I’m going to see if I can not mess it up too bad. As a chef and as a person, I would say I stopped caring about what other people think about me, which has been the most mentally healthy thing. When a fan comes up and they’re like, Yo, can I take a picture? “We had very vulnerable, real conversations about what we were all going through,” he says, “the realities of ‘Hey, we all opened a restaurant, and we’re all struggling.’”

Right before joining Top Chef, Nakajima shut down his first restaurant, Japanese comfort-food spot Adana, for good and temporarily closed Taku, his new bar, which had opened on March 10, 2020 — five days before the state of Washington halted dining-in. I know what I should have done. By the end of the season, it seemed as if you’d hit a new level of confidence in your cooking. For me, that’s something I want to look at because I’m sick of convincing employees to stay. It was delicious. Next week, fellow Portland chefs Byron Gomez and Avishar Barua are flying out to Seattle to train Taku’s staff before the currently takeout-only bar reopens for indoor dining. Everyone makes really good money now. I’m joking, I have like two. [Laughs]

So you’ve already decided you’d like to return as a Top Chef All-Star?It’s just like Dragon Ball Z: You get defeated, you become stronger. Two of the same mediocrely decent ones. What do you hope people learned about you from the show?That you can laugh and have fun in a kitchen. I didn’t take a day off; I just cooked. Honestly, there’s just a lot more I’d want to show. I think before COVID, I had this big mentality: great restaurant first, then great food and great employees. If Top Chef would have played music during the Quickfires, you would have seen all my dance moves. I’m bummed the judges didn’t get to eat it; they would have loved it. Kiki [Louya] [another contestant] just sent me a jerk spice recipe that she uses, a dry one and a wet one. I did not expect that. I’ve always wondered how someone trains for Top Chef. So now I have like 12 different kinds of vinegar. Photo: Stephanie Diani/Bravo/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

A week after the Top Chef: Portland finale, runner-up Shota Nakajima is still in the processing phase. Is there something in particular that you’d do differently?There are still a lot of dishes I haven’t showcased: some Japanese techniques, a little knife work, different braising techniques. It’s a sour note to a season that was as feel-good as they come, and Nakajima and his infectious giggle were a big reason why. What did the show teach you about yourself? Crazy, right? Was there anything you did to prepare? I know the mistakes I made. I have many different kinds of chilis, a lot of Mexican ingredients. You realize stuff about yourself, and you love it. I felt like I bonded with my mom and dad by watching it all together. I don’t know. What was going through your head when you didn’t hear your name called in the end?I was extremely proud of myself for making it to the finale and not giving up even though it was very hard. I will say my favorite bite of the whole entire thing was the yams that Dawn [Burrell] didn’t get on her crab dish in the finale. Nope. “I’m very grateful and humbled,” the Japanese American chef says over the phone from his home city of Seattle about making it into the final three. Did anything surprise you about the edit? His sunny disposition during a dark time earned him the title of Fan Favorite, which he sees as a win for anyone who believes “that you can laugh and have fun in a kitchen.”

Nakajima didn’t comment on the allegations against Erales but spoke of the bond that he and his fellow cheftestants formed while filming during a global pandemic that had ravaged the hospitality industry. That’s freeing.Yeah, something clicked when I did the “Cheddar Five Ways” challenge. Oh, that person’s restaurant is busier. What does that mean to you?It’s weird, but you know what the best part of my day is? It takes a certain kind of person to make a yam taste like that. After Austin-based chef Gabe Erales was named the winner of season 18, beating out Nakajima and Houston chef and former Olympian Dawn Burrell, previous allegations of harassment that ultimately led to Erales’s being fired from his restaurant in December came to light. I used to compare myself to those on social media. I restructured my labor budget into profit-share status. But what a difference eight months makes. I’ve always thought too many people are way too intense in the kitchen. I watched almost every episode with my mom. Now, I give more to the employees, and I feel like I get more from the employees. All these chefs are doing this, maybe I need to do this. Top Chef host and judge Padma Lakshmi tweeted that those involved with the series were unaware of the allegations during filming, which took place from August to October of last year, but that “this should be investigated and the network should consider its best action.” Bravo has yet to comment on the allegations, but fans are currently debating whether Erales should be stripped of his title and the $250,000 prize that goes with it. For so long, the restaurant industry’s common sense is Oh, we have turnover because it’s just a very high-turnover-rate industry. I actually turned on an episode of it before I went on, I watched five minutes, and turned it off. Was there a chef from this season you were jealous of in a good way? Obviously, if I would have won, that would have been mind-blowing, but I was extremely happy that Gabe won as well. I’ve changed that direction to great employees first. Life’s already hard. Days before Taku’s soft reopening, Nakajima shared the best bite of the season, his Dragon Ball Z approach to life, and why he wants to pack his knives and go back to Top Chef. Have some fun, play some music. After months of bad news for the restaurant industry, watching him turn cheddar into a work of art and absolutely slay Restaurant Wars, all with a big smile, made it feel as if nature were finally healing. Now, I just want to wake up and do what’s fun, be a good person, and take care of my staff. There’s science behind it. “But it’s so overwhelming.” That may also be how fans of the Bravo series are feeling about this season’s surprisingly controversial end. Everyone? I tried to cook my best with everything I had the whole entire time. I could have changed the concept of what it was and how it was presented. I want employees to stay because it’s a good place to work and pays well. You know how hard I used to work in restaurants to make people happy? You watched the show as it aired. I’m working on a retail sauce, making and editing videos for my YouTube, and looking at a few different projects, but I’m focusing more on making sure I have a really good company. It’s been a very anxiety-driven experience to watch myself on TV. I’m just going to pretend that I’m going into a new job. After competing against all these talented chefs, are there any tricks you picked up?My pantry is so different now. I didn’t used to use different types of vinegar, but [contestants] Sasha [Grumman] and Brittanny [Anderson] would talk about the vinegar they use, and I would listen and use a little bit in a Quickfire and be like, Oh, this is actually really good. I’m not going to do anything that I’m not remotely interested in anymore. I’ve been cooking for 17 years, and I have trained to just live with my gut in the moment. I want to come back and compete. I didn’t have to change the dishes. The funny thing is, the first thing I did when I got home was to go to [Asian supermarket] Uwajimaya and buy the ingredients to redo the four-course meal for my parents. I think I became a better son. I think I’m a happier person since then. [Laughs] My industry is about giving people an experience, making their day better with good food, drinks, and service. That’s the thing I’m most grateful for, becoming a happier person. She had a good laugh, like, You messed up rice? [Laughs]

Beyond mastering Kiki’s jerk recipe, what are you most excited to do next? That’s a hard one. You didn’t win Top Chef, but you were voted this season’s fan favorite. Personally, for me, when I plan too much, if one thing goes wrong, it throws me off. You don’t do it to win; you do it for the game. Did cooking the finale meal again bring you any closure?No, I don’t need closure. Tags: I said, Nope, too much anxiety. I make less, way less, but honestly, the amount of stress that I used to go through on a daily basis wondering if they’re okay because they’re working for me — the fact that I don’t have to worry about that makes me so much happier. Next time, I will plan a little bit more, though. As someone who comes from the hospitality industry, I’m like, I’m doing great at my job.