Top chef Tetsuya's success secrets

His Sydney eatery is named among the world's best and boasts a weeks-long waiting list, while cuisine has won him the respect of chefs across the globe.

19 Mar 2007

Modesty leaves Tetsuya Wakuda struggling to define why he has become one of the world's top chefs, but a glimpse into his office and into his past offers some answers.

It becomes clear that a young Japanese immigrant's passion for food combined with Australia's freedom from gastronomic history to set him on a unique path to the pinnacle of his profession. "I am very lucky I think," he told AFP self-deprecatingly when asked to explain his success. "There are a lot of great chefs, great restaurants in the world."

When renowned French chef Paul Bocuse gathered the elite of the world's cooks in Monaco to celebrate his 81st birthday last month, Wakuda was among them. And last year, Tetsuya's was ranked fifth on Restaurant magazine's list of the world's best 50, honouring the refinement of his dishes combining Asian influences with French technique.

"Still, to be honest, I don't think I am better than anybody. I'm serious. I love food, I love to eat, I love to cook. It's one of my passions," he said. Evidence of his unrelenting attention to cooking is everywhere.

Few other executives would have a stainless steel bench top in their private office, complete with sushi trays and an industrial stove. In addition, Wakuda has two test kitchens for experimentation above the restaurant's dining rooms. And he admits that his business has become his lifestyle, leaving little space for relationships or relaxation.

Childhood dream
Wakuda, who grew up in the Japanese town of Hamamatsu southwest of Tokyo where he harboured a childhood dream of becoming a gunsmith, arrived in Australia 25 years ago and started work initially as a kitchenhand.

In those days, sushi was virtually unheard of in Australia so when chef Tony Bilson decided to offer the raw fish dish he put the budding Japanese cook in charge. Under Bilson's wing, he learned the classical French technique he has since applied to his distinctive cuisine.

Although he recognised a calling, Wakuda didn't realise he could make it as a chef until he opened his own restaurant, Ultimo's, in 1983. "I really enjoyed it. Once you own a restaurant, nobody teaches you. You work for somebody, people will teach you. So I had to learn myself."

Tetsuya's opened in 1989 to almost instant popularity. Five nights a week some 120 diners now feast on a degustation menu prepared by about 20 chefs. Altogether Tetsuya's employs 60 people, including three staff to take reservations. Australia's lack of historic food culture an advantage

Wakuda believes few other places in the world would have allowed his style of cooking to blossom as it has in Australia, which has experienced a food revolution since the 1980s.

Australian cuisine, known decades ago more for its mutton-heavy meals rather than fine dining, has benefited hugely from post-war immigration from Europe and Asia. It is this multicultural approach to eating, coupled with experiments with local produce and a blank slate when it comes to culinary history, which has brought cities such as Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide to the attention of foodies the world over.

'Free', is how Wakuda describes the Australian cooking scene. "Elsewhere you do something too creative and people say "Oh, that's not French". Some people criticise. Here, no." "Australia is a young country and we don't have centuries of food history," he said. "Each cuisine has certain things you can do, you cannot do. And we don't have that. That makes some really interesting cooking come up."

In his own brand of cuisine, milk, cream and other dairy products only feature in desserts, while his inspiration comes from local seasonal produce, much of which was ignored until the 1980s when items such as octopus and Asian mushrooms began to find favour.

Fusion cuisine
Wakuda, whose signature dish is confit of ocean trout served with unpasteurised ocean trout roe, brushes off descriptions of his cuisine as 'fusion' – the blending of international ingredients and techniques. "I don't know what it means, fusion," he said.

"There is not really such a thing, such a word in cooking; it's more like to confuse people, a confusion. "I don't say it has to be this way, that way. I don't have that. Or I cannot mix that one. No. Whatever – it can be technique or ingredients or method of cooking. "I don't mind Greek or Chinese or Japanese or French or Italian – I use that. So it looks absolutely like European food but when you taste it, it tastes more like Asian or whatever."

The chef said he is constantly tinkering with food to keep up with the changes in diners' palates. Lately, people want lighter food containing less fat and less salt, he said. For a restaurateur, he is surprisingly candid about the benefits of cooking for oneself, calling home-cooked meals the healthiest way to eat.

"Normally, if I get very hungry I just buy something and I make it," he said, nominating pasta with a simple sauce of olive oil, garlic and anchovy as a satisfying meal. "Cooking should be, you should not have to think. It should be enjoyable. Have a glass of wine and a joke. Choose good ingredients. It's nice."

Tetsuya professes to feeling much more Australian than Japanese, and said there is little he misses from his homeland. Although he constantly receives offers to open restaurants elsewhere, he seems happy in his adopted home. "Yes, there are lots of offers. If my staff, if my young chefs particularly, if they want to do something, then I will support it."

But he nominates Vegemite, the black yeast extract spread which classifies as a national dish Down Under, as the worst food he has ever eaten. "I don't like Vegemite. It's a strange taste, I don't know how people can eat it. Absolutely terrible taste."

The laid back chef is not from the Anthony Bourdain school of work hard, play hard cooking. For relaxation he prefers to do nothing, read or go fishing. And the chef, who jokes about his slightly portly frame, reckons he is nothing like the stereotype of the hot-headed chef yelling at his staff to get something right or spend the rest of their lives chopping vegetables.

Is he a hard boss? "No, I am easy I think." In his modest way, he stresses the collaborative nature of Tetsuya's dining experience.

"Sometimes people say, 'Oh, you cooked for us. Thank you very much'. Yeah, it's my food but when you going to buy say Giorgio Armani, do you think Armani stitched out every one of those jackets? You think about it. Even for only 20 guests, do you think I can do it by myself? No. "It's the team who makes it. It's a team effort. Service, cleaners, dishwashers, chefs, waiters, sommeliers, it's everyone who makes it."

For Wakuda, food is like art, you either like it or you don't. "I am not precious about it. Food is food. In the end, you have to eat."

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