Finding Japan in Seattle (Bearleader Chronicle)

For the “14th” (13 is bad luck, in case you are counting) and last stop on our Japanese Seattle tour, we are off to Capitol Hill to meet Shota Nakajima, the 27-year-old chef at Naka. Shota was born in Japan and raised in Seattle and at the age of 18 decided to attend the Tsuji Culinary school in Osaka. Upon graduation he stayed on in Japan and was able to secure a highly coveted position in the kitchen of the legendary Michelin-starred restaurant, Sakamoto.

As Shota tells it, for the first month his main responsibility was to find and remove the imperfect rice grains from the daily supply so only perfect ones were used for the nightly menu. As frustrating a job as that was, Shota says that Sakamoto was teaching him patience, devotion and sense of perfection. All important lessons that are now at the foundation of his practice in the kitchen today.

Naka Kaiseki, as the name implies, specializes in a style of dining known as “Kaiseki”, an ancient Japanese dining style characterized by the service of several courses. Originating in the dishes accompanying tea ceremonies, it evolved into the dining style used in Japan’s royal court, an art form that balances the taste, texture, appearance, and colors of food.

Shota’s interpretation of Kaiseki however is a distinctly northwest version, expressing Shota’s own life experience: growing in the Pacific Northwest under the influence of Japanese parents, and then venturing back to Japan in pursuit of his chosen craft.

Relating some formative memories Shota recalls fishing with his dad around Seattle and his dad building a fire to cook the just-caught fish over cedar. Today that memory translates directly into a dish of cedar wood-smoked halibut served in a small cast-iron lidded dish. Lifting the lid, fragrant smoke wafts up, filling the air with the sweet smell of cedar. The halibut is soft and imbued with subtle, smoky flavors.

Naka Kaiseki offers three menu options each night: The Naka Kaiseki, a 10-course meal with seasonal ingredients showcasing the Kaiseki tradition from beginning to end; a tasting menu, introducing guests to Kaiseki , giving them a sampling of Naka’s culinary team’s work; and the Chef’s Kaiseki, a customized Kaiseki dinner in which Chef Shota incorporates the finest ingredients into a 15-course extravaganza. Reservations for the 15-course option need to be received a week ahead of time to allow the kitchen time to prepare properly.

Dining at Naka Kaiseki is an experience you won’t soon forget and we cannot think of a better way to wrap up our Japanese-Seattle adventure.

With moments both inspiring and sad, this brief look into Seattle’s Japanese community was a real adventure. The grace and resilience with which Japanese Americans have slowly recovered their place in the community, and their being able to forgive and move on with such dignity, was truly inspirational.

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