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Chef Hajime Sato of Sozai in Clawson wins James Beard Award

Posted at 8:35 AM, Jun 11, 2024

Hajime Sato, the restaurant owner and head chef of Sozai in Clawson, won a James Beard Award on Monday night in Chicago.

Sato won the award for "Best Chef: Great Lakes." He is the first sushi chef to win the regional award, and it's the first time a Michigan chef has won the regional award in more than two decades. He was a finalist for the "Best Chef" national award last year.

Sozai and Sato are known for sustainable sushi, meaning they look at key factors including traceability, fish populations, fishing methods, and farming practices.

During his acceptance speech, Sato admitted until a couple of years ago, he didn't know about the James Beard Awards.

"I'm one of those guys, can I make the sushi rice a little better today than yesterday? Can I make an impact on one person's life when I serve sushi? That's who I am," he said. "My parents did a good job. I grew up in Japan, and whatever I do, it's not good enough."

He said something changed after the awards, and now, people have started listening to him.

"Oceans is not in good shape. As you know, Earth is not in good shape. Small restaurant like me cannot really do that much, but, everybody here – nominations, winners, now you have a voice," he said. "I need everybody's help so maybe we can do this award ceremony 10 years from now."

Hamissi Mamba and Nadia Nijimbere from Baobab Fare in Detroit were also finalists for the "Outstanding Restauranteur" award but the award went to a hospitality group from Colorado.

We spoke with Sato at Sozai after the finalists were announced.

Two metro Detroit restaurants up for James Beard Foundation Awards

“What’s unique about this restaurant is called Omakase which is, basically, chef’s choice so you, basically, sit down and I ask you some things and I start making some food for you," Sato said.

 He said the goal was to bring traditional Japanese cuisine to metro Detroit.

“One of the things we specialize in is… is sushi side and if you go to the kitchen side simply grilled fish with a miso glaze, stuff like that,” said Chef Sato.

Chef Sato learned to cook as a kid from his grandmother. 

Now years later, he is a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award that honors chefs who have great culinary skills and leadership abilities.

“Yes it is important that I am recognized, but more importantly that I do a good job did I recognize the customers, maybe the customer like a touch different flavor that way then I can do that next time they come in,” said Sato.