Hajime Sato Makes History As First Sushi Chef To Win A Regional James Beard Award

On Monday, June 10, the winners of the 2024 James Beard Foundation Restaurant and Chef Awards were announced at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Known as the Oscars of the food industry, the accolade recognizes culinary excellence among the country's top hospitality professionals. And the honor of Best Chef: Great Lakes has gone to Hajime Sato — marking the first time the regional award has ever been given to a sushi chef.

Sato's restaurant Sozai, located in Clawson, Michigan, specializes in sustainable seafood and sushi. He was one of the first chefs to make such an important commitment to sustainability and has been at the forefront of this movement since 2009. 

The win is not only the first for a sushi chef, but it's also the first win for a Michigan chef in the regional Best Chef category in over 20 years. Sato believes the prestigious awards are vital for providing a platform to raise awareness of issues such as sustainability: "I didn't have a voice, but now, because of James Beard I have a voice," he said on receiving the award (via YouTube).

Sozai in Clawson offers an omakase dining experience

Hajime Sato's ambition for his restaurant is simple, but profound: "Can I make an impact on one person's life when I serve sushi?" he asked onstage at the 2024 James Beard Awards (via YouTube). But diners expecting the usual California rolls or spicy tuna will be disappointed. Instead, Sozai offers an intimate omakase dining experience for guests at its sushi bar, with diners eating the chef's choice of dishes.

Lasting several hours, the meals feature a number of different courses, with menus ranging from $90 to $170 dollars. Centered around sustainable seafood and different types of sushi, options may include sashimi or nigiri as well as some more adventurous options. There is also an omakase menu that's all about vegetables and tofu, with no seafood or meat. The precise dishes vary each time, as Sato likes to adapt them during service according to the diners' experience and reaction. It's advised that the dishes are paired with recommended sakés — and chef and owner Sato is also a certified saké advisor. 

Other notable 2024 James Beard Award winners

In terms of national accolades, Portland's Langbaan won the title of 2024's Outstanding Restaurant at the James Beard Awards, while Outstanding Chef went to Michael Rafidi of Albi in Washington, D.C., Dakar NOLA in New Orleans won Best New Restaurant, while Emerging Chef went to Masako Morishita of Perry's, Washington, D.C.

Other regional Best Chef awards also went to a diverse and deserving array of winners. Best Chef: California was awarded to Lord Maynard Llera of Kuya Lord, Los Angeles, while David Standridge won Best Chef: Northeast for the Shipwright's Daughter in Mystic, Connecticut. Christina Nguyen took the Midwest award for Hai Hai in Minneapolis, and the Texas award went to Ana Liz Pulido of Ana Liz Taqueria in Mission.

Hajime Sato's sushi restaurant win was not the only "first" of the night, either. Paul Smith's Southeast win for his restaurant 1010 Bridge was the first time a West Virginia restaurant had won a James Beard Award in a main category.

Static Media owns and operates Tasting Table and Food Republic.