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There's A New Chef In Town: Meet O-Ku's Masatomo Hamaya

Elizabeth Harper | March 12, 2021 | Food & Drink Feature

As O-Ku welcomes executive chef Masatomo Hamaya—and his Michelin-starred street cred—we get to know Atlanta’s newest resident culinary master.

O-Ku’s Westside Ironworks digs
O-Ku’s Westside Ironworks digs

“I was drawn to Atlanta for many reasons,” says new O-Ku executive chef Masatomo Hamaya, “primarily for the chance to be creative in a non-‘cookie-cutter’-type city. There are so many neighborhoods, so much history, diverse backgrounds and many types of cuisine.” Set to expand the sophisticated Japanese restaurant’s menu “beyond the traditional expectations of American sushi,” Hamaya dons his toque, sharpens his knives and takes us along for a ride in the day of the life. Westside Ironworks,

New executive chef Masatomo Hamaya
New executive chef Masatomo Hamaya

8AM I usually wake up early—relatively speaking, given my late bedtime—to drink a cup of fine green tea my parents send from Japan. I’m not adjusting well to Atlanta’s winter temperatures, so the warm tea is the best way to get me out of bed in the morning. The green tea is best brewed at around 80 degrees Celsius [176 F], so it does the trick.

8:30AM Shortly after waking up, my wife cooks breakfast for us. The menu ranges, but is sometimes toast with Japanese milk bread and sometimes a bowl of udon noodles.

11AM-1PM I arrive to O-Ku between 11 and 1, depending on what the day holds. There isn’t much of a break once I arrive; I prefer it that way. The time I do things each day differs, but includes prep work, meeting with the kitchen and front-of-house teams, menu concepting and more. We have daily talks about cultural beliefs and what is important in our restaurant: respecting others, going the extra mile, chipping in when needed. Usually during the day, I’m drinking my genmai tea—this is a very aromatic blend of green tea and toasted brown rice.

A sampling of nigiri and roe
A sampling of nigiri and roe

4:30PM Throughout the day and into the afternoon, I am with the team in the kitchen, doing everything from breaking down fish to washing dishes. … To transition from prep to preparing to serve, we gather for family meal around 4:30. ... It’s a time to be playful with the food—to try different cuisines from other regions. We eat everything from the South African dish peri-peri to yakisoba (stir-fry noodles) to fried chicken sandwiches. It is important for me to show similarities in cooking techniques among cultures.

12AM There isn’t usually much of a wind-down for me. Idle time leads to me feeling tired, so I just keep on going. I think that is a very cultural mindset too. I stay put in the kitchen and around the restaurant until midnight or 1AM. … Funny enough, I relax by doing more of the same: learning more about food. I research other restaurants, new recipes and food cultures of other countries.

1:30AM I usually eat a dinner that my wife has prepared at home around 1:30. My favorite dishes are ragu Bolognese, gyoza, kale soup and cold udon noodles with natto. I do love dining out and especially enjoy restaurants where they make food I don’t like to make or can’t make at home, like wood-fired pizza, artisan sourdough bread, farm-to-table menus and, of course, a good local brew.

Aalmon crudo with creme fraiche, beet chips and pickled Tokyo turnips
Among the chef’s edits to the menu, find salmon crudo with creme fraiche, beet chips and pickled Tokyo turnips.

“I believe methodology and technique should guide cooking. Knowing the right methods for aging, brining, pickling, fermenting—all of these methods are based on scientific principles. … I also believe in learning as much as possible about different origins of cuisine and incorporating heritage ingredients as much as possible. You can see this in a new dish I’m adding to the menu: The salmon crudo incorporates Tokyo turnips versus the locally grown version. Sourced from California, the Tokyo turnips have a milder and sweeter flavor.” –Masatomo Hamaya, executive chef

Tags: food drink chef

Photography by: Heidi Geldhauser Harris