Welcome to Movers & Shakers; a series where we look deep into PNW life for people who are making moves, doing big things, and who are just - in general - being rad. Seattle is full of multi-talented and multi-faceted people, many at the intersection of technology and the arts. How do they find the time? What's their secret? Well, friends, we're here to find out. Meet Movers & Shakers; aka Seattle Refined attempting to capture the not-so-secret lives of impressive locals. Have a recommendation for us? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chef Mutsuko Soma is on a quest, and a delicious one at that. Her endeavor? To put the Soba noodle on the world map.
Eschewing fanfare and fancy embellishment, Soba noodle is an age-old traditional Japanese food that equal parts elegant and rustic. The magic is in its sublime subtlety, which Soma has perfected over the years.
She is, after all, is the only chef on the West Coast rolling Japan's traditional soba noodles by hand. She makes her noodles in the traditional ni-hachi style, which is 80 percent buckwheat flour, making them very low in gluten. As a WSET Level 3 certified kikizakeshi, (or sake sommelier, in simpler terms) Soma can also craft some mean sake cocktails to go with that unbelievably smooth soba.
Soma was born and brought up in the Tochigi Prefecture and soba noodles were an omnipresent force in her young, impressionable life. They were everywhere, from cart-style shops at railway stations to people's homes to high-end restaurants. The same artisan soba noodles in the US, are the very epitome of culinary novelty.
Most culinary heroes talk about being enraptured by their mothers in the kitchen, but Soma developed an interest in food early on and atypically - it was because her mother wasn't too interested in cooking.
"My interest in food developed at a young age since my mother was not much enthusiastic about food," she said. "I cooked every day for myself since I craved variety. I believe that is when my interest in culinary arts was first rooted."
Soma's earliest memories of food growing up are pottering around the kitchen and learning to cook, and watching her grandmother make soba for the family. All that intangible learning stayed with her and manifested itself in her own impeccable soba-making style later.
"I constantly watched my grandma make soba for all us cousins, and was completely taken in. As an adult, when I tried to make soba, the techniques came naturally to me. I did do a technical soba-making course in school later, but my grandmother was my first teacher," said Soma.
Soma wanted to share her love for well-made Soba with Seattle. After a very well-received stint with Miyabi at Wallingford, she took a short sabbatical after giving birth to her daughter. Sorely missed on Seattle's culinary scene, foodies requested a soba encore. Soma made a comeback with her maiden venture, Kamonegi, and Hannyatou followed right after.
"Kamonegi translates literally to 'duck and leek,' and alludes to when one good thing brings another," said Soma. "Kamonegi was born out of a desire to create and serve Tokyo-style handmade soba, that is both traditional and innovative using fresh and local ingredients. We created Hannyatou next to share our passion for Japanese fermentation - fun bites that pair really well with sake. We ferment our own misos, pickles, kji marinades, vinegar, and tamaris." The folks at Kamoengi also claim that Soba is great for hangovers. So the next time you've had one Bloody Mary too many, you know where to head.
While Soma may be known far and wide for her exquisitely handcrafted soba noodles, she's anything but highbrow when it comes to culinary matters. In fact, she is quite obsessed with instant ramen. Soma is a self-confessed hopeless ramen-tic (sorry, had to).
"I love instant noodles, especially the tom-yum flavor from a brand called mama ramen. My staff knows how much I am obsessed with them. I always carry them in my locker and eat them twice a day. I know it's horrible," said Soma. She loves canoodling (oops, we did it again) with super wacky ramen recipes, like instant ramen tiramisu or ramen Cheetos mac and cheese.
The one Japanese food trend she's not on board with?
"Matcha and Hojicha Lattes. I like to drink my tea freshly-brewed the old-fashioned way to enjoy the aromas," Soma said.
Like most others in the restaurant business, Soma found life turned upside-down since the pandemic.\
"Every week it feels like we’re opening a new restaurant. Our restaurant space is so small that operating at 50% capacity while maintaining six feet apart for guests was definitely a struggle. I could only fit three tables in my venue and so I decided to focus my energy on take-out," she said.
If not a restaurateur or chef, what would Soma be?
"I thought about this for a while," she said. "I cannot think of anything outside the food business that I’d be so wildly passionate about."