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Suzi Pratt

Why Shota Nakajima Turned From Fine-Dining to ‘Homestyle’ Japanese Cooking

With Adana, the chef is fostering an environment of community within his staff and for his guests

After dropping out of school at 16, chef Shota Nakajima began his career working in kitchens by washing dishes and peeling onions. His parents were pretty disappointed at the time, he says. But whether it’s slicing a daikon so thin that it resembles a piece of vellum paper, or it’s catching squid on the Seattle waterfront, jigging (as in gently moving the fishing pole up and down) to lure his catch (which he will later saute in butter and garlic), Nakajima set out to do what he hoped for: He opened his first restaurant before the age of 25. “Everybody thought I was crazy,” he’s said, and yet, here he is, years into the game, still stunting.

Adana, the chef’s second venture, opened last year to critical acclaim. It replaces the more high-end Naka with a menu of what’s been called “homestyle” or “comfort food” Japanese fare, presented with care: The restaurant serves up three-course meals for $37 — a price Nakajima hopes will encourage people to become regulars — offering anything from chilled sweet corn chawanmushi to salmon roe paired with bananas. It’s a reconstitution on how non-Japanese Americans interact with Japanese food, with specificity and nuance as well as freshness, while maintaining the integrity of the flavors and history.

Born in Japan, and though raised predominantly in the U.S, Nakajima went back to Japan to learn more about the idiosyncrasies of his culture’s food in his late teens, eventually moving to Osaka at age 18 to apprentice with chef Yasuhiko Sakamoto. Afterward, Nakajima began to shape his food as an homage to his mother, who raised him on rice, miso soup, and pickles.

His natural talent perhaps is also derived from the fact that his mother comes from a multigenerational professional bread-baking family in Tokyo, and on his father’s side he comes from the legacy of the three-Michelin-starred Kyoto restaurant, Hyotei. This has played into his motivation in an organic way, he adds: “The mentors and people I had around had made me the person I am today and I hope I can have a little impact in everyone’s life who works or comes into my restaurants.”

This year he was a James Beard semifinalist for the first time, which encourages him: “I am going to keep grinding into becoming a better leader for my team. I want my future to look into creating a culture for people to grow with. To show them leadership by being relentless and passionate about food, people, weather, ingredients, family — everything.” And really, that is Nakajima’s energy — he’s excited. Whether it’s excited by the craft or by the ingredients, he has a motivation that verges on meditative precision. You can see all it in his attention detail, as he spirals the daikon around his tough steel-bladed knife, like he’s sculpting an offering right to the world.

Shota Nakajima is the chef and owner of Adana in Seattle.
Fariha Róisín is a writer living on Earth.

Adana

1449 East Pine Street, , WA 98122 (206) 294-5230 Visit Website

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