Wagyu beef is one of the most coveted menu items in the world—up there with caviar from the Caspian Sea, Hokkaido uni, black truffles from Périgord, and of course, Champagne straight from Épernay. But why is it that we’re so taken with the likes of Petrossian Caviar, Périgord truffles, and Wagyu beef? What brought these unique flavors to the world’s stage, and drove their price tags through the roof?
To delve into the luxury world of Wagyu beef, we consulted two highly regarded chefs who have long-standing experience handling this coveted class of meat. We spoke with Chef Hiroki Odo, the mastermind behind Michelin-starred, 14-seat Flatiron restaurant o.d.o by ODO in New York City. We then discussed Wagyu with Chef Shingo Hayasaka, executive chef of The Ritz-Carlton, Nikko, set to open in Japan’s Kanto region in summer or early fall 2020. At the property’s teppanyaki restaurant, Chef Hayasaka will prepare cuts of Wagyu offered exclusively to the hotel. Both chefs trained and started their careers in Japan; Chef Odo hails from Nagashima Island, while Chef Hayasaka was raised in Hokkaido.
Thanks to these acclaimed chefs, we’ve broken down exactly what makes Wagyu beef so special. Here, the DEPARTURES guide to Wagyu:
What is Wagyu Beef and Where Does it Come From?
Wagyu is a breed of Japanese cattle. The cattle do indeed have to be certified and native to Japan, much in the way Champagne has to come from the Champagne region of France. “Wa” means “Japanese,” and “gyu” means “cow.”
“Although it is supplied from all over Japan, the famous production areas are Miyazaki, Matsuzaka, and Kobe,” says Chef Odo. He points out that beyond the Wagyu sourced from Miyazaki, Matsuzaka, and Kobe, Wagyu from Hokkaido and Tohoku is also highly coveted.
The Tiered System of Wagyu Beef
Wagyu beef must hail from Japan and the highest-end cuts of Wagyu are likely to be sourced from places like Kobe, Miyazaki, or Hokkaido. Nonetheless, there are five grades of Wagyu beef, A5 being the top tier. Several factors go into determining the tier of Wagyu beef, but the most important qualifications are the aging and marbling. “Wagyu is coveted because of the remarkable balance of fat and redness,” says Chef Odo. “Classes with higher fat and reddish marbling are of a higher standard.”
Chef Hayasaka points out that, not only are their five tiers of Wagyu beef, there are also four categories they can fall into. Wagyu can be Japanese Black, Japanese Brown, Japanese Shorthorn, and Japanese Polled. “They [each] feature different flavors and texture,” says Chef Hayasaka.
Of the four types of Wagyu, Japanese Black is the most common. “Japanese Black Wagyu can be said to be the representative of Wagyu, with its distinctive rich flavor, tender texture, and beautiful marbling,” says Chef Hayasaka. “Japanese Black Wagyu actually makes up around 95% of all Wagyu, so it is not wrong to associate Wagyu with black-haired and marbled beef.”
The Flavor Profile of Wagyu Beef
Chef Odo compares the melt-in-your-mouth texture of Wagyu to eating Otoro (which he calls “the most desired part of the tuna belly”). He says each bite of Wagyu is “full of creaminess and sweetness,” while Chef Hayasaka also points out that Wagyu has a noticeably richer flavor—almost like a fuller-bodied wine.
There’s legitimate science behind that melt-in-your-mouth experience when taking a bite of Wagyu beef. “The melting temperature of fat inside Wagyu is close to body temperature,” says Chef Hayasaka. “So when you eat the Wagyu beef, the fat melts in your mouth and you can enjoy its tender texture with rich and robust flavor.”
Wagyu beef offers this rich, bold flavor while retaining it’s buttery tenderness, because of the meat’s unique marbling. The marbling is, of course, most apparent when you see the raw steak; it’s that beautiful blend of fat and redness both chefs discuss. “Most Wagyu is delivered around aged-28 months when marbling is best,” says Chef Odo.
The aging of the Wagyu beef, along with the marbling, and the region of Japan it’s sourced from, join other factors when determining the cattle grade. And remember, A5 is the grade of Wagyu beef you want.