The Journey to the Gauntlet: Chatting with Challenger Shota Nakajima from Iron Chef Gauntlet

Get to know Chef Shota Nakajima, a challenger competing on Iron Chef Gauntlet.

Photo by: Eddy Chen, Eddy Chen

Eddy Chen, Eddy Chen

This. Is. It. The fight to become an Iron Chef is unlike any other culinary competition, with the demands for precision, expertise, intuition and downright excellence the most rigorous in the business. On Iron Chef Gauntlet, seven of the country's most-elite chefs will come together to prove that their skills are the sharpest — but ultimately just one will earn the right to the run the gauntlet for the chance to join the ranks of the great Iron Chefs.

Before the competition begins on Sunday, April 16 at 9|8c, we're giving you, Iron Chef fans, the first introductions to the crop of challengers ready to do battle. Today we'd like you to meet Shota Nakajima, a chef from Seattle. Read on below to get to know his style in the kitchen, and be sure to come back to FN Dish all week long as we present a new contender every day this week.

What's your style of cuisine, and do you have a signature dish?

Shota Nakajima: My style of cuisine is Japanese cuisine. Old-school Japanese cuisine. Not a lot of powder, not a lot of the new-age stuff. Old-school, old-school.

What's your proudest culinary achievement to date?

SN: I have awards, but more than that I think it’s the fact that I decided to go to Japan when I was 18, and I got a job at a Michelin star restaurant over there.

What's your strongest skill in the kitchen, be it something technical or mental?

SN: Knife skills and patience.

Tell us about a day in your life. What are some of your primary responsibilities and roles?

SN: Inspiring people. And being better than everybody — in the kitchen. [laughs]

Why do you have what it takes to be an Iron Chef? What makes you worthy of joining such esteemed ranks?

SN: I think I have something different to bring, just because I am younger, I'm multi-cultural. I grew up half in Seattle and half in Japan. Everybody kind of produces food in their own [world] — how they grew up, what they’ve seen — and being able to work in an old-school, classic Japanese restaurant and kind of having both of those backgrounds is something new to the U.S. And just new in general.

What makes you unique in terms of your culinary expertise or your approach to food?

SN: The way I grew up. I used to play in the woods and what not. Nowadays what I do on my days off, if I have a day off is, in the fall time I go mushroom foraging. Right now it’s squid season, so after service, like two times a week, me and the crew go squid fishing.

How did you prepare for this competition?
SN: Slept an hour longer every night.

If you had the chance to battle one Iron Chef, who would you choose and why?

SN: Morimoto. Just because he’s Japanese as well. I think one thing I’m really excited about this competition is being able to — there’s a lot of great chefs, so getting to be able to meet the guys, but being able to cook with them and see what they do with ingredients. But at the end if I could just challenge an old-school Japanese chef [against] me who’s an old-school Japanese chef but in a different generation, that’d be a great, great experience.

What would be a Secret Ingredient that you'd dread finding on the altar, and why?

SN: I would probably have to say pork intestines or something. I mean, I can cook with it. It’s just personally not my favorite thing. If it’s not something I like, it’s harder for me to cook. Something I’m good at cooking, I think is some kind of dryer fish, just because it’s harder to cook well, and seafood’s my strength.

Is there any dish or ingredient that you don't care for or will not eat?

SN: Balut. Not my thing.

Beyond a knife and a tasting spoon, what’s one of your favorite kitchen tools?

SN: Chopsticks. I cannot live without my metal-tip chopsticks.

What's your favorite ingredient to work with these days? Anything new you're obsessing over right now?

SN: Right now I’d have to say tuna flakes. A lot of restaurants use bonito flakes to finish up a lot of sauces in Japanese cuisine, but I found tuna flakes with the bloodlines cut out, and they have this purely clean, clean flavor.

What do you like to cook on your days off?

SN: I honestly like to cook rough food, like Chinese food. I love Chinese food. For example, get shrimp or something and then just throw it in the oil, toss it around, take it out, put a sauce over it and just chew on it.

Who do you consider to be your culinary mentor?

SN: My chef that I got to train under in Japan. Chef Sakamoto. I still call him. I still talk to him all the time, just about other stuff outside of the restaurant too, like: "Hey this is going on. I’m struggling with this, like work and life balance as well." He’s a nice chef in the kitchen, but he’s just a good guy.

What’s the greatest thing you’ve learned from him?

SN: I think it’s the mentality of serving and making food, which is, at the end of the day, there’s so many restaurants that just put food on a plate. But as he would say, the difference between a good and a great chef is a good chef produces food, a great chef produces food, and every single time he produces food, when he puts it in front of people, it would be the feeling that you would be serving it to your girlfriend, your wife, your whoever. Anyone who you care about. And if you can do that every single time, you’re a great chef.

What do you think fans at home might not realize about what it takes to cook at such a high level?

SN: I think the mental strength. Watching it on TV for 30 minutes or whatever [versus] doing it every single day. You have bad days, you have good days. But through that, even if you’re having a bad day, the guests that come into the restaurant, they don’t care. They want good food, and being able to have that mental switch where when you walk into the kitchen you can cook good, good, good food — that’s probably the hardest thing.

What's the first dish you think an aspiring Iron Chef should master?

SN: Chicken breast. Juicy chicken breast without sous vide or without all that pansy stuff. Just with heat.

Besides cooking, what do you like to do?

SN: I like fishing. I like foraging. I like outdoorsy stuff, a lot of outdoorsy stuff.

Any guilty food pleasures you'd like to reveal?

SN: I eat pho, like, three or four times a week. It’s not guilty. I just love pho.

Is there anything you want to say to introduce yourself to new audiences?

SN: I have a big dream, a big goal where I want to be the kind of person who can introduce more about Japanese culture and Japanese cuisine, that there is more than sushi. Sushi is, like, 10 percent of Japanese cuisine. Hopefully if I can do something different, people can start widening their eyes a little bit more and be interested more about what’s actually in Japanese cuisine.

Tune in to the premiere of Iron Chef Gauntlet on Sunday, April 16 at 9|8c.

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