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Cooking At Home While Revamping Restaurants With Shota Nakajima

Shuttering one restaurant in the pandemic and pivoting the other to a new focus on economy, collaboration, and fairness.

Shota Nakajima is the chef-owner of Taku in Seattle. He permanently closed his first restaurant, Adana, last year during the pandemic, while Taku is on hiatus while Nakajima rewrites the concept and business. Nakajima is a three-time James Beard semifinalist for Rising Star Chef and competes on the current season of Bravo’s Top Chef: Portland.

I think this has been the best year of my career. I lost a lot of money, but it’s the first time I stopped and was able to look around and process everything I’ve learned running a restaurant as a business owner for the past five years. Don’t get me wrong—this has been the biggest hit I’ve ever taken in my career. But this forced pause allowed me to think about the things that I really want to do and what’s really important. I don’t think that would have happened without the pandemic.

I’ve always been a very goal-oriented person. I’ll set a five-year goal and figure out how I’m going to get there. But this year reset everything. When I was 20, I said I was going to open a restaurant by 25. Now thinking about it, I was a little crazy. At 25, I said I wanted to open another restaurant in five years, and I did open Taku right as I turned 30. My next goal was to create a company that people could actually retire at, and then COVID hit. We opened Taku five days before the pandemic shut us down. As a new business, we didn’t qualify for PPP.

Photo: Amber Gibson.

I’m at a point where I’m ready to change the whole company’s structure, beginning with how I’m writing my business plan. Labor comes first. I’ll still have some hourly employees, but I don’t want anyone working more than four days. And for my managers, I want to do profit sharing. I don’t want to own 100 percent of anything anymore. I want to work with and learn from more people, and it restricts me from learning and growing when I’m the sole owner. I’d rather share the ownership and profit. Let’s make money together, rather than saying, “This is your job to help me succeed.” It should be, “The more the restaurants make, the more you’ll make too.”

Yes, I’ll make less money, and as a business, it’s not really smart to give up profit share because restaurants themselves don’t make a lot of money. But I do genuinely believe in the years coming, in the long run, that mentality will make me more successful. It’s my gut feeling from talking with new mentors, and I’ve always followed my gut.

I think I’ve been forgiven by a lot of people from when I first started. I treated them like friends, but I didn’t treat them well as an employer at all. I didn’t know how to run a restaurant any better. I knew how to cook, but managing people is always the hardest part of any business.

Photo: Amber Gibson.

I’m planning to reopen Taku for takeout at the end of April. Taku’s menu started out as kushikatsu, but I’m going to change it to Japanese fried chicken—chicken karaage. The number one reason for the change is that most of my guests don’t know what kushikatsu is. I don’t think now is the time to risk introducing something new to the market. And I love chicken karaage. My mom made it for lunch all the time. It’s every Japanese boy’s favorite snack. They sell it at 7-Elevens and gas stations all over Japan. I’m excited to introduce that familiar childhood flavor. It also makes my inventory and operations a lot easier, so I can keep the prices more affordable, so more people can eat it. My cheapest price for five pieces is under $7. That’s the direction I’m going.

My inventory count at Taku before was maybe 100 items, and now it’ll be just 20 or so. It’s not like we’re going to put less effort into the food, but let’s simplify that part of the business for now. Then we can focus more on building a good company. You can always expand and do more later on. I’ll still do private dinners and popups—the cooking part is a hobby. It’s fun for me. I cook on my days off just for myself, so I can procrastinate from doing spreadsheets.

Retail teriyaki sauces is my next project. I’m trying to go national from the get-go. We’ll do shipping online on Amazon. That’s part of the equation for me to be able to give insurance and help my employees. I do need to hit a specific revenue target. And doing the retail sauces is part of the equation in order for me to put my people first. I’ve been working on the sauce recipe for a few months now, and I’m very happy with how it came out. There’s no MSG in there. Instead, the umami is from nutritional yeast. I added a little apple cider vinegar and honey for a Washington state touch. It fits the theme and fits what I do. I want to rep the Pacific Northwest as much as I can.

Photo: Amber Gibson.

I’ll be serving karaage tossed in teriyaki sauce as an option at Taku—a wet version. But Taku is not a teriyaki restaurant. I haven’t seen a lot of teriyaki sauces made by chefs, so I think there’s room for me. Social media is a big business too, TikTok and YouTube. I think a lot of chefs are too proud to do those things, but right now is the perfect time to adapt and figure out how to make money as a chef and restaurant owner. We talk industry-wide about how it’s hard because we have these low margins and high overhead. Video doesn’t have any of that. I’m willing to try different avenues to make money with the knowledge that I have. Just be open to the idea. Especially coinciding with my Top Chef appearance, now is a good time to launch something like this, when I have more eyes on me.

I get up early. Today I was up at 4 a.m., and before I notice, it’s 1 a.m., and I should probably go to bed. It’s not like I’m forcing myself to work. I’m just in the zone, and there are so many projects I’m working on right now.

This could be a particularly good time for young, new restaurant owners to launch new projects if they’re willing to take risks. It’s a lot easier to open places right now. There are people looking to invest in people doing cool things, and if you have the energy and you can make so many mistakes, and you’ll be fine. Landlords are looking, and you can negotiate things. I’ve only been a business owner for five years, but what happens a little bit is you get stuck in your ways. It’s hard to have a more open perspective to change. I want to see what the next generation will throw out. I think all of us that are running restaurants can learn from the next wave after this whole pandemic.