Seattle top chef throwdown sends winner to Washoku World Challenge

Chef Shota Nakajima makes a 30-minute, daikon festooned masterpiece at Seattle’s inaugural “Itadakimasu” Day celebration in Pioneer Square. (Photo by Suzi Pratt)
Chef Shota Nakajima makes a 30-minute, daikon-festooned masterpiece at Seattle’s inaugural “Itadakimasu” Day celebration in Pioneer Square. (Photo by Suzi Pratt)

As a food enthusiast, watching cooking competition shows is a bit of an addiction of mine. From “Hell’s Kitchen” to “Top Chef” or “Chopped,” I’m instantly hooked.

So, when I had the opportunity to attend a live  local cooking competition, I was more than stoked.

Seattle chefs Shota Nakajima of Kappo Kitchen and Aaron Pate of Shiro’s Sushi went head-to-head at a cook-off on Dec. 11 at The Kitchen by Delicatus in Pioneer Square. The event was Seattle’s inaugural “Itadakimasu” Day, a global celebration recently established by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries and Nikkei Business Publication, Inc. The event recognizes chefs outside of Japan for their efforts to keep Japanese culinary traditions alive. (“Itadakimasu” is a Japanese expression of thanks before a meal and translates to “humbly receive.”)

Nakajima and Pate each had 30 minutes to cook up one dish that would be judged on their originality, presentation, understanding of Japanese cuisine represented in their dish and — obviously — taste. The winning chef will be be sent to Kyoto, Japan to participate in the Washoku World Challenge 2015, in which several chefs compete to create their versions of traditional Japanese cuisine.

A committee of judges would taste the dish. The panel included Taichi Kitamura, executive chef at Sushi Kappo Tamura; Allecia Vermillion, food and drink editor at Seattle Met Magazine; Holly Smith, chef at Café Juanita; Nancy Leson, food writer and KPLU contributor; and Kenji Toda, executive editor of Nikkei Restaurants.

Sustainable albacore tuna appetizers, courtesy of Sushi Kappo Tamura. (Photo by Ana Sofia Knauf)
Sustainable albacore tuna appetizers, courtesy of Sushi Kappo Tamura. (Photo by Ana Sofia Knauf)

Guests were not able to sample the chefs’ dishes, but had catered-in food from judge Kitamura’s Sushi Kappo Tamura. The catering was good, but I was still bummed out. Though the guests were at a distance — watching the chefs assemble their dishes from a projection screen in the venue’s dining room — they were stressing out right alongside them (or at least I did).

Pate of Shiro’s Sushi went first and created a platter of tonyu shabu shabu (a soymilk hot pot) and bowls of rice topped with crab claws, marinated black cod, grated radish and a raw oyster.

Chef Aaron Pate eagerly talks with guests about his food spread after the competition. (By Ana Sofia Knauf)
Chef Aaron Pate eagerly talks with guests about his food spread after the competition. (By Ana Sofia Knauf)

The spread was impressive, considering the small allotment of time given. Its only downside was its bulkiness – the platter was laden with bowls, dipping sauce and a miniature stove for the hot pot.

Still, it was impressive.

Due to technical difficulties and general audience excitement, I couldn’t hear the judges’ comments, but they seemed to enjoy all of Pate’s dish’s components.

Nakajima of Kappo Kitchen took an entirely different approach and created a scene to represent Japan’s first snowfall. The chef began with an empty bamboo platter and a bamboo leaf, which was intricately sliced-up, much like paper snowflakes you might have made as a kid. On top of that, Nakajima arranged a paper-thin slice of daikon radish, a slice of lotus root and other edible decorative elements. For the main dishes, he grilled chunks of marinated black cod and served up uni (sea urchin) alongside it.

“Itadakimasu” Day guests watch Chef Shota Nakajima put together his dish for the judges in dining room of The Kitchen by Delicatus in Pioneer Square. (Photo by Ana Sofia Knauf)
“Itadakimasu” Day guests watch Chef Shota Nakajima put together his dish for the judges in dining room of The Kitchen by Delicatus in Pioneer Square. (Photo by Ana Sofia Knauf)

The judges seemed floored by Nakajima’s dish. The chef said his goal was to create a minimalist dish that echoed Japan’s first snowfall, and he certainly accomplished that.

After 15 minutes of private deliberation, the judges announced that Chef Nakajima had won the competition and would go to Kyoto for the Washoku World Challenge in 2015.

Chef Nakajima embodied Japan's first snow in the arrangement of paper-thin daikon radish, a slice of lotus root and other edibles. (Photo by Suzi Pratt)
Chef Nakajima embodied Japan’s first snow in the arrangement of paper-thin daikon radish, a slice of lotus root and other edibles. (Photo by Suzi Pratt)

The experience of attending a live cooking competition was surprisingly stressful. Although guests had no responsibility in the kitchen, we were all still on the edges of our seat as the 30-minute timer wound down to the last few seconds. We all cheered once the completed dishes were placed at the food window for service.

Guests gave congratulatory hugs and took pictures with each of the chefs at the end of the evening. There wasn’t really a sense of disappointment in the room — even from the losing side.

Sure, food is about competition and putting out your best dish, but ultimately, it is about bringing together community. This chef challenge certainly did that.

This story has been updated  since its original publication. 

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