Mine’s work earned a semifinalist’s nod for the James Beard Award for pastry.
JUNKO MINE knows better than most how baking is both an art and a science. Focusing on fermentation and wild yeasts, the pastry chef has found inspiration everywhere from a camera lens to a biology lab.
At first, cooking was a side passion while Mine studied, at various times, administration, psychology and design. Baking, ultimately, captured her with its endless creativity.
“There’s no limit,” she says.
At top restaurant Cafe Juanita, where she’s been the pastry chef since 2015, Mine’s tasks included mastering signatures like the plate of house breads and a panna cotta with vanilla sea salt and cardoon honey. The job also meant bringing her own ingenious eye — and a taste for fermented foods — to new desserts and breads.
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It’s far from what Mine expected when she came to Seattle as a 20-year-old exchange student from Tokushima, Japan. She stayed three years, studying administration and working at a trading company in Pioneer Square.
Returning to Japan, “I had a kind of culture shock,” she says.
As a young working woman in Japan, she says, she wasn’t treated the same as men, or granted the sense of opportunity she had felt in the United States, where “almost anything is possible to me.” She returned, earning a bachelor’s degree in graphic design in California. A continuing education course in baking, originally meant as a relaxing diversion, led to more studies and a pastry chef job in San Diego. It was prestigious, though not a perfect match for a chef influenced by nature.
“We used lots of imitation colors,” Mine says. “People didn’t really care about the flavor; they cared more about how gorgeous it looked.” The Northwest, where she was (and is) still close with her student host family, felt like “the place where I was from” and the place she belonged.
A visit to Lummi Island turned into a brief stage at the globally acclaimed Willows Inn with chef Blaine Wetzel, and a job at the connected cafe. On the island, where restaurant dishes are fueled by super-local ingredients, she experimented in baking with wild yeasts captured from her surroundings: pink cherry blossoms, blue elderberries, piney Douglas fir needles and other foraged foods.
She flew to Tokyo to learn more from Taro Hashiguchi, a baker and designer who specialized in the process, after admiring his work online.
“The way he cultured yeast looked like artwork,” she says. “I said, ‘I have to go see this place.’ ”
Boundless curiosity then brought her to a science lab in Seattle with geneticist Aimee Dudley at the Pacific Northwest Diabetes Research Institute. Dudley’s lab was culturing yeast from foods like coffee and chocolate to help gather new and diverse strains from around the world. (The lab showed, as one Newsweek headline put it, that fermentation might be more vital for the flavor of chocolate than for wine.) The lab crew worked with Mine on sequencing the yeast strains in her breads, a process she found fascinating enough to try out biology classes before taking the full-time job at Cafe Juanita.
The award-winning restaurant, typically viewed as a Northern Italian restaurant influenced by the Northwest, also didn’t sound like a natural fit for a baker interested in bridging Japanese and American traditions. But owner-chef Holly Smith has had a long interest in Japanese foods, and talked with Mine about the similarities between Italian and Japanese cuisines, and their common regard for fresh, quality ingredients and straightforward executions.
Now, Smith remembers smiling at how Mine incorporated “both chocolate and a sense of place” into one dish, brushing a wood-grain pattern made from chocolate on an espresso-soaked almond cake. The sweet evoked the design of the new cafe tables, built with wood from a maple tree that once grew on the Kirkland property.
Other Mine experiments, both savory and sweet, include artistic chocolates, confectionary work she finds “interesting and profound.” She’s been experimenting with shio koji seasoning, and baking with local sake lees, the yeast products left after brewing. Joining traditions, the restaurant makes its own fermented miso, used in a hearth bread with roasted heirloom tomatoes, which Smith called a “bruschetta for the Pacific Northwest.”
Mine’s work has, among other recognitions, won her a semifinalist’s nod for the James Beard Award for pastry, a standout national honor that surprised her low-key self.
“I always thought James Beard is for somebody else, for a Blaine or for a Holly,” she says.
But the possibilities for her own work, as she’s shown from the beginning, are endless.