Humility is a simple characteristic to define: “Modesty, lack of vanity” – but a very difficult one to genuinely embody. Someone who does, on every level, is Tetsuya Wakuda.
Wakuda has earned critical and popular acclaim for creating stellar Japanese dishes that frequently incorporate French techniques and ingredients – a marriage of two cuisines celebrated globally for their strong traditions, most notably at Tetsuya’s in Sydney and Waku Ghin (review to come) at the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore.
I spoke to Tetsuya over the phone from his eponymous Sydney restaurant but next month he’ll be in Singapore to pick up the Diner’s Club Lifetime Achievement award, as part of the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants awards sponsored by S.Pellegrino & Acqua Panna.
As he explained with typical understatement, ‘I seriously never dreamt of it, never thought of it at my age. I’m very flattered! I’ve had my own business now for 28 years, it feels like yesterday for me since we opened, but the life span of a restaurant is a long time.”
More than anything, however, it’s the love of what he does which shines through: “Most of all, I still love to eat! The moment I don’t, it’s not the right business – you need a passion to eat before you have a passion to cook.”
How does winning this compare with hats in the (Australian) Good Food Guide or Michelin stars?
This is not one person deciding, it’s multiple people that vote for the 50 best. Every award is special, but this one even more so.
You said that you started in restaurant business at Kinsela’s by chance – did you think 33 years ago that you’d still be cooking today?
No, never! I never thought I’d be a cook at all – it just happened I got a job, copied what they did, enjoyed it, picked up the language. I learnt how to make stock, chop vegetables, then I started doing a few of my own things that people liked. I didn’t know one person when I arrived in Australia, I had no language, no connections, nothing – but they gave me the opportunity.
Can you recall the first dish you cooked for a paying customer?
At Kinsela’s, Tony Bilson asked me to do a Japanese clean consommé, a broth. Somehow it went very well! People liked it and requests came in – then at a wedding function my first finger food was sushi. At that time not everyone liked raw fish so I added different elements, put it on a tray and somehow it went very well. Since then I’ve never looked back.
How has cuisine and restaurants changed in Australia since 1982?
The change in variety of ingredients available is incredible. Over the last 20 years all of a sudden everything has become available, so today I have access to 38 varieties of potatoes. Diners are also more adventurous, in 1982 if you had chopsticks and served raw fish they’d say ‘are you crazy?!’ Also when you went to someone’s house it was always a barbecue or a roast – now Asian food is mainstream.
Which other chefs do you most admire around the world?
The late Charlie Trotter from Chicago, Alain Ducasse, Ferran, Heston, Thomas Keller all very dear friends. In Napoli, Don Alfonso, in Kyoto my old friends in Kahala Osaka restaurant where Mr Yoshifumi Mori the chef knocked me out, blew me away! Our industry is united and everyone inspires each other, learning, talking and visiting – what a wonderful industry.
How do you divide your time between Sydney and Singapore?
Once a month I get to Singapore, sometimes it’s short visit for two or three days, but it’s only six and a half hours away. Right now I’m in the office of my Sydney restaurant talking to you and will go downstairs to the kitchens afterwards. I did a tasting earlier, will tweak some plates, some of my chefs will come up and we create dishes together. I have to allow them the independence!
What’s your kitchen management style?
If you don’t trust your boss, would you stay in your job?! Be nice to people and they’ll be nice to you – don’t ever shout, it achieves nothing. Be nice to them, not to spoil them, just explain why you do things a certain way. If you make a mistake, just try again. It’s not a macho thing, you should be a gentleman.
You told SBS about the importance of the staff meal in a restaurant – is this still the case?
Absolutely, every day a different chef cooks something – we have people from all different backgrounds, Spanish, Italian, Korean, Chinese – and we cook whatever we have. Sometimes a seafood dish or a buffet – just make sure it’s nice food, we don’t want to eat rubbish! It’s also interesting that Australia is a very multicultural country but some young chefs have never travelled physically, but travel through food and restaurants and dishes.
Who was your most important mentor?
Which one utensil do you use most?
A good chef’s knife, made in Japan. I collect them – if I see them in restaurants I sometimes ask if they will sell them to me! It’s about the design, it has to be practical, got to hold right. It’s very important to me to give them just a little touch up everyday. Sharpening knives is very soothing, I love it.
What’s your guilty food pleasure?
I love generally any food but love starch, especially pasta – if there’s nothing else at home I just boil pasta with oil and add salt and pepper. I also love Japanese fried chicken, karaage, marinated with soy sauce and vinegar. I could eat it breakfast lunch and dinner. I also like very simple food – sometimes a congee porridge rice with water and pickled vegetables.
What did you have for dinner last night?
I didn’t have dinner, for lunch I had grilled fish and some sushi – breakfast was porridge with lots of japanese pickles.
How do you maintain your energy and passion?
I still enjoy what I do, I look after lot of young chefs, restaurants and staff all over the region – something I’m proud of. Six out of eleven years at awards the ‘best young chefs’ have been my guys. It’s so good to see them achieving their dream – and also keeping me going!
Finally, I’ve read elsewhere about your Tasmania fishing boat and how it’s one of your favourite things to do?
Yes! I waited three years for my turn to come to get one, it’s made from a very precious type of pine called huon. It’s the slowest growing timber on the planet. It’s a 40 foot wooden boat, hand built over three years by very old craftsmen. It’s like a crayfish boat and is big beamed for the size, but it has everything on it such as radar, autopilot, generator, aircon, shower etc. I’ve gone from Tasmania to Sydney but mainly use it in Sydney harbour. It’s amazing the fish I’ve caught, squid and kingfish, John Dory, green snapper and more.