From Tokyo to Atlanta, Chef Masatomo Hamaya has cooked in a lot of different places.
Hamaya is the executive chef at Atlanta’s O-ku, which offers a fresh take on Japanese cuisine and sushi. But Atlanta was nowhere close to his first stop when he first came over to the United States.
After his time at Arizona State University, Hamaya originally went back to his native Japan before coming back to the states to try his hand at being a chef. He moved all around the country before settling in Atlanta. His previous work includes working as the head sushi chef at Uchiko in Austin, Texas, and serving as executive chef at Ozumo in San Francisco.
Rough Draft Atlanta recently spoke with Hamaya about his time working around the country and what he loves about cooking. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
I would love to start with your upbringing. Were you always interested in being a chef?
Chef Masatomo Hamaya: I’ve always loved to cook. Also at the same time, I was like a foodie – what people call it nowadays.
I went to Arizona State University, the biggest party school in the nation … Right after that, I went back to Japan and had a regular job. I wanted to come back, and I found out the best way to get me a green card was to become a chef [laughs]. It turned out to be fantastic.
Why did you choose ASU? Was it because of the party school reputation?
Hamaya: I wish, but no. I found that out right after I started enrolling. When I was back in Japan, I had a little brochure about Arizona State University. On the picture, the campus was right next to the Grand Canyon. And I was fooled by that. Oh wow! It’s like, right in the canyon? There’s a campus? I was wrong [laughs]. So, that’s how it happened.
Did you go to culinary school back in Japan?
Hamaya: No, I did not go to culinary school. I do not exactly believe in going to culinary school unless you want to study the financial part of it. Because, you know – you spend like $50,000 on one year to break down 10 fish? Then how are you going to be able to achieve the experience of breaking down the fish, to breaking down the four-legged animals, birds? You cannot do that just being at school.
I just started applying for jobs back in Tokyo. I was doing this thing called kaiseki. Kaiseki is more traditional, season-oriented – more high-end. More like cooked food, versus what you’d call Japanese food in America, usually sushi.
When you came back to the U.S., I know that you hopped around to a bunch of different cities.
Hamaya: A bunch, a bunch of cities, yes. Phoenix, Arizona, to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Austin, Texas, Miami, Orlando, and Atlanta.
Were the food cultures in each one of those cities really different? Did you enjoy one of them over the other?
Hamaya: Oh, absolutely different. I loved San Francisco. Every single person who lived there was ready to step up for the next level of … cuisine. Whatever – Italian, to just hamburgers, whatever. You could find better food anywhere in San Francisco.
Austin was really cool too. They have this slogan, it says: “Keep Austin weird.” So the more weird stuff that they had, the better.
When did you come to Atlanta and how did you get the job at O-ku?
Hamaya: That was actually two years ago, three years ago. I came over to Atlanta because of COVID. That was not my choice to start with, I’m sorry to say.
I didn’t know anything about the deep south. Biscuits and gravy, that’s what I thought. I didn’t know anything else about it. But you know, when I came to Georgia, it was not a bad thing. It was actually pretty laid back. At the same time, you know, Atlanta itself is really exciting. There’s food from all different cultures. There’s the actual deep south, to the Buford Highway area [where] there’s Latin culture. And if you go towards the east side, you’ll see it’s almost like Koreatown there. It’s definitely a melting pot. In the deep south, I never thought about it. So it was very, very fascinating.
What appeals to you in cooking? Are there any specific techniques or flavors that really appeal to you?
Hamaya: Are you talking regarding the sushi?
Sushi, but also in general, if you want to get a little more big picture than that.
Hamaya: Okay. So, if I were to build a flavor, build a dish, definitely I would like to not [do] what people call fusion. If you go with fusion, then it’s like you’re making – I don’t know, it’s like you’re copying one idea to other ideas.
Let’s say, if I were to mix the Mexican flavor [in Japanese food], then I need to make both successful. Those dishes are already successful. They’re already done. Why do you need to change it? That to me is fusion, but confusion. Rather, I would like to add the flavor of different cultures.
For instance, if you were to add in kimchi, instead of regular Korean pepper, how about adding aleppo pepper? Syrian pepper? Would that make a little bit more of a smoky flavor? What if I add Japanese-style bonito flakes on kimchi?
I’m not disrespecting other cultures’ food. I would like to borrow, sometimes.
As far as sushi goes, do you have a favorite thing on O-ku’s menu, or a dish that you like to cook the most?
Hamaya: I mean, what’s not my favorite? That’s my question. If I don’t like it, I would rather not sell it, right? But depending on the situation, depending on how I feel, we do have omakase.It’s different every time.
Everything, I would like to say I’m proud of it. And at the same time, as of now what I like would be the braised short rib.