The smile over the entrance gate at Sydney’s Luna Park is big but probably not as big as the smile on Tetsuya Wakuda’s face when he learned his namesake restaurant has once more been named Restaurant of the Year.
Iconic movie star Katharine Hepburn and master chef Tetsuya Wakuda have more in common than you might think. The actor holds the distinction of winning the most Oscars while Wakuda can boast of similar record-breaking efforts. His Sydney restaurant, Tetsuya’s, has yet again won the top Restaurant of the Year gong at the Savour Australia™ Restaurant & Catering Hostplus Awards for Excellence.
Not that the announcement—made on the evening of 29 October at the awards ceremony held at Sydney’s Luna Park—would’ve surprised too many people. Ever since opening in 1989, Tetsuya’s has been raking in the awards and accolades for its acclaimed French-Asian cuisine. Moreover, its signature dish, the confit of Tasmanian ocean trout, is commonly referred to as ‘the world’s most photographed dish’.
Not bad given the world-renowned chef arrived in Australia from Japan in 1982 with no formal training.
“When I first came here 36 years ago, I didn’t know much,” Wakuda recalls. “I didn’t go to cooking school. I built up my knowledge by visiting restaurants and seeing how it was done and including what I learnt in my own technique. I also had great mentors, especially Tony Bilson. He taught me a lot.”
Not, Wakuda hastens to add, that he’s ever stopped learning. In all the time he’s operated his eponymous establishment—first in Ultimo where he opened the doors in 1989, followed by Rozelle and then in 2000, at its current heritage-listed Kent Street location—Wakuda is adamant he’s continued to learn “by taking everything in; all the influences. I still do that.
“A good restaurant is a team effort. I’m just one person on the team. There’s no way I can do it alone. Everybody creates what we do.”—Tetsuya Wakuda, restaurateur, Tetsuya’s
“We’ve put everything we’ve learned into each move and each success,” he says. “Your experience is what allows you to grow and trust your direction. It’s very important. The inspiration and influences never end. When you’re done learning how you might do something better, it’s probably time to find a new profession.”
Luckily for Australian diners, Wakuda has stayed put in the restaurant game. But more to the point, he’s relished the opportunities for growth and experimentation he’s had due to the big changes that have occurred in Australia’s culinary landscape since he started out. “One thing that’s changed everything is the growth of the industry and what it has brought,” says Wakuda. “The main thing is it’s just so much easier to get good ingredients now. Good beef. Lamb. Trout. Salmon. It’s consistent. Watching this take place has been amazing. For any serious chef, it’s everything. If you don’t start with the best, you’re at a disadvantage. We’ve come such a long way with that. It’s been the biggest thing over the years.”
Of course, it’s what Wakuda does with those fresh and high-quality ingredients that puts him at the top of his game.
The R&C judges clearly agreed. “The food and service and Tetsuya’s was exemplary—the dining experience met each RACES (Restaurant & Catering Evaluation System) criteria and achieved the highest score of all 1000 venues judged,” R&CA CEO Juliana Payne says.
Wakuda refuses to take all the credit for his restaurant’s success including its numerous Restaurant of the Year wins. “It’s not me,” he insists. “It’s my staff. I congratulate my staff. The team won this, not me. A good restaurant is a team effort. I’m just one person on the team. There’s no way I can do it alone. Everybody creates what we do.”
“The inspiration and influences never end. When you’re done learning how you might do something better, it’s probably time to find a new profession.”—Tetsuya Wakuda, restaurateur, Tetsuya’s
Tetsuya’s serves a set tasting menu where the emphasis is on “natural seasonal flavours” and the “freshest possible ingredients” to quote the website. “We don’t create new cuisine here,” Wakuda says. “We just keep improving the things we do best. The freshness and quality of ingredients is where it starts. What we do is bring out the essence of the food itself, its true nature. The quality of what we have found from the beginning is the focus. What you do with it is everything, of course, but what you should do is respect it and use your skills to bring it forth. The question is always, ‘how can we refine what we have? How can we improve it?’ This includes all aspects of the restaurant.”
It’s almost a cliché that people who excel at what they do are also that activity’s most ardent advocates and Wakuda is no exception. He says he’s passionate about cooking … and rather partial to eating too.
“The first thing is my passion for what I do—that’s the most important ingredient. You have to hold on to that throughout your career.
“But before cooking, you have to have a passion for eating,” continues Wakuda. “I love to eat.”
Perhaps this love of all things gastronomic is why, ultimately, Wakuda has survived and thrived for more than three decades in an industry notorious for its high staff turnover and burnout rate, a reality he doesn’t shy away from. Those young chefs with stars in their eyes—and award-winning dreams of their own—would do well to heed his advice.
“This is a very hard business, as everyone knows,” he concedes. “I was talking to a group of fellow chefs the other day, and we were asking ‘why do we do this?’ You have to love it and commit to it. As a young chef, you have to know that success won’t come overnight. This business is famous for having to pay your dues. You have to stay committed to doing great work despite the challenges you may encounter. It can be a hard road, and not everyone stays on it. What keeps you going is your passion for what you do, and that comes out in your dishes.”