At her Fremont Japanese restaurant Kamonegi, star chef Mutsuko Soma has built a reputation for transforming simple dishes into the extraordinary, from expertly crafted cold soba to perfectly crunchy tempura. The small shop, with a wraparound bar perfect for slurping noodles alone, celebrated its three-year anniversary this October, and continues to wow countless fans and earn national acclaim, including two James Beard award nominations. In fact, Soma’s food is made with such mesmerizing precision that she was recently featured in an HBO Max show based on the meditation app Calm (in addition to our own Hulu collaboration, Eater’s Guide to the World).
During the pandemic, Soma has managed to stay afloat thanks to some improvisation. As the mother of a 4-year-old, the chef has added a few family-friendly items to the menu — including free furikake onigiri (rice balls) and yakult drinks for kids 12 and under — as well as some sandos that make for excellent portable snacks. The restaurant is open only for takeout, but her next-door sake and Japanese snack bar Hannyatou hosts guests on the outdoor patio as long as the weather permits.
Juggling all that work with a small staff isn’t easy. But, for the past several months, the chef has fallen into a steady routine. Eater Seattle shadowed her on a Tuesday in October, and below is a snapshot of what a typical day is like for the chef when the restaurant is open, a small peek into the method behind the magic.
6 a.m. to 9 a.m.: Soma says she usually wakes up around 6 or 7 a.m. She cooks breakfast for her daughter, Hibiki, who loves udon, before getting ready for day care. Then, the chef will do some light research on recipes, walk the dog, and maybe read a book before heading to the restaurant.
9:30 a.m.: Soma typically arrives at Kamonegi around this time. Since the restaurant is closed on Sundays and Mondays, Tuesday can often be one of the busiest days of the week.
9:45 a.m.: Chef Soma makes the first batch of handmade soba for the day, working out of a tiny closet near the kitchen entrance that doubles as a pantry. The wooden table that she works on folds up against the wall to save space, but her routine doesn’t change much from day to day. This part of the soba-making process takes about 45 minutes, and Soma makes three batches per day.
10:30 a.m.: Time for the first Instagram post of the day. Soma does all the marketing for the restaurant herself, and communicates regularly with customers on the platform. She usually posts a static image and several Instagram stories throughout the day on the various social media accounts for Kamonegi, next-door sake bar Hannyatou, and her own personal Instagram page. She says cooking posts with recipes have been a good content strategy lately.
10:45 a.m.: Soma heads over to Hannyatou to unlock the door and put out its sidewalk sign. Although the sake bar does not open until 4:00 p.m., its spacious outdoor patio is open for Kamonegi guests to dine at during the day with grab-and-go fare.
10:50 a.m: The first delivery of the day arrives: boxes of new sake bottles. Soma signs for the order and restocks the shelves.
11 a.m.: Back at Kamonegi, Soma prepares for the lunch rush. Many ingredients are contained in freezers outside — and since space in the restaurant is at a premium, this spot for storage was constructed soon after Kamonegi first opened.
11:30 a.m.: Diners start streaming in with lunch orders. Even though Kamonegi is not open for dine-in service, takeout requests surge throughout the day. Making to-go dishes as fresh as possible is a challenge. Soma serves her soba and broth in a separate container that is poured over the noodles, and customers are advised to eat the noodles within 30 minutes of receiving them in order to enjoy the full texture and flavor. Meanwhile, the Tokyo Philly Sando has been one of the most popular newer items, featuring soy-marinated beef, onion, Swiss, and cheddar cheese served on grilled Sea Wolf bakery bread, along with aonori fries.
2 p.m: Kamonegi observes a midday break between lunch and dinner service. Soma uses part of the two-hour break to make fresh batches of soba.
2:30 p.m.: Between the lunch rush and dinner, there is time for some restaurant maintenance and staff training. On the day Eater shadowed Soma, a new employee arrives, and the chef teaches him how to make udon. These thick, wheat-flour noodles are kneaded using one’s feet (the dough is safely sealed in plastic bags to avoid contamination).
4 p.m.: Both Kamonegi and Hannyatou open for dinner service. Chef Soma hops over to the sake bar to serve customers seated outside.
4:30 p.m: Fresh out of day care, Chef Soma’s 4-year-old daughter Hibiki stops by to pick up her after-school snack. Soma says she usually makes some bento (rice and soba or another noodle dish), but on this particular day Hibiki was hungry, so she shared a pear with her mom.
5 p.m. to 8 p.m.: Soma continues dinner service, churning out takeout orders, opening up sake pours, and serving guests on Hannyatou’s patio (it’s a fine fall day today, but winterizing for colder weather will take some more time and money).
8:30 p.m.: bedtime: Soma says she doesn’t really do much at night, besides putting Hibiki to bed. The Kamonegi and Hannyatou team enjoys drinking together, making cocktails, and engaging in a recently founded study group for wine. She’s also done some recipe experiments with instant ramen lately, which she’s posted on Facebook. “I’m a morning person,” she says.