Tetsuya Wakuda feels humbled to have won the National Savour Australia Hostplus Restaurant of the Year Award—for the fourth time. It motivates him to do even better. By Alex Gilly
Legendary opera singer and eater, Luciano Pavarotti, famously said, “One of the very nicest things about life is the way we must regularly stop whatever it is we are doing and devote our attention to eating.”
Tetsuya Wakuda wholeheartedly agrees. “You often hear people say, ‘I have a passion for cooking,’” says the legendary restaurateur, chef and palate. “But before cooking, you have to have a passion for eating. I love to eat. I come from a family that likes to eat, so from a young age I ate a lot and to this day, eating is a big part of my life.”
It’s his passion for eating, says Tetsuya, that has driven him throughout his career to create something special—and to do so consistently for 30 years.
On 30 October, Tetsuya’s passion and drive were rewarded at the National Savour Australia Restaurant & Catering Hostplus Awards for Excellence held at the Peninsula Docklands in Melbourne, where Tetsuya’s was named 2017 Restaurant of the Year.
It was the fourth time the Japanese-Australian master has taken R&CA’s top gong—and just the latest of the scores of awards and accolades he has gathered since opening his first wholly-owned restaurant, in 1989.
“It’s slightly embarrassing, really,” says Tetsuya, when reminded how garlanded he is. “I’m very grateful, of course—it’s a real privilege, from the bottom of my heart. But it’s not me. It’s my staff. I congratulate my staff. The team won this, not me.”
Nor is winning Restaurant of the Year—even a fourth time—a licence for him or his team to relax, he says: “No, no. We’re very fortunate, our hard work has been recognised, but at the same time we must try harder. I say to my staff, ‘Okay, have a glass of champagne.’ Then I say: ‘We have to try harder.’”
And to keep on winning best restaurant, try harder they must: the calibre of the competition in 2017 is of a far higher order than it was in 2001, when Tetsuya’s first won Best Restaurant.
“At the big end of town, in the Fine Dining category, the judging is always extremely close,” says Stewart White, National Chair of the R&C Judges. “This year was no exception. The Restaurant and Catering Evaluation System (RACES) utilises up to 66 judging criteria to objectively assess all aspects of the eating experience. From the moment the booking is made, to the time that judges leave the restaurant—and everything in between—it is all being assessed. And this year, the Tetsuya team was on top of its game across everything.”
“Tetsuya is the epitome of the Japanese concept of takumi—craftsmanship,” says restaurant critic Simon Thomsen. “He’s always stayed true to his standards, his Japanese sense of excellence.”
The Roger Federer of restaurateurs
Other high-end chefs have burned brightly but briefly; Tetsuya has remained at the pinnacle of his profession for 25 years. He is the Roger Federer of restaurateurs.
“I always say to young chefs, ‘don’t forget to be curious.’ I’m still curious about a lot of things: new products, new ways of doing things. I am always curious. I’m always asking myself, ‘What is a better way of doing things?”—Tetsuya Wakuda
To produce such consistently high-quality work, he says, you have to stay interested in what you are doing (Federer has said something similar).
“I always say to young chefs, ‘don’t forget to be curious’,” says Tetsuya. “I’m still curious about a lot of things: new products, new ways of doing things. I am always curious. I’m always asking myself, ‘what is a better way of doing things?’”
Tetsuya gives an example. He regrets being unable to attend the awards ceremony in Melbourne, but he was committed to judging the San Pellegrino Young Chef competition in Hong Kong that day.
“I saw a very young chef [in Hong Kong], 23-24 years old, drying the skin of a duck. You know what he was using? A heat gun! Like the kind they use in construction to take paint off the wall. I thought, ‘Wow! This is so clever! I can’t wait to go home and get one of these heat guns.’”
The advantage of a heat gun over a blow torch, says Tetsuya, is that a heat gun gives off no flame, so it doesn’t burn or caramelise a duck’s fatty skin. “I thought, ‘this is so clever,’” he says.
One of his fellow judges, Paul Pairet of Ultraviolet restaurant in Shanghai, thought so too. The young chef was overwhelmed by the older chefs’ plaudits, says Tetsuya: “He said to me, ‘Chef, it’s just a heat gun! Why are you so interested in it? It’s nothing!’ He was almost embarrassed.”
Tetsuya loves gadgets, he says. Particularly kitchen gadgets such as heat guns. For someone who is always seeking better ways of doing things, technology is a boon, and Tetsuya has plenty of it: he has a test kitchen in his office, on the second floor of his Sydney restaurant. On the southern side of the same floor is another commercial kitchen, and beside that a smaller domestic kitchen. That’s separate from Tetsuya’s main kitchen downstairs, which was rebuilt from scratch about 18 months ago, with a state-of-the-art temperature control system.
Now, even when the temperature outside soars, it’s never more than 22 degrees in Tetsuya’s kitchen. “We’ve done the hard yards, so I don’t want the guys to have to do them again,” he says. “If you give people a better work environment, you get a better performance.”
In other words, the gadgets aren’t there for their own sake; they’re there to serve a purpose—the pursuit of excellence. Tetsuya’s new high-tech kitchen gives his team a more agreeable workspace. And that helps them focus on their common goal.
“There’s no such thing as perfection,” says Tetsuya.
“But we try to be close.”