Hook & Barrel
A Lifestyle Magazine for Modern Outdoorsmen

In the season 18 finale of Bravo’s Top Chef, Seattle’s Shota Nakajima prepared octopus karaage, a seafood take on the fried chicken dish at the center of his current restaurant, Taku, for the judges as part of his four-course progressive meal. Nakajima settled for runner-up and fan favorite. Not bad for someone who refused to eat octopus or squid for three years of his life.

Shota Nakajima’s delightful and contagious laugh drew viewers to him. And it only magnifies in person, where it comes out of the small, energetic chef often. An always sincere expression of his own personal credo: “Life is like a Disney movie, it’s always jolly.”
Though he vows not to take life too seriously, Nakajima lives a thoughtful life, and heading out to local piers to catch squid gives a little balance to his busy schedule: he runs the always-mobbed Taku, fills pop-ups around the country, makes a return appearance on the current season of Top Chef, markets his constantly sold-out teriyaki sauce, and has many more projects of all sorts in the works. Coming out on the pier, listening to music, and jigging for squid offers a break from all that. “I’m a daydreamer,” he says. “I think about my goals.”

It makes sense for the kid who preferred walking in the woods to going to birthday parties to stop eating cephalopods after catching an octopus with his dad at age five. “I loved it, I named it,” he remembers. “Then I came down to dinner to see that my mom had cooked it”. For more than a decade, he avoided squid and octopus (“Because at that point, I didn’t know the difference,” he says). Still, he has fond memories of going out jigging for squid with his dad. Right up until he left for culinary school in Japan at 18.

Shota Nakajima holding a squid

Though Shota Nakajima considers himself more of a mountain person than an ocean one, he loves all types of foraging. Including fishing and squidding, particularly for their connection to the kitchen. “It’s where ingredients come from,” he says, and when his team keeps that in mind, he finds they waste less. Nakajima closed his three-year-old restaurant, Adana, at the onset of the pandemic. But when it first opened, they weighed their compost to check their waste. Around the same time, his sous chef took him back out squidding for the first time since he returned to the U.S.

The squid pass through Puget Sound in winter, usually peaking in the Seattle area in November or December. Evening darkness and rain make the best conditions for catching squid, making it an ideal activity for the notoriously short, wet days of the end of the year in the Pacific Northwest. In the murky green-black waters, the squid gravitate toward lights, like the ones shining from the ferry dock across  the fishing pier in suburban Edmonds or glittering the reflection of the ferris wheel behind the Downtown Seattle waterfront.

To catch them, Shota Nakajima drops his pole in with a glow-in-the-dark lure on it. The teeth of the squid jig point upwards, he explains. So he just waggles the pole until he feels a pulling, “Like a wet towel,” and reels it in. “When you catch one, they come in swarms, so you can catch a lot,” he says, remembering days he left with multiple gallons of the cephalopods. Then he takes them home for the part most people dread. To clean squid, he pulls apart the head and body. Then cuts the tentacles just below the eyes to separate them from the ink sack and other innards, and pulls the beak and any remaining viscera from inside the head. “I clean them real fast, before I’m done smoking a joint,” he brags. “I pretend I’m in Mario Kart, doing the Ghost Race, it’s great.”

He loves the sweetness of freshly caught squid. And he uses them in a wide variety of ways, like in a classic tempura, frying it with butter and mushrooms—the chantarelles and matsutakes he finds in nearby forests—or stuffing it by chopping the legs, lightly braising them in soy sauce and dashi, mixing it with mochi rice, and putting them back inside the squid. “You can finish it on the grill,” he says. “That’s what we did at Adana.”

Taku, Shota Nakajima’s current restaurant, serves a small, straightforward menu of fried chicken plus sauces and sides. It opened as his original vision, a Japanese street food restaurant specializing in fried skewers called kushikatsu, for only five days in March of 2020 before Washington’s governor implemented pandemic restrictions shutting down restaurants. Nakajima closed Adana for good just a few months later. “I couldn’t pay people enough or give good enough benefits at a place like Adana,” he laments.

He misses Adana’s multi-course menus that changed each month to let him showcase his traditional Japanese culinary training and the local ingredients. “Carefully prepared, attractively presented and in tune with the seasons,” described Seattle Times reviewer Providence Cicero. Shota Nakajima hopes to do that kind of a place again someday. But only when he can do it the way he wants, including paying his team better. To do that, he says, “I need to build an empire”.

His wide-ranging and ambitious aspirations come off in opposition to the sunny, giggly personality of a man who describes himself as, “Like an anime character with a border collie”. And his longer-term goals: “When I’m 60, I just want to live in the woods and grow a Fu Manchu moustache”.

Shota Nakajima first signed the lease on the space in which he opened Naka and then Adana at just 25. Now barely into his 30s, he has opened three restaurants, closed two, beaten Bobby Flay, competed to be an Iron Chef, and nearly won Top Chef. If anyone can figure out how to run a restaurant empire while twirling fancy facial hair in the woods, Nakajima seems the prime candidate. And if he does, he likely plotted his plan carefully from under the bright lights of a Seattle fishing pier. Trying to lure unsuspecting squid onto his jig. 

Chef Shota Nakajima's squid and squash

Squid & Squash Recipe

By Chef Shota Nakajima

2 Squid

2 Green onions

Flour to coat

1 Tbsp. Sesame oil

3 oz. Teriyaki sauce

1 Lemon

½ tsp. Chili flakes

Kabocha Purée

11/4 cups Blanched kabocha squash

¼ cup Sweet miso

.18 lbs. Duck fat

Method

Clean and slice up the squid, coat lightly in flower. Cut green onion into large pieces. Place sesame oil in pan over medium heat and add squid. Once it browns, flip and add green onion and chili flakes. Crank the heat to high, add teriyaki sauce and a squeeze of lemon then reduce quickly.

Dice Kabocha to 1 inch, and boil in water until soft. Drain and blend the hot squash with sweet miso and duck fat until smooth.

Plate by placing a generous scoop of squash down and spreading out lightly. Place cooked squid and green onions on top. Enjoy!

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