small world!

So what is a kaiseki meal?

To me, kaiseki is like a form of art. It is based on the feelings of that moment and there are no replications. You cannot draw or paint the exact same way on 2 pieces of art. The food is beautifully presented coming out in a certain order that flows and reaches a climax then climbs back down to balance everything out. It is seasonal with many ingredients. Each dish has contrasting colours, visual appearance,  shapes, textures, and flavours. It is a balance of all the elements. The dishes the food is placed on is also carefully chosen to enhance the meal. The chefs only get the freshest ingredients available for each carefully planned dish. It is usually served in a tranquil environment and Naka’s decor was mostly made of wood. There are also no duplication of ingredients across the 8-10 courses being served. If I had to describe it like music, I can think of terms like a crescendo and decrescendo where it gradually becomes louder and softer. They are dynamic changes over a short period of time which fits the window of a kaiseki meal.

Meeting Chef Shota Nakajima was like meeting a celebrity. I always learn something new at every restaurant I visit. I watched him work and you will learn to appreciate everything you eat at a restaurant like Naka. The team spends so much time meticulously planning and preparing all the courses and cooking it of course! The execution was flawless.

Instead of focusing on the food for this article, I would like to focus more on the interview with Chef Shota Nakajima. I will also only disclose what we ate at the kaiseki meal and not include all the photos for an element of surprise for your next visit. The menu changes all the time and remember, there are no duplicates! You won’t get to eat what I ate that day! Even if it was the similar ingredients, it won’t be completely the same.

I also have details on their Mother’s Day menu!

Q: What is your favourite ingredient to work with?
A:I like working with ingredients that I haven’t seen or used before, especially fish.

Q: What inspires you?
A: Anything inspires me, it might be from taking a walk around the park to grabbing my sketchbook and getting lost.
Q: Your favourite after work hang out?
A: After work I might be taking a drive to Snoqualmie to take a breather or at Liberty Bar with the crew.

Q: What do you eat for breakfast?
A: I eat a ton of breakfast but I will always have rice.

Q: What is your favourite city?
A: Osaka for sure. The people are nice, the food is great, and there are too many things to do.

Q: Will you ever have a popup in Vancouver? (We would love to have you here, Chef!)
A: I would love to! Its always fun to travel out, it puts me in different mind set which helps me with inspiration.
Q: What are some hard to find / source ingredients you have worked with?
A: Before Naka opened we have been using Tuna flakes and Ma-Kombu for the dashi base. I looked hard but I can’t find any in the states that taste remotely good. I have to get these imported through my Chef in Japan.

Q: What is your favourite type of food?
A: I love Japanese food by far, but if it were to be besides…… I’d say well done Italian food.

Q: Who is your role model?
A: My father has always been a role model. He has his way of expressing what needs to be done, but he is the type of move your hands more than you talk which I keep for the base of how I run my kitchen to this day.

Q: Do you go to Japan often and which city do you like visiting and why?
A: I have relatives and friends all over the place, but the places I will always stop by will be Osaka, Tokyo, and Nagoya. Osaka for food, Tokyo for friends and late night drinking, Nagoya… just for the hell of it.

Q: If someone has never tried sushi before, what is the one nigiri you would serve them? If not nigiri, what would you serve them?
A: I would probably serve them a kombu cured spot prawn. Its very simple but you can’t hate it.

Course 1

I still remember the burst of sweetness in my mouth when I broke the spun sugar into the cherry tomato compote with Saint Germaine gellee.

Course 2Seabream picked bamboo shoots, daikon, ginger blossom, burdock, fiddlehead smoked in dashi, hotatu ika, soy braised pink scallop, and grilled eggplant. Start with the bamboo and eat it clockwise to the fish and end with the daikon. The daikon was cut very thinly and wrapped right back into a ring. All the different flavours played with my palate.

Course 3

Bluefin tuna belly from Spain, uni, spot prawn, kelp, ikura from Columbia river, and a nasturtium leaf with a water droplet which you eat last. You mix the egg yolk first and enjoy the celebration of all the flavours in your mouth. All the natural flavours were brought out and the kelp helped balanced out the umami of the ingredients. Together, everything was needed to make up the different sections of an orchestra.

Course 4Chawanmushi, a savoury egg custard in dashi. Shrimp, hedge mushrooms, blackcod and faba beans.

Course 5
Blackcod marinated with soy and mirin.Grilled abalone mushrooms with white asparagus.

Intermezzo
Sorbet with shiso and freshly squeezed lemon

My 3 year old ate with us the entire time. We ordered an additional Musashi chicken on rice for her. She ate almost all of it. She ate all of the blackcod above. The rest of the kaiseki dishes which she also finished was the Wagyu Kagoshima (not pictured course 6), yuzu vinegar salad with a miso vinegar reduction.

The devil’s club tempura (course 7 not pictured for an element of surprise if you get to eat it!) which is only available one month out of the year was very special. The kombu salt used for dipping is made in house. When you bite into it, there are little thorns.

She also ate all of the king crab rice with nori (course 8) which came with red miso soup made with nameko mushrooms. The rice came with picked radishes.

Course 9
Amaretto Bavarian cream, strawberry cream, tulle carmelized with sugar and orange.

Overall, Naka exemplifies the kaiseki experience in allowing the simple beauty of the ingredients to shine through. It’s exciting to see what a culinary powerhouse Chef Shota already is at such a young age. I look forward to experiencing the genius of Naka again in the future.

If you want to treat your mom to something special for Mother’s Day, they have a 6 course dinner on Sunday May 8, 2016

MOTHER’S DAY MENU

  1. Local Spot Prawn- Cucumber Goma-ae with a Tosa Vinegar Gelée topped with Pine Nuts
  2. Tuna – Soy Marinated Tuna with quail egg, and uni
  3. Lotus Root-Grated Lotus root dumpling with a savory dashi
  4. Grilled Hassun- Black cod, Wagyu Beef w/ Asparagus, Fried Oyster, Firefly Squid Sumiso, King Crab Tama, Braised Bamboo Shoots, Myoga Pickles
  5. Rice/Miso- Salmon/Salmon Caviar rice with Fried tofu white miso with morel and fiddle head
  6. Ginger Panna Cotta- Cured Fresh Fruit with Fresh Mint

 

Naka
1449 E Pine St, Seattle, WA 98122
www.nakaseattle.com

 

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