Hajime Sato of Clawson’s Sozai Wins James Beard Award

He’s the first Michigander to win a Best Chef award since 2011.
Hajime Sato in 2022 // Photograph by Rebecca Simonov

Last night, Hajime Sato, chef-owner of Sozai, won the 2024 James Beard Award for Best Chef: Great Lakes. The achievement makes him the first Michigander to win a Best Chef award since 2011.

Addressing the packed theater at Lyric Opera of Chicago, Sato used his speech to talk about what he’s been passionate about for years: ocean conservation.

“I’ve been doing ocean conservation and sustainable sushi for 15 years,” Sato said. “Small restaurants like me cannot really do that much. …I need everybody’s help so that maybe we can do our ceremony 10 years from now and say that…we did something so that we can still go to the fancy dinners after this. So, thank you very much for everything. But we have work to do.”

Sozai has received national recognition for serving sushi that exclusively uses sustainably-sourced fish — one of the few restaurants of its kind in America. He was also early to popularize omakase — the Japanese “chef’s choice” dining format — in metro Detroit when he opened Sozai in 2021. Previously, he founded Seattle’s Mashiko — another sustainable sushi restaurant — before moving to metro Detroit in 2019.

Sozai was named was named one of Bon Appetit’s Best New Restaurants in 2022 — one of 50 nationwide. That same year, Hour Detroit named it a Best New Restaurant.

Sozai was only one of two Detroit-area nominations this year — Hamissi Mamba and Nadia Nijimbere, the husband-and-wife owners of Baobab Fare in Detroit were up for Outstanding Restauranteur, but went home empty-handed this time around. 13 metro Detroit restaurants were semifinalists for this year’s James Beard Awards.  This was Sato’s second nomination — in 2023, he was a finalist for Outstanding Chef. He’s the first metro Detroit chef to take home a medal since Warda Bouguettaya of Detroit’s Warda Pâtisserie won Outstanding Pastry Chef in 2022.

Correction on June 14 at 9:33 a.m.: This article was updated to remove the assertion that Sato was the first sushi chef in James Beard history to win a regional James Beard award. This is not true — Chef Nobuo Fukuda, a trained sushi chef, won the 2007 James Beard Award for “Best Chef — Southwest” for his Arizona restaurant Sea Saw.

For more information, visit jamesbeard.org. Find more of the latest metro Detroit food and restaurant news at hourdetroit.com.