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Interview with Chef Tetsuya Wakuda

Aired April 12, 2013 - 05:30   ET



MONITA RAJPAL, HOST: Here's one of Australia's hottest culinary superstars.


RAJPAL (on camera): I'll try a little bit.

WAKUDA: No, no, no, more.


(voice-over): Widely regarded among the world's best, foodies and peers admire him for his take on bold flavors and a fusion of French and Japanese cuisine. Despite his incredible success, the food industry was an unlikely path for the Japanese native. Landing in Sydney, Australia in 1982 with no cooking experience, Tetsuya Wakuda found himself washing dishes at a nearby restaurant.

And after learning the trade on the job, mentored by locally celebrated chefs, just seven years later, he would open his own restaurant, Tetsuya's, in the city's suburbs, a restaurant that now stands in Sydney's city center and has a waiting list of up to six months for a table.

This week on TALK ASIA, we catch up with the master chef, Tetsuya Wakuda, in Singapore to get a taste of his sought-after fare at his second restaurant, Waku Ghin, and find out what he sacrificed for his success.

(on camera): It's wonderfully delicate.

Tetsuya Wakuda, welcome to TALK ASIA.

WAKUDA: Thank you very much.

It's nice to be here.

RAJPAL: We're in your restaurant, Waku Ghin.

Am I saying it right, first of all?

WAKUDA: Yes. Waku Ghin.



RAJPAL: What does it mean?

WAKUDA: Well, Ghin is a Japanese term which is silver. And sort of Waku could be a my (INAUDIBLE) name, my surname, but also to Waku means, also in Japanese terms, again, it's a coming up from a like a sprucing almost.

RAJPAL: Hmm. Tell me about the concept that you had for this.

WAKUDA: This whole concept is very simple, simply, is, actually, we cook in front of you in a little spice.

RAJPAL: How would you define your style of cooking?

WAKUDA: Often people asking, but I don't really know either. It's -- some people call it Japanese, French, fusion or whatever. Everything about ingredients, OK. We get the freshest, highest quality possible we can get ingredients here, either add certain spices or herbs or (INAUDIBLE) and degree of cooking. And degree means like, you know, sometimes just raw.


WAKUDA: Or either just halfway or cooked a long time. And to enhance the flavor of the actual ingredients. And that's basically our -- our (INAUDIBLE).

RAJPAL: Chef, we are in one of your private dining rooms.

WAKUDA: Welcome.

RAJPAL: What are we going to see?

And hopefully, we're going to see what makes you famous.

WAKUDA: Well, yes, actually, I will show you and I will explain to you and that will be the sous chef (INAUDIBLE) cook for you.

So the first dish which is the Canadian lobster surrey braised with the fish tarragon.

RAJPAL: How did you develop the fish?

WAKUDA: (INAUDIBLE). I love (INAUDIBLE) whatever I do, wherever our dish, I make many, something I don't like it, then I don't.


WAKUDA: It's very simple.

RAJPAL: How long does a dish like this take to cook?

WAKUDA: It depends (INAUDIBLE) this is around six, seven minutes.

RAJPAL: Wow! That is pretty fast.

Is this something that people could do at home, though?

WAKUDA: It was easy to make it at home. That's why we have to have better (INAUDIBLE) other people can cook at home. I mean you can buy lobster.


WAKUDA: You can buy all the ingredients at a shop, actually, here in Singapore. And I'm sure you can cook it at home, too.

So that's our skill, to make this better than at home.


Tell me about growing up in Hamamatsu.

What was that like?

WAKUDA: In this -- between Tokyo and Osaka, in the (INAUDIBLE) the city, a quite large city. I have a lot of memories, but I think of the memories, I love fishing, even little -- little boy. And my relatives have a little charter fishing boat business in (INAUDIBLE) I go there by myself.

I'm there, Uncle, can I go fishing?

OK. And he takes me there. And a very (INAUDIBLE) boy I used to be. And I catch them and I'm -- I was good at it (INAUDIBLE), because you know why?

I love to eat that fish. So then I catch him a lot. You're talking about 100, 200, you know, fish.

RAJPAL: Really?

WAKUDA: So then I go through a sort of a casual restaurant type, you know, protocol (ph)...


WAKUDA: (INAUDIBLE). I give you a fish.

Can you cook for me some?


WAKUDA: The rest I'll give to you.

RAJPAL: Was that the defining taste for you that you remember growing up?

WAKUDA: I guess it -- what it is, even a little boy, I loved to eat, even sushi, any food. And my mother, of course, actually could cook. Mother was a very good cook. And -- for the domestic level. And we have a few restaurants around where I used to live, so (INAUDIBLE) mom, I have (INAUDIBLE) today.


WAKUDA: And that kind of just like -- I just love to eat. I was -- I mean I'm not even -- even now, I will not (INAUDIBLE) even quite (INAUDIBLE) I love to eat.


WAKUDA: That's actually what I do now, I guess.

RAJPAL: At 22, you decide to move to Australia.

Why Australia?

WAKUDA: Somehow, even tiny little boy, see the documentary. I always loved on the TV the documentary. And then I saw that most beautiful, you know, scenery of Australia, always in my mind. No connections, no money. I had just $3,000 in my pocket. (INAUDIBLE) I didn't have a suitcase (INAUDIBLE)...

RAJPAL: Really?


WAKUDA: Because I had to have a certain amount of money, that's $3,000. That's the minimum.


WAKUDA: And of course I told my parents to -- I decided on going to overseas.

Are you mad?

In that time, 30 years ago...


WAKUDA: -- it's, are you mad?

I mean you don't speak, you don't know anybody.

Are you, you know, as a family, we don't have no connection to anybody.

And what are you going to do?

I don't know. I said (INAUDIBLE). You're mad.

So -- so then, OK. I save up (INAUDIBLE) work. And (INAUDIBLE) jobs to save up money.


WAKUDA: And I just went. About a week, two weeks, I just woke up doing nothing, just to get an idea of the where everything in the city...


WAKUDA: And when they're paying rent, I asked them to, can you introduce me an English school?


WAKUDA: But that's expensive. And then -- and (INAUDIBLE). And I went his -- get into his car and he drove me into a restaurant. And that's -- everything in my life started (INAUDIBLE) Sydney.

RAJPAL: So you were dropped off at a restaurant instead of an English school. And that's where you (INAUDIBLE) say one of your first jobs is in a restaurant.

So would you say that food found you instead of you finding food, as a career?

WAKUDA: I think pure luck, you know. I went and start, you know, washing dishes and then I was just helping, whatever, cutting, chopping or whatever there is.


WAKUDA: And then one day, (INAUDIBLE) four months later, it's someone (INAUDIBLE) one chef on their way to work was (INAUDIBLE). So he couldn't come on the lunchtime. The lunch is busy.

And official arrive, everyone -- everything have to be (INAUDIBLE), everything have -- shellfish. And then just coming in, they were panic, real panic.

So then, come here, I'll show you how to do it. And then (INAUDIBLE) fish and where they just kale, carrots and all that sort of stuff.

And that's everything is started. I (INAUDIBLE) and...

RAJPAL: So do you think you had like this natural skill?

WAKUDA: I don't think so. I had a good teacher. I had a good chef, I think. So not everything is started. And slowly I sort of picked up the language.

Since then, five years, I worked at a couple of other restaurants. And then '77, I started my own business.

RAJPAL: That's five, six years going from washing dishes to opening your restaurant. That's not a long period of time. That's pretty fast.

WAKUDA: I guess, yes. But just the opportunity came, so then I just grabbed it. And that's all. I even in that moment still, I wasn't sure that was my lifetime career. I never thought it.

RAJPAL: What does Tetsuya's symbolize to you?



RAJPAL: This -- this is where it all happens?

WAKUDA: Yes, this is the engine of the restaurant.

RAJPAL: And this is the place where a lot of pressure is felt, as well, because timing decisions, everything comes together here.

WAKUDA: Yes. That's our duty and our service. You know, when your order comes in, I mean, preparation of food, we have to be finished everything by -- before the service.

RAJPAL: What kind of a boss are you?

What kind of a head chef are you?

Are you very strict?

WAKUDA: I think, yes, you have to be. You have to be.

RAJPAL: Because you demand perfection?

WAKUDA: Yes, (INAUDIBLE) times -- at the same time, you know, but when they're doing a (INAUDIBLE) or whatever, I was joking with them (INAUDIBLE) when there's service, yes, (INAUDIBLE).

RAJPAL: When you're not in the kitchen, when you're home, do you -- what -- what do you cook for yourself or what do you cook for your friends?

WAKUDA: For me, I don't really. But if a friend comes in, a simple (INAUDIBLE).


WAKUDA: And, you know, a lot of our friends, chefs, actually go to visit their -- their home very often (INAUDIBLE) faster and roast chicken. Very good roast chicken. (INAUDIBLE). Very good roast chicken. And salad, feta cheese. You know what, the most important, I think.

RAJPAL: It takes a lot of guts to open up a business, any kind of business, to be an entrepreneur. It certainly takes a lot of guts to open up a restaurant, because restaurants have a shelf life. They have such a high turnover.

Where did that courage come from, do you think?

WAKUDA: It's a very single-minded person. That's why. And the first two years, I rented a space to the business (INAUDIBLE) coffee shop. And then (INAUDIBLE) nice, you know, but it's very strict. So then, um, one day, I sold 20 -- so '87 when I started. '89, I found a little building. I bought it. Somehow the bank was kind enough to lend me money.


WAKUDA: So that's how I started. This is my whole thing. And then somehow, it just really hit. It just booked up so many weeks ahead. And then it just keeps running. And then...

RAJPAL: This was Tetsuya's?

WAKUDA: Tetsuya's. That's how I started Tetsuya's.

RAJPAL: What does Tetsuya's rep -- symbolize for you?

You were 30 at the time?

WAKUDA: Twenty-nine years.

RAJPAL: Twenty-nine.

What did it symbolize for you, having receive -- having achieved that?

WAKUDA: I was really serious. I would thought my God, lucky. I really thought myself lucky. And just I loved it. But after, say, seven years later, so I desperately wanted to be (INAUDIBLE) but nothing comes.

And then this particular restaurant, that wasn't used to be a restaurant. And one day, I went to -- I got invited to my friend's birthday. Oh, wow, this is -- and then I didn't wait (INAUDIBLE). I just know so I didn't wait (INAUDIBLE).

They said, no, you're not allowed to enter. I was so (INAUDIBLE) but no, no, no. No chance, no (INAUDIBLE). And then so my Australian friends were so upset. And they argued, but no, no, no, this is company policy.

So one day in that time, just (INAUDIBLE), one day when I have money, I'll buy this. And end of '99, negotiations, I bought it in 2000, 13 years ago.

RAJPAL: Wow! So this one restaurant that turned you away you end up buying?


RAJPAL: That gives me chills.

WAKUDA: (INAUDIBLE) for me, sometimes like that was very lucky, you know?

It's -- it is -- it is far too big for me, so I never -- OK, I like to do it, this is my dream. But the thing is I never thought coming to my hands.


WAKUDA: And but also end up and I said yes to buy it. But actually I didn't have enough even to deposit, enough deposited. It wasn't a small shopping that was.

RAJPAL: When you arrived in Australia, what did you notice about how -- or the -- the difference between Western food culture and the East?

WAKUDA: OK. Australia, we don't have such a thing cuisine, like Chinese, French, Italian. They have definite, you know, cuisine.


WAKUDA: And -- but Australia is a migrant country.


WAKUDA: So French, Japanese, Chinese, Italian, Vietnamese, Thai, it's amount of people there. So it makes, you know, so many genuine Italian cuisine, Chinese, all that. We have that, even Thai food is very big nowadays and certain area, all Vietnamese groups cover (INAUDIBLE) area and then (INAUDIBLE) in Sydney, there's also a majority of people Italian migrant groups and there are great butchers, restaurants, all that. It's that kind of food culture we have. And...

RAJPAL: Very multicultural.

WAKUDA: A very multicultural society.

RAJPAL: Does that mean that poses another challenge for you as a chef, because you know people that are coming in have a naturally broad palate now?

WAKUDA: No. It's the other way around. So that means it could be anything, right?


WAKUDA: They're very open-minded, from Japanese raw food to, you know, Italian to French and also the same time for as restaurateur or chefs, right, widely available ingredients from Asian ingredients to European ingredients.

The second dish, rice, steamed king crab.



RAJPAL: Why would you cook it this way and not, say, in the pot?

WAKUDA: OK. Because cooks have a (INAUDIBLE) but actually makes sense for them, because their service is over 200 Centigrade, OK?

And then oil and salt and put the water boiling for a moment, because they're holding so much heat, OK?

And it's better than actually normal thing, you know, you just put in the stock and it's actually much more hotter this way. And then (INAUDIBLE) crab. It's a little bit moist. And inside, just scoop like that, so that all (INAUDIBLE) the juice and the flavors and so it doesn't, you know, (INAUDIBLE) cook the fish or any shellfish.

But then king crab. (INAUDIBLE) lime and olive oil. So bon appetit.

RAJPAL: That lemon hits you right away and then the sweetness of the crab. A beautiful texture.


WAKUDA: (INAUDIBLE) beef comes from Chiga Prefecture (ph).


WAKUDA: In the southern part of Japan. So it's just simply grilled...


WAKUDA: -- very gently and then (INAUDIBLE). And then you eat with the wasabi and that's it. This is your (INAUDIBLE).

RAJPAL: Why do you fold it?

WAKUDA: OK, because, again, texture. OK, the same weight of a piece of meat you can grill, one taste.


WAKUDA: And this way, again, another taste. That makes it. Texture is a very important part of the actual cooking and the food.