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Seattle finalist hopes to be first Asian woman to win James Beard award for 'Best Chef' in Northwest, Pacific

Mutsuko Soma, owner and chef at Kamonegi in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood, is vying for a prestigious James Beard award.

SEATTLE — After a two-year break, the James Beard Awards return Monday night with one of the most diverse lists of nominees in the foundation's more than 30-year history.

The organization took the time to reflect on its history and make major changes to its voting policies and procedures. The James Beard Foundation declined an interview, but said in an email statement:

"The pandemic posed challenges that no organization could have possibly foreseen or prepared for, and in the course of that time, our industry suffered greatly—particularly independent restaurants. These challenges shone a light on weaknesses in our system."

In 2020, the organization conducted an outside audit to become more inclusive and equitable. As a result, changes were made to their voting process including diversifying the voting body, adding term limits, and broadening judging categories. The organization said these changes are part of an iterative and ongoing process.

With those changes, Seattle chefs are earning top marks.

“I like to be recognized for my cooking and not because I’m a person of color,” said Mutsuko Soma, owner and chef at Kamonegi in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood.

Soma is a nominee, also called a finalist, for Best Chef Northwest and Pacific.

However, Soma said she’s appreciative James Beard is recognizing women-owned and POC-owned small restaurants.

“They never used to," said Soma, who opened Kamonegi about five years ago and credits her unique 100% handmade soba noodles for the recognition. "They used to only look at French, Italian, New American."

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It’s a career-defining prize for any chef, but for the Seattle chef, it’s potentially historic. A win would be the first for any Asian woman in the category in at least a decade.

Soma learned to make buckwheat noodles after moving to the United States at 18 years old and missing her grandmother’s soba noodles as a child growing up in Japan. Once she learned to make them for herself and her family to eat, she realized the recipe was special and decided to open a business.

“Studying culture, sharing culture, learning cultures is important," Soma said. "I never used to think about culture and food in this way."

Before the nomination, a prime-time reservation at Kamonegi would take a few days. Once Soma made the semifinals that became three weeks. Now as a finalist, snagging a reservation comes with up to a six-week wait.

“Hopefully this award brings people in to try something new because many people probably never had fresh soba noodles like this before,” said Soma, who encourages people to try new cuisines in Seattle.

Other Seattle chefs who made the finals are Joule’s Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi for Outstanding Chef. Walrus and the Carpenter are in the running for Outstanding Restaurant.

Soma will be going to the awards Monday night in Chicago. She said her next step is to write a cookbook if she wins.

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