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What makes wagyu the world's best beef?

To find out exactly why this meat is so revered, we interviewed chef Federico Heinzmann of Park Hyatt Tokyo, and 'wagyu master' Hisato Hamada

Photo: Yasuhisa Shimbo
Hisato Hamada (left) and Federico Heinzmann at Park Hyatt Tokyo's New York Grill
'Wagyu is not just meat. It's all the things that Japan is famous for... Tradition and quality and conviction,' says chef Federico Heinzmann. Originally from Argentina, he runs the show at Park Hyatt Tokyo’s New York Grill, where he creates mouth-watering wagyu dishes for guests. We met up with him at the restaurant, where we were also joined by ‘wagyu master’ Hisato Hamada, founder of Viva Japan, a company that's working to assist Japanese farmers to export wagyu around the world.
 

Let’s begin with the burning question: are wagyu cows really getting massages, drinking beer and listening to classical music?

Federico: While it’s true that the cows are treated like members of the family, and I have in fact met one farmer who plays music for his wagyu, this is largely a misconception. The real key to their quality lies in the genetics, the high quality of food they are fed, and the fact that each farmer develops their own complex process to create the perfect size and shape of cow.

Hisato: Also, they have longer lifespans than ordinary cattle, which significantly improves flavour. Wagyu cows live for about 30 months, sometimes 35. American cows, by comparison, are slaughtered at 15-22 months.

Okay, so the cows are living the life. But is this what makes wagyu’s flavour so superior?

F: This is part of it, of course. But wagyu beef is known for being very fatty, and this is the main point of difference. Each farmer works very hard to find the perfect recipe for their feed mix so that the cows reach optimum size and the meat develops the perfect fat marbling.  

H: The taste is in the fat. It’s very unique. You can even use it to cook other dishes such as fried rice; it changes the quality of the taste. Takes it to the next level.

F: Yes, it’s almost like butter; it has a very low melting point – 28 °C.

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How do Western palates respond to this very fatty meat?

F: This can be a challenge because some foreigners do find certain types of wagyu too fatty. If it’s your first time trying wagyu, I’d suggest not starting with Kobe beef, which is the fattiest. I’d rather serve you a different grade.

But doesn’t a different grade mean a lower quality meat?

H: There is a misunderstanding that A5 grade means it tastes good. It’s really just the density of the marble mix that changes.

F: You have so many different kinds of wagyu cows; they are all over Japan, from Okinawa to Hokkaido. So many different styles of wagyu. Totally different taste, sweetness, everything changes because the hand of the farmer is different. A4 can be the same quality as A5, but the use is different. All the products are perfectly finished. You just need to choose what you want to use it for.

It’s a very precise system...

F: Nowhere else in the world is there a system so precise to design a cow.You have decent cattle all over the world, but the level of precision here is amazing. The wagyu farmers only have 10 to 15 cows each. And they keep all the records. So as a chef, I can trace every cow’s genetic history. I can see who was its mother, its mother’s mother etc.

H: We have the most advanced traceability system in the world. Every cow has a unique ID and a nickname. If you’re concerned that the wagyu beef you’re eating in another country is not authentic, you can ask the restaurant to show you the ID number of the cow.

There have been a few news reports about how other countries are selling beef with the name wagyu, when it is not real wagyu.

F: You might hear of American wagyu, Australian wagyu, German wagyu... These are hybrid. They have taken the genes and mixed them with local cows.

H: ‘Wa’ means ‘Japanese’ and ‘gyu’ means ‘cow’. So wagyu literally means Japanese cow. If it’s called wagyu outside of Japan, it’s not the real thing.

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Over the last few years, other countries have begun lifting their import bans on wagyu. Hopefully the rest of the world is getting the real deal now?

H: This is a brand-new phase because now we can export. This is a game changer.

F: Until recently, you couldn’t get real wagyu outside of Japan. Now things are moving faster. And Japan has what the world wants – the personalised, organic way of producing. Everything in Japan is seasonal and natural. From that point of view, Japan is advanced because they’ve stuck to their traditions.

H: Wagyu is a very Japanese product. It has a long history. Now is great timing for us to bump up the industry. At my company, Viva Japan, our aim is to help spread wagyu to the rest of the world, and to help local farmers increase profits. In this way, hopefully we’ll attract new, young farmers too, because we need to keep the tradition going. I travel around Japan to source passionate, upcoming farmers. Then I have a network of about 50 chefs from around the world. They come to Japan and I introduce them to the farmers. Right now, Japanese cuisine is pretty trendy, so it’s not hard to find chefs who want to come here and explore the food. It’s also more fun than working with Japanese chefs. [Laughs]

Federico, any unusual wagyu pairing that you’d recommend?

Wagyu with truffles! Believe me, it’s a match.

And Hisato, any restaurant recommendations?

Yes, my new restaurant! It's a wagyu specialist spot called The Innocent Carvery and it's in Nishi-Azabu.

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