Making the Cut: The remarkable journey of Chef Hisato Hamada
Making the Cut: The remarkable journey of Chef Hisato Hamada
Wagyu expert, entrepreneur, and the celebrated chef behind two of Via Riyadh’s latest hotspots, including WAGYUMAFIA, shares his culinary campaign
With the spotlight on Japanese traditions and artisanal food, Chef Hisato Hamada has gone that extra mile to open two eateries in Via Riyadh.
WAGYUMAFIA, the mega-hot concept he co-founded, is known to serve the world’s most decadent slices – rich in marbled fat and quality. Meanwhile, Hamada’s Yakinikumafia is another sensation for beef lovers living in or visiting the Saudi capital.
After the overwhelming response to Mashi No Mashi, his entertaining beef ramen restaurant in Jeddah, Hamada decided to revisit Saudi. The celebrated chef, who has toured over 100 cities to charm diners with the best steak cutlets and wagyu sandwiches, recalls it took him five years to plan and execute his latest move.
“I am the first chef to bring wagyu to Saudi, which was back in 2019. I thought I should come back. But mostly, I’m happy and honoured to bring my culture to this region,” he says.
Bonding Over Cuisine
With its irresistible food and setting, WAGYUMAFIA has attracted celebrities like Ed Sheeran and David Beckham, even making them regulars at the different venues in Tokyo and Hong Kong. Out of the seven operational establishments, Hamada has three that are members-only because he values nurturing relationships with his diners. His love for a soulful dining experience is evident in his emphasis on familiarising himself with the customers.
“I think it’s essential that we care for each other, so I want to make chefs’ contributions visible again. Some foodies are not nice to the chefs or people in the industry. I feel there should be quality over the counter and inside the kitchen,” the enthusiastic meat expert explains. “So, if we have members-only, we can always give the membership back. Our motto is ‘come as strangers, leave as family.’ Once you come to WAGYUMAFIA, people become friends and family.”
The wagyu beef artist picked up culinary cues at the age of three, explaining that he “really wanted to get inside the kitchen because there were a lot of dangerous items like knives and fire, and I wanted to be a part of that. The first thing I cooked was with my mum, and it was stir-fried cabbage. I still eat it.”
The self-taught chef had no plans of becoming a restaurateur until destiny called. He has worn many hats through the years, but the one that changed his life was when he stepped into the cinema world to produce Food, Inc., a documentary on unhealthy corporate farming practices.
“One of my farmers in Japan decided to contact me, and that was when I visited a wagyu farm,” he says.
When Hamada met the farmer for the first time, he had prepared one kilo of wagyu for him. Hamada told him he couldn’t possibly eat it because it’s not American beef. The farmer replied: “What you’re eating is lousy wagyu, mine is different.” Enticed by this, Hamada decided to try it, and to his surprise, he wolfed the meat down.
“I usually have 200-300 grams of wagyu, and I feel sick, but the very next day I felt great. So, I called him to ask his secret. He said that’s the real wagyu, and I had to represent him to promote it to the world. That was in 2007,” he explains.
That’s how Hamada’s wagyu journey began. “I think before WAGYUMAFIA, wagyu was considered to be very expensive, something that has a lot of fat and comes in as Christmas gifts. And you would often end up sitting for three hours for a tiny piece. That was the concept. Then I changed it.”
“I am the first chef to bring wagyu to Saudi, which was back in 2019. I thought I should come back. But mostly, I’m happy and honoured to bring my culture to this region.”Chef Hisato Hamada, WAGYUMAFIA
Meeting the farmer reminded him of the “ignorance is fatal” campaign poster he used to see in his dormitory in the US. Guilty of being ignorant of the authentic wagyu concept, he decided to clear the air.
“People have the misconception that wagyu comes from the US and Europe, but actually wagyu means two things: wa means Japan and gyu means beef. So, technically speaking, wagyu must be born and raised in Japan and has to be of pure blood to classify as wagyu,” Hamada explains.
Although he wanted to educate the world about wagyu by exporting it, he didn’t know he would become the show’s frontrunner, explaining that he “started exporting this kind of beef mainly to London. But people didn’t know how to cook it because it’s different.” Hamada then decided to put authentic Japanese beef on the global food table. To remain unique among the myriad of wagyu restaurants, he opted for a name that made a statement – WAGYUMAFIA.
Taste Over Visuals
To prioritise food over getting carried away with taking shots, the restaurant has an interesting rule that allows diners only five seconds to make those snaps. The chef shouts out “itterasshai” (a phrase equivalent to bon voyage) before serving the dish.
“It’s not only about the picture – I care about my ingredients, my cooking. I cook for my family, my friends, and myself. The quality matters and that is difficult to visualise on a small screen,” Hamada says.
A Spirit of Adaptation
With three restaurants in Saudi, Hamada successfully keeps a distinct taste and style alive in each. His strength lies in his constant curiosity and mastery in creating wagyu versions of local favourites.
“Every day, there’s a new idea. Whenever I try new foods like mansaf, shawarma, a Bedouin barbecue, or zarb, I pick up something from them to see what wagyu is capable of and how it can be adapted. It is premium quality and can be modified to any local cuisine, and each time you want
to taste it, it’s a crazy surprise, even for me. Even though I know it’s going to be good, the taste I envision is different to what it actually is,” he explains.
Before embarking on his next stop to Jeddah to taste his ramen, Hamada has one message: “A lot of people are not satisfied with what they do, so try finding something you love. And if you cannot love it, come to WAGYUMAFIA, because the secret is that everything is from the heart and everybody is a good person.”
As someone who appreciates family values and bonds, the celebrity chef truly believes that dining with the people you love makes the food taste better, making any of his restaurants worth a visit.
Imagery with thanks to Osama Jaberti