Australia's rising sonFrom wide-eyed boy tourist to charismatic celebrity chef, there's more to our country's greatest culinary talent than meets the eye. Jstyle talks with the man who has quietly captured this country's hearts and stomachs, Tetsuya Wakuda.
Australia's best chef is Japanese. He is also an Australian, and the fifth most highly acclaimed chef in the world. Leaning back on a stylish leather sofa in his private kitchen/office area atop the dining room of his stately Kent Street restaurant in Sydney, Tetsuya Wakuda paints a picture of himself as a fortunate and hard-working, but not brilliantly talented, chef. It is not surprising to know that neither food critics nor connoisseurs would agree with him. His innate sense for subtlety and innovation transcends cultural and culinary boundaries, drawing fans from across the globe.
The restaurant he has captained for the past 20 years ---- Tetsuya's ---- is regularly showered with praise from Australian and international critics. The 2006 SMH Good Food Guide deems dining at the restaurant an experience so superlative that it urges readers to make sure they dine there at least once in their lives.
Tetsuya's has also captured the hearts of those at the very pinnacle of the gastronomic world ---- the internationally renowned Restaurant magazine this year ordained Tetsuya's as the best restaurant in Australasia, and the fifth best in the world.
From a fishing town in Shizuoka to a kitchen in Surry Hills
There's more to the story of Tetsuya's trajectory to fame and success than that of your usual Australian celebrity chef. Hamamatsu, a small city a hundred kilometres from cosmopolitan, high-living Tokyo, is not the place one would expect to find a future leader of modern Australian cuisine. In those days Tetsuya was much more interested in eating food than in creating it.
"In Japanese culture a lot of emphasis is placed on food, so of course I loved to eat --- as I do now! But as a boy I had no special interest in cooking. My tastes were quite typical of a Japanese boy of my age ----- I loved rich foods ---- yakiniku (Korean-style barbecued meat which is very popular in Japan) and my mother's tori karaage (deep fried chicken) were my favourites."
Yet at age 22 and with virtually no knowledge of Australian culture, the young Tetsuya soon found himself immersed in the Australian food industry. Up to his elbows, in fact.
"My first food-related job was at Fishwives, a seafood restaurant in Surry Hills. It was very popular ---- demand was so high we would often run out of fish halfway through the day. I was a kitchen-hand to begin with, just washing dishes.
"I fell into the role of prep chef when the then chef injured himself and was no longer able to come to work. In those days it was the prep chef's role to scale, gut and fillet the fish ---- not like now, when everything is done for us when we buy the fish.
"Maybe it was because I had grown up seeing this done countless times by my mother or the fishmonger, or maybe it was the influence of the Japanese emphasis on practising a skill until one has mastered it, but either way I found it to be very easy work."
Clearly someone noticed Wakuda's obvious skill because he continued in the role of prep chef for only a short time before he rose to the role of sous chef.
And so the intended stopover in this country became a permanent residency.
"I came to Australia with the intention of stopping here for a year to learn English before moving onwards to America, which is a popular thing to do for many young Japanese," he says.
"It was supposed to take only one year, but I've ended up staying for 25."
The start of something special
Few would disagree that Japan's loss is Australia's gain. Within a mere seven years of his arrival here, Tetsuya opened his first restaurant, a tiny shopfront in suburban Rozelle. He was very involved in the business, working in the kitchen with the other staff. The place was fully booked almost every night of the 10 years it was located there, and by the end of the decade the restaurant's cult following had far outgrown its physical surroundings. So in 2000 Tetsuya packed up the restaurant and moved it across the city, to the grandeur of the old Suntory Japanese restaurant in Kent Street.
One might say the reason Tetsuya has prospered in Australia is the easy marriage of his unconventional, charismatic approach to food and life with the openness to innovation that permeates Australian culture. Tetsuya is the first to agree that only in Australia could he have had so much freedom to innovate.
"At one time in the '80s I was working under my friend Tony Bilson at Kinsela's. I had eaten French cuisine in Japan, but Tony's flavours were completely different from that ---- they were much more subtle. Also he always encouraged me to be inventive with food, to experiment."
One of the watershed moments of Tetsuya's career came during his time at Kinsela's.
"I was asked to do the catering for the birthday of a very influential client's daughter and was told that she liked sushi. It takes years of training to become a sushi chef ----- not just anyone can make good quality sushi."
Tetsuya found himself between the proverbial rock and a hard place ----- should he refuse the brief and disservice himself and the restaurant, or improvise the sushi and disappoint himself, and maybe his client?
"In the end, I decided to do something completely different. I created h'ors d'oevres based on the concept of sushi, rather than traditional sushi. My philosophy has always been that it's better to do something new and interesting spectacularly, rather than to do something ordinary in a mediocre way.
"I made the shari (the rice bed on which the fish meat lies in traditional sushi) slightly more moist and sweeter than usual, and topped it with different flavours that I found in the Kinsela's kitchen, like preserved lemon or gari (pickled ginger).
"Happily, the idea was a great success. I consider that moment to be the official beginning of my professional career."
Home at last
The Kent Street site, with its lush, manicured Japanese garden, stately traditional Japanese architecture and gated entrance, lends an old-world quality to the already elevated dining experience of Tetsuya's.
Such is the demand you could wait a year from the day you book to the day you dine at the restaurant, but Tetsuya is philosophical about his part in this success story. For one thing, he says, "It's not my palate that makes our food popular. In fact, it isn't important what I think about a dish ----- it's about what my guests think.
"You can make a dish that you think is delicious, but it doesn't mean a thing if no-one else agrees with you. That's why I do a lot of research ----- I eat at a lot of restaurants, around the world and within Australia. Of course, I love to eat so this is as much pleasure as it is business, but it's essential to knowing what tastes people are interested in."
After all, he says, "Tetsuya's cannot exist without its guests. "
It is perhaps this focus on his guests that is the most typically 'Japanese' aspect of Tetsuya's philosophy. "I don't think my success is necessarily due to the fact that I'm Japanese, although I do think it has played a part. The appeal of our restaurant lies in our specialisation and attention to detail, which I think is something that is valued in Japanese culture. It's more about the people I choose and their approach to their work."
Of the restaurant's clientele, Tetsuya says that around 40 per cent of guests are from the UK, USA and Europe and 10 per cent from Japan. Obviously many of these are high profile celebrities, but the restaurant prides itself on its philosophy of equality and anonymity.
"We never boast about who has dined with us. It doesn't matter who you are, we respect our guests' privacy", he says. The 10-course set menu will cost about $500-600 for a couple, depending on your choice of alcohol. In Tetsuya's opinion, what is the best occasion to dine at his restaurant?
"Definitely the first date", he says. "It's a good way to really impress".
But surely no one will wait an entire year for a date?
"Well, not everyone waits for a whole year. Cancellations are unpredictable, so sometimes you can be lucky enough to get a booking at short notice.
"It's always worthwhile to be on the waiting list and to check from time to time if there are any openings that evening. And mention the special occasion when you call us ----- we'll do what we can to make your evening just that little bit more special."
With time, Tetsuya says his management style has mellowed, compared to the early days of long hours overseeing the action in the kitchen at Rozelle. With four separate kitchens to service the 100-seat Kent Street restaurant, it's inevitable ----- monitoring every movement of each of his chefs would be impossible. He now finds it easier to trust the abilities of his 60 staff, to give them autonomy to perform.
"I won't stand over people and direct everything they do. If someone is doing an OK job, I'll compliment them on their good work and next time they do that job they'll aim to do it to an even better standard. If people love what they do and the company they work for, everything will always run better. Some of my employees have been with us for 20 years."
This philosophy of Tetsuya's is a considerably different approach from the training method used in many Japanese restaurants, where skills are learnt by surreptitiously watching the work of more experienced chefs, and where a superior must approve every dish before it can be served.
With such high acclaim domestically and internationally, surely complacency is inevitable? Tetsuya says it's not.
"We're not a new restaurant ----- we've been here for 20 years now. I think our longevity is a reflection of our primary aim ----- to give our clients a wonderful experience from the time they arrive to the time they leave.
"So we'll always do that little bit extra to make the occasion enjoyable ----- for example if you really like something we serve you, we'll offer you a second taste, because when someone praises something you've put all your energy into, it's the best motivation. So we're always aiming to please our clients that little bit more."
A day in the life
Hearing the rundown of a typical day for this enigmatic man, it's easy to understand why it's difficult for him to make time for life outside work. Anyone who has worked late nights will know that being awake at 7am is no mean feat for a chef. Every morning he chats with his financial controller, who he's quick to point out is also a long-time friend. "Then I'll have the car pick me up and take me to breakfast somewhere." Tetsuya doesn't drive.
"For lunch I like to eat at Azuma Japanese restaurant, but lately they're so busy I feel bad dropping in on them, because they'll always clear a table for me.
"In the afternoon I have meetings, and do whatever I need to do, which often involves meeting with producers to learn about the freshest produce available that particular week." In the evening Tetsuya does a walk-through of the restaurant to make sure everything is in order. Then there's the nightly briefing ----- the team does a tour of the restaurant, table by table, to familiarise the staff with that evening's guests.
"If you've dined with us before, we'll know what you like and what you dislike."
"Later in the evening I'll often have friends come and have a drink with me up here [on the top floor of the restaurant]. Frequently this is the only way I can make the time to catch up with them."
Around midnight or 1am he could be giving phone interviews or holding meetings with journalists or business people in New York or Europe.
Tetsuya's hectic schedule means that, at any given time, he could be giving an interview in Italy, delivering a lecture to a gastronomy conference in Spain, or researching produce in New York or France. But he says he always makes a point of visiting his home country every six months. Which restaurants does he frequent on his return?, jstyle asks. His answer betrays his love of exceptionally fresh produce and uncomplicated flavours.
"Well, of course I go to the fish market in Tsukiji [the city's fishpacking district located to the south of Ginza, Tokyo] to eat sushi. One of my other favourite places to eat is a small restaurant in Osaka called Kahara. It seats only eight people but it's extremely popular. The guy who owns the place hasn't raised his prices in 30 years!'
Jstyle asks Tetsuya which foods he thinks embody the essence of the Japanese winter. "Definitely matsutake [firm, aromatic mushrooms that enjoy a popularity on par with truffles] and fugu [puffer fish] are essential, I think. And motsuni ----- simmered offal. It's a very popular dish in Japan."
Tetsuya's career is hugely successful by any standards. He now lives in a light-filled, luxurious apartment in The Rocks, in stark contrast to his first abode ----- a dark bedroom in a shambolic terrace house on Surry Hills' Crown Street. When he has a spare few hours, he'll be out on the harbour on his beloved boat.
Does he have someone special in his life with which he shares this passion? No. He says that it's generally difficult for chefs or restaurateurs to maintain happy relationships, so there are a lot of breakups and remarriages in a chef's life. Having been married and divorced, he is now once again a single man. He openly admits that if there is something missing in his very full life, it is "a girlfriend". But having lived alone for so long, and with so little time, he doubts he would be able to find someone who could tolerate his lifestyle.
And what of the future? Tetsuya doesn't foresee any major changes in the immediate future.
"We have a new recipe book being released next year and we're renovating and creating a private group dining space [upstairs in the space now occupied by his office/test kitchen].
"As for myself, I will still be busy." He hopes to be able to spend more time with his many friends. "I love visiting friends' houses and playing around with ingredients in their kitchens ----- experimenting with something new. Sometimes I'll arrive at a couple's house and they'll be half drunk already because they've been cooking, drinking, and having fun in the kitchen. That's one of my favourite things about Australia ----- the way families enjoy making and eating food together", he says.