Japanese chef seduces Aussie tastebuds

Tetsuya Wakuda went to Australia 24 years ago in search of kangaroos and koala bears. What he found instead were ocean trout and octopus, two of the local ingredients that inspired his ground-breaking cooking style.

“He would be too modest to say it himself, but Tetsuya has given the country a huge amount of confidence to be creative, to explore new flavours and to encourage relationships with food producers,” said Joanna Savill, presenter of the television series The Food Lover’s Guide to Australia.

In recognition of his singular impact on Australian cuisine he was last week named personality of the year along with French chef Pierre Gagnaire and British wine writer Hugh Johnson by the Gourmet Voice Festival, an international gathering of food writers and professionals in the southern French resort of Cannes.

Wakuda apprenticed as a cook in Japan, but had considered becoming a gunsmith or a fisherman before landing a job in 1983 as sushi chef at the Sydney restaurant Kinsella’s.

Chef Tony Bilson soon spotted his talent and encouraged him to experiment while giving him a foundation in French technique. After short stints as a chef in other local restaurants, Wakuda opened Tetsuya’s in the Sydney suburb of Rozelle in 1989.

“The kitchen was so small that only one person could fit inside,” he recalled.
“At the beginning we would be fully booked one day and have only two or three customers the next, which was very difficult.”

Word got around quickly, though, and soon Wakuda and his wife were serving about 200 small plates per day—the chef is known for his tasting menus, with each dish conceived to bring out the flavour of top-notch ingredients.

That might not sound revolutionary now, but his ingenuity lay in tapping into the country’s unexploited natural bounty.

“Australia has a tropical climate and a cool climate, so you can grow and catch almost everything. But, 20 years ago, local items didn’t exist. There was octopus in the sea but nobody thought to catch it, so it was free.”

Wakuda helped introduce Japanese cattle to Australia whose meat is now exported to Japan. His Asian mushrooms are now locally grown and he uses farmed ocean trout from Tasmania, which has improved in quality thanks to his efforts.

Baby vegetables, mixed salad leaves and farmers’ cheeses are a few other Australian ingredients that didn’t exist 20 years ago.

“When I arrived in Australia the food was terrible,” he said, making a face. “People ate hamburgers every day. I think I was in the right place at the right time. Diners became more adventurous and things started to change.”

Sydney is now considered one of the most exciting food cities in the world thanks to chefs such as Wakuda and its mix of cultures.

“At a young age people are exposed to different cuisines, so they develop a great palate. Their parents take them to a Chinese restaurant one day, French the next.

“In my kitchen it’s amazing how any of the young cooks can whip up a Thai green curry for the staff meal.”

In 2000 Wakuda moved his restaurant to chic quarters in central Sydney, where he now serves 3 000 plates everyday with a staff of 30 in the dining room and 20 in his four kitchens.

He serves an average of 20 courses to each customer, adapting the dishes to individual tastes, and the 130 seats are booked up several months ahead.

“Going to a restaurant should be a treat, so I respect what people tell me about their likes and dislikes. I don’t try to force anything on them.”

Although Wakuda is considered one of the founders of fusion cooking—a mix of international ingredients and techniques—he would be more likely to use the term Australian cuisine. Dominant in his cooking are French techniques and Japanese ingredients, which he uses to highlight flavours and surprise the palate.

“I find the freshest and best ingredients and then use herbs or spices or the cooking method to enhance it. Cooking is a science that has to be mastered, but for me it’s all about taste.”

Take his recipe for fresh scampi. “I season them with salt and pepper and a little crushed tea, because the tannin in the tea lifts the sweetness of the scampi,” he said.

“Then I roast them in the oven so they are translucent in the centre, make a sauce with the heads and use this to infuse the oil. It’s so simple that anyone can do it.”

Not all his recipes are so straightforward, and Wakuda is fondly known among his staff as “the gadget king.”

“I adore kitchens and I have all the latest appliances. You don’t necessarily need them to cook well, but when you’re serving such large number they can help you be consistent.” - AFP

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