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Culinary works of art

Influential, yet humble: Chef Tetsuya Wakuda says the restaurant business is tough, but those willing to put in the effort will reap the rewards. Photo by The Star

Publication Date : 24-02-2013


Pure passion drives Tetsuya Wakuda, one of Australia’s – and the world’s – most original and innovative chefs


Never mind that he is the chef behind the eponymous Tetsuya’s in Sydney, that’s listed in S.Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants and has a permanent waiting list of four to six months.

Or that Waku Ghin, his only establishment outside Australia which opened in 2010 in Marina Bay Sands, Singapore, to rave reviews, has been voted second in Asia’s Top 20 Restaurants by The Miele Guide 2013.

Japan-born Australian chef Tetsuya Wakuda comes across as a truly nice and sincere man.

And, I can’t seem to say that enough because for someone who has been hailed as Australia’s finest chef with an amazing long list of accolades under his white apron (I would say white chef’s hat but I noticed he never dons one), he has no qualms about spending a good hour fielding questions tirelessly from a bunch of Malaysian journalists and a food blogger.

And when he’s in the same room with you, it feels like he’s sharing a family recipe, not a finely tuned culinary dish which he has honed over the years.

Certainly, it’s not for the publicity as the 53-year-old Tetsuya already walks among the elite as he’s considered one of the most influential chefs in the world.

Maybe it’s because he chose to leave his comfort zone – his hometown Hamamatsu, a town on the main Japanese island of Honshu – at the young age of 22, with no skill or inkling of what he wanted to do in Australia, only that he found the country fascinating and wanted to learn English. Or that he was lucky enough to meet Sydney chef Tony Bilson while working as a kitchenhand at Fishwives in Surry Hills, and was asked to prepare sushi at Kinsela’s, one of Bilson’s restaurants.

One might say it’s kismet but that chance meeting led him to a lifelong passion whereby he would go on to learn classic French techniques that form the backbone of his cooking style till today.

Perhaps, it is this innate sense of gratefulness and little boy wonder in Tetsuya that helps him stay rooted, despite having achieved so much in his 30-year career.

When an aspiring cook enquired, during a joint masterclass between Tetsuya and French chef Daniel Boulud, how one becomes a famous chef, he answered that all one needs is true passion. This was at the recent three-day food and wine appreciation Epicurean Market held at the Convention Centre in Marina Bay Sands, Singapore,

“It’s a hard industry – when people are having fun, you are working. One has to be open to criticism as it helps you grow. You need to give it time and keep at it (cooking). Then, money and fame will come naturally ... enjoy it (the process),” he advised.

Eye on the food

Back at Waku Ghin, in the intimate setting of his “kitchen”, Tetsuya rattles away about his cooking style, his favourite food and why he loves what he does.

It must be clarified that the aforementioned kitchen, is actually a private dining room where diners sit (or stand) around the chef’s table as he prepares culinary art before their eyes.

The restaurant’s dining concept is based on a multi-faceted use of space where diners move from room to room, to enjoy the bespoke experience of refined cuisine and unparalleled service. The 743sqm restaurant offers an intimate lounge where award-winning Japanese bartenders serve over 85 handcrafted cocktails, premium sake and whisky.

Tetsuya is the first person appointed Sake Ambassador outside of Japan, making his selection the best in the world. And then, after dinner and drinks, guests relax over dessert and coffee in the drawing room, which offers a floor-to-ceiling view of the Singapore skyline.

Decadent is the word to describe the generous space, as it’s meant to accommodate only 25 people at the very most.

The name “Waku Ghin” is derived from two Japanese words: Waku means to “arise” (like water pouring forth from a hot spring) and Ghin means “silver”, Tetsuya’s favourite colour which runs throughout the restaurant.

It offers an exquisite 10-course degustation menu created from the best seasonal produce like Marinated Botan Shrimp with Sea Urchin and Caviar, and Wagyu with Wasabi and Citrus Soy.

Has Tetsuya ever been tempted to push the limits to accommodate his fans?

“No,” he answered without hesitation, as he is intent on preserving the integrity of the food, ambience and personal touch of the restaurant, so that even when it’s full house (which is practically every night) you don’t feel that other guests are intruding into your privacy. You don’t even get piped music as he’s that serious about diners not being distracted from his food!

In an age when everyone is spreading their reach, where bigger is better, Tetsuya seems bent on the opposite. His Singaporean outpost is even smaller than his Sydney restaurant, which is 4,180sqm and seats 120.

Sydney’s Tetsuya’s relocated to Kent Street in 2000 and is housed in a Japanese-designed terrace. Formerly, the restaurant was in the suburb of Rozelle which seated only 20 people.

Short of three years after opening in 1989, Tetsuya’s bagged its first title win in 1992, when it was awarded the coveted three chef’s hats by the Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide. Since then, the accolades have kept piling up.

His food has been said to be “works of art for the eye and palate”, and fellow celebrity chef Charlie Trotter once described his food as “pure, clean flavours that are decisive, yet completely refined.”

Both restaurants may bear his signature but they are markedly different. The Sydney establishment serves classic French cuisine with an Asian influence, and makes use of Australian ingredients including the Tasmanian Ocean Trout, its signature dish; Waku Ghin, on the other hand, is mostly Japanese Asian with Western influences.

He keeps a tight rein on his degustation menu whereby only the freshest ingredients are sourced. And in Singapore, that can be a challenge as the island lacks locally grown fresh produce and imports everything from overseas (or from Malaysia). I hear he doesn’t like the word “fusion” though and meals at his restaurant mimic Japanese kaiseki meals, with due emphasis on taste.

“I try to use what’s in season in Singapore. Because of its location, you get two seasons on a plate – the northern and southern hemisphere. For instance, in Europe, they are having winter food now but down south, it’s summer,” he explained.

So what’s his favourite season of the year?

“If I’m in Australia, I love summer as then you get fresh vegetables, fish and herbs. On the northern side, spring is when you get everything.”

He quipped about his favourite food being chicken rice and char kuey teow, and how he likes to eat them together. When a Malaysian journalist told him that those dishes were Malaysian in origin, he laughed and said he would love to try the full Malaysian gourmet experience one day.

Which begs the question, why did he opened Waku Ghin in Singapore?

“I never thought I would have a restaurant in Singapore but it has been one of my favourite destinations for years. I have many friends who have supported me in my dream to open a restaurant here. It’s a great place for a stopover when you’re travelling to Europe (from Down Under) and one of the few airports where you can step out and catch up for lunch with friends.”

It also helps that Singapore has less stringent import restrictions compared with Australia, which means Tetsuya can use ingredients from all over the world.

“I like Hong Kong too, but it’s a little harder as I don’t speak Chinese. In Singapore, everyone speaks English. It’s easy to get around, clean, safe and you get an amazing variety of restaurants,” he added.

Love for his craft

There’s no secret formula to how Tetsuya comes up with new concoctions or where he gets his inspiration from.

“I just love to eat and I love to cook. It’s my passion. If you’re a chef or a sommelier, you can live anywhere in the world. It’s a wonderful industry to be in,” he said.

The challenge for him is never in the cooking itself.

“I travel extensively for my work, to learn new techniques and ingredients, and participate in culinary events. And that’s tough. Learning English was also very hard when I first arrived in Australia.

“I run a restaurant. And it’s a challenge keeping an eye on the supply and making sure it runs properly. I find this tougher than actual cooking,” he said.

Generally, the humble chef prefers to keep a low profile and shuns the limelight. But during the second season of Junior MasterChef Australia, Tetsuya agreed to be one of the judges for the final week and came away duly impressed.

“I’m not keen on appearing on TV but the children were amazing. I could not do what they did at their age.”

Few things in the world excite Tetsuya like an induction stove as “I love the precise heating” and when during the rare times that he cooks in his own home, happiness is Italian food in the form of a simple plate of spaghetti laced with chilli and garlic. And yes, make that bird’s eye chilli!

When asked what makes a good restaurant, Tetsuya said point blank, “People.”

“Without people, we are nothing. As chefs, we need to interact and serve people. When you go to a restaurant and the food is good but service bad, you won’t go back. But if service is great even though the food isn’t that good, you would go back.”

He’s also an awesome boss, said Waku Ghin chef Sia Kok Hong (from Malaysia) who has been working there since it first opened. Sia attested to Tetsuya being always calm even in the most trying situations, and he’s never heard him utter a harsh word.

It’s true what they say – the great ones possess true humility.


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