Top Chef Fan Favorite Shota Nakajima shares the ingredients that most inspire him.
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Illustration of Top Chef “Fan Favorite” Shota Nakajima
Credit: Illustration by Peter Oumanski

At first, Shota Nakajima didn't want to be on Top Chef. But after closing his two Seattle restaurants because of the pandemic, Nakajima needed to find a way to get his life — and his career — back on track, so he accepted the opportunity to compete. "I did it almost as a reset," he says, "like boot camp." Nakajima went into the show without any agenda, and he left as the season's "Fan Favorite," a title he earned not only because of his immense talent, but also for his genuine friendliness, infectious laugh, and down-to-earth vibe.

On set, Nakajima wanted to try everyone else's cooking. "I was that weirdo who went around tasting everyone's food with a spoon without asking," he says. For Nakajima, Top Chef was a crash course in global cuisine, or, in his words, "the expedited version of realizing all of the things you don't know about cooking." Nakajima has studied and cooked Japanese food his entire career, so learning the flavors and techniques that are the foundations of other cuisines, like Mexican and West African, proved to be eye-opening.

Since the show, Nakajima has been incorporating his newfound knowledge into his food. "I don't change the way I cook; I just change the ingredients and the thought process behind it," he says. "It's like I've gotten new colors on my palette that I've never used before." Here, Nakajima shares the ingredients, old and new, in his winter pantry.

The Staples

Kimchi

"In the winter, I start to stock up on homemade kimchi. It's a great way to warm up the body and eat something cozy. I make a lot of my kimchi by throwing any leftovers I have in the hot pot. But sometimes, I'll get the kimchi that's made in-house at Uwajimaya, an Asian grocery store with an outpost in Seattle, and I'll mix that with my own kimchi."

Fresh Ginger

"In the colder months, I eat a lot of ginger. In Japan when it's hot outside, they tell you to drink mugicha, or barley tea, because it lowers your body temperature; it's a Chinese medicine thing. In the wintertime, they say to eat a lot of ginger because it warms your body up from the inside. It also helps prevent colds, so I tend to use a lot of ginger in the winter. I even finish soups with fresh-grated ginger, for that raw sensation that tingles a little bit in your throat."

Umeboshi

"I really love umeboshi, or ume. It's pickled plum, so it's yummy when you eat it on its own, but in Japanese cuisine, you use it in braises a lot, too. For store-bought versions, look for umeboshi that has honey in it for a balance of sweetness with the acid. I cook fish, like herring, in sake and ume. The vinegar from the ume actually helps break down the bones and adds an acidic note that works well with things like sugar and soy sauce. I also use ume in drinks. In the colder months, I make a hot tea with ume, a little bit of honey, and lemon."

Home-Flavored Salts

"I'll use Jacobsen salt as a base and add things to it, like leftover kombu. I'll cook the salt and the kombu down together, dehydrate it, and then turn it into kombu salt. Or I'll buy smoked jerky and blitz it with salt and then cure seafood with it to give the seafood a light, smoky, meaty flavor. This works really well with simple fish that have an almost-empty flavor, like halibut. When you eat it, it kind of messes with your head."

The Newbies

Ancho Chiles

"I've been studying moles [since being on Top Chef]. I always thought there were four or five kinds of chiles that people use because I wasn't knowledgeable in that sense, but now I know all these different kinds of chiles. And some of them, like ancho chiles, aren't even spicy; they just add umami and depth. That umami balances really well with mushrooms. I made a vegan ancho chile dashi with dried porcini and kombu, and it came out really delicious."

Fonio Flour

"On the show, Dawn [Burrell] used all of these flours and grains that I had never heard of before. She made cornbread with fonio [an ancient grain native to West Africa] flour, and it had so much flavor. I bought some fonio (Dawn recommends the brand Yolélé) and am excited to play around with it. I'm going to make mochi but cut it with a little bit of fonio to see if I can add that flavorful edge."

Sherry Vinegar

"The ingredient that surprised me most is sherry vinegar. It was something that I saw a few other competitors use on Top Chef, and I started mixing it into my regular vinegar ratios. Instead of 100% rice vinegar, I'll add in 10% to 20% sherry vinegar. I use it to make pickles out of cucumbers, radishes, anything. Capirete is a great one to have around; it's delicious and not too pricey!"

Szechuan Peppercorns

"Green Szechuan peppercorns are a must for me. They're not the newest addition to my pantry, but they're something I've been experimenting with more and more, and always have around. I add whole peppercorns to everything from rich braises to stews—they add such a nice dimension of heat and flavor to food."

Back at Work

After filming, Nakajima returned to Seattle and reopened his restaurant Taku, changing the concept from kushikatsu to focus on fried chicken. He also launched his own teriyaki sauce, Make Umami ($9, amazon.com); a portion of proceeds from each bottle will be donated to José Andrés' World Central Kitchen. At Taku, Nakajima uses the teriyaki sauce to coat fried chicken, but the possibilities are endless.

Confidence Boost

As a kid, Nakajima wanted to bring Lunchables and apples to school for lunch, not the Japanese food his mom prepared and packed at home. "It was a confusing time for me because I almost wanted to hide that part of my life," he says. So when Nakajima was stopped on the street by an Asian family who told him that their child wanted to bring Asian food to school for lunch after watching him on Top Chef, he says he felt empowered and energized. "I just want to be useful and helpful to somebody, and if I can do that for the next generation, that's the world."