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Chef Mutsuko Soma on History, Influences, and Generational Talent

Cover Image for Chef Mutsuko Soma on History, Influences, and Generational Talent
By Eddie Carter
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Categories:Interview

Growing up in Tochigi, Japan, chef Mutsuko Soma watched as her grandma made noodles from homegrown rice and buckwheat. After attending school in the United States, Soma moved back to Japan to learn the craft of making soba noodles for herself. Now, as chef of Kamonegi, Soma is one of only a handful of restaurants in the U.S. to hand make fresh ni-hachi soba noodles on site. We chatted with Soma about her influences, heritage, and journey as a chef.

What made you want to learn the craft of making soba noodles?

I became used to the taste of fresh noodles growing up because my grandma always hand made buckwheat noodles for me as a child. I had never even had dry noodles until I came to the U.S. when I was 18, and the taste was so different. To me, it was like the difference between actual ramen and instant ramen. When I was 25, I moved back to Japan to try and learn how to make soba noodles for myself.  There, I realized oh, no one else is doing this in America, and if I served it people would like it. Because of that, I started doing pop-ups, which became popular, and I ended up opening Kamonegi.

The Process

There are not many restaurants that make soba noodles on-site in the U.S. Why aren’t as many places making these types of noodles fresh like Kamonegi?

Everything is handmade, right? One batch usually takes 30 minutes from all of the kneading, rolling, and cutting, and it only creates 15 portions. So if you are thinking more about overhead, Ramen is way easier to make. You can just buy noodles or mass produce them with a machine.

What are some influences that you see in your menu from past restaurant experiences?

I used to work at French and Spanish restaurants, so my menu is inspired by European cuisine. Our most popular appetizer is the foie gras tofu. Tofu is usually made from soybeans, but our tofu is made from foie gras. It’s really a cross between foie gras mousse and tofu. Stuff like that makes our whole menu unique.

A Chicken Karaage sando
Spicy oyster soba

You mentioned working in European restaurants. What lessons did you learn from working in those places and how has that become important to what you do at Kamonegi?

The first restaurant I worked at was called Harvest Wine. It was a Spanish Basque-style restaurant. They specialized in mountain and ocean-inspired cuisine and had almost zero food waste. They used animal blood or any scraps to make stock and sauces. So I try to do that, too. I have a Japanese-style duck meatball on the menu right now, and I roast the bone to make a sauce that’s like a cross between a demi-glace and a teriyaki sauce. I don’t waste anything.

 

“Whether I’m Asian or Asian American, to inherit something from your parents or grandparents, I think that’s quite important for everyone trying to keep their heritage.”

 

This month, we are celebrating AAPI heritage. What does your Asian heritage mean to you?

That’s a hard question. My dishes are inspired by my grandma. The same day my daughter was born, my grandma passed away. Like my grandma, I try to teach my daughter how to make soba noodles. To have something that can be passed down from generation to generation to generation, I think that’s important. Whether I’m Asian or Asian American, to inherit something from your parents or grandparents, I think that’s quite important for everyone trying to keep their heritage.

What made you choose Seattle?

When I first came to the U.S. at 18, I lived in California. There are no seasons there, every day is summer. So, I moved to Seattle and there I realized how similar Seattle is to Japan. There are four seasons and it’s close to the oceans and mountains. I can go foraging for mushrooms or I can grow vegetables. I found so many similarities to Japan, and it’s very inspiring that I can use Japanese ingredients in my dish.

Photo by Starchefs
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