With James Beard win, Clawson Chef Hajime Sato proves Midwest sushi’s greatness

A metro Detroit chef won the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Great Lakes, and we’re proud.

Chef Hajime Sato, owner of Clawson’s Sozai, was honored with the prestigious title at the annual awards ceremony on Monday night, marking the first time ever a sushi restaurant has received the award in this category and the first time since 2003 a Michigan chef has won Best Chef in the region.

Often referred to as the Oscars of the food industry, the ceremony took place at Lyric Opera in Chicago and was broadcasted on YouTube.

“Wow. To be honest, this is the second time I’m nominated. A couple years ago, I didn’t know too much about James Beard,” Sato said as he took the stage. “My wife called me when I was in the chiropractor…she said, ‘You’re nominated,’ and I said, ‘That’s for the fancy chefs, I’m not it.'”

“My parents did a good job, I grew up in Japan, so whatever I do, I’m not good enough, right? Even if I win I’m in my head,” he added. “But something changed after James Beard.”

Sato’s culinary journey began nearly three decades ago when he opened a sushi restaurant in Seattle. Then, in 2009, he committed to using only sustainable seafood in his dishes. In 2019, Sato moved to metro Detroit for his wife’s cancer treatment and opened Sozai, despite not knowing how hard it would be to source sustainable ingredients in Michigan, far away from an ocean.

But Sato stuck to his principles, and it paid off. Still, he reminded the audience on Monday that there is much work to be done, as the oceans and Earth are “not in good shape.”

“Small restaurants like me cannot really do that much, but everybody here…now you have a voice. Just like I didn’t have a voice, but because of James Beard, you have a little bit more voice, and I need everybody’s help so that maybe we can do this awards ceremony 10 years from now and say that we did something so we can still go to the fancy dinners after this,” Sato said. “So, thank you very, very much for everything, but we have work to do, so let’s do everything together and thank you for your help.”

For the national category of Outstanding Restaurateur, Detroit’s Baobab Fare was one of five finalists. Sadly, the popular East African restaurant did not take home the win, but Detroiters know they deserve it, and we’re still proud of them, too.

Many metro Detroit chefs and restaurants were semifinalists for James Beard Awards this year, but the last local win was chef Warda Bouguettaya of Midtown’s Warda Patisserie in 2022, who received the award for Outstanding Pastry Chef.

You can see the full list of 2024 winners at jamesbeard.org

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