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Tetsuya puts Australia on the map for Relais Gourmand
9th Feb 2004
This year, in an unprecedented move, a Relais Gourmand award was given to a restaurant in Sydney, or more specifically to its chef and owner, Tetsuya Wakuda. Characteristically, the modest and down to earth Japanese Australian who has been cooking up the best food in Australia for years was surprised, yet according to Relais & Chateau staff there was no question in their minds.

Just out, the new Relais Chateau book lists some of the world’s best restaurants and hotels. There is now just the one Relais Gourmands in Australia, Tetsuya’s, and only one Relais Chateaux in Australia, Chateau Yering. In covert operations Relais send their employees to sample their way around the world. It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it.

Tetsuya’s the restaurant now nestles between the pages of a gastronomic bible, a chef’s hall of fame, akin to being awarded a Michelin star. In fact in theory it is necessary for the chef to have not just one but two of the most difficult stars to earn in the world, just to have a chance to get into the Relais. In Australia there is no star system, but it is clear that if there were Tetsuya’s would be twinkling as brightly as the clear Australian night.

The restaurant is not only a foodie’s paradise, with so many delicacies served during the course of one evening that you lose count in a haze of epicurean satisfaction, it is also an aesthetically beautiful haven to relax at the end of the day over the best degustation menu in the Antipodes. Set back from the street it looks impressive from the outside, but when you investigate inside, the Japanese courtyard and tastefully styled décor belies Tetsuya’s natural roots while creating a welcome that, if it weren’t for the 6 week waiting list, would draw you back on a nightly basis.

Like all great people, Tetsuya started small. In fact going right back to when he was still living in Tokyo he had no inkling of what the future held. A student, he decided to leave Japan for the US. His parents were sure he would be back within months. However he detoured to Australia which had just opened up to Asians for the first time, and didn’t make it back to Tokyo for eleven years.

Arriving in Sydney he asked his real estate agent, George, where he could find a school to learn English. “He dropped me off outside a restaurant and told me, ‘to learn a language you have to talk. In a school you have to pay. In a restaurant they feed you, they teach you English and they pay you!’ ”

It still took Tetsuya 3-4 months of dishwashing, and a few years of kitchen assistant jobs, and cheffing before he decided it really was the job for him. “Even when I was working for Tony [Bilson] I wasn’t sure it was my life’s work.” Now he is the most celebrated chef in Australia. They have even started worshipping him from afar in his native Japan. “When you make a name for yourself overseas they like you more,” he says with an ironic look.

But he doesn’t miss his original home. “I’m Australian!” he exclaims. “I’m an Australian chef and I’m very proud when people call me this. Australia and Australian people made me what I am today. I can’t forget that. Sure I was born in Japan, but today who I am and what I do Australia gave me.”

Working in the country he has adopted as his own, Tetsuya has discovered some interesting facts. Like for instance, “Australians are more demanding than the French.” It doesn’t seem possible, but he explains himself. “They have so many allergies, and things they cannot eat. It’s a multicultural society, some people eat no beef or pork or meat, or they are vegan or on a macro diet. Their food has to be soy free or gluten free. You have to be a dietician to be a chef today.”

It’s not just the well-fed customers who are fans of the chef. His waiters and kitchen staff pay Tetsuya one of the best compliments a chef can be paid. Not only do they like working with him, but after his superior training many move on to get prestigious jobs overseas and still more return to Tetsuya’s to work with him again.

“I would never abuse my staff. Do I think shouting and screaming are going to improve the quality of working or service? No. Ten years ago that was the norm. Chefs think it is character building and it helps their ego. But for me it is not treat mean, keep keen; it is treat well, keep keen.”

A lot of Tets’ time is taken up with training. With 50 full time staff it’s a big job, and he has the highest standards. “Good service is like a shadow. You don’t see it or feel it. The waiter is always there, you don’t have to ask.” If only this was the case in all restaurants. But then not all restaurants can afford to employ two staff for every customer.

And it’s not just the hours and the heat and the vagaries of the customers which make his life hard. It’s also finding quality food. “It’s very hard to get quality in the quantity we need," he sighs. “For example pigeon, duck… We farm our own sea trout which I also export to New York City. In Tasmania in the north east there is a zero pollution area. You don’t need to feed them anti-biotics, they eat organic.”

Tetsuya’s menu is hard to categorise. Most dishes arrive in little bite size portions which seem to echo sushi, and yet the ingredients, although of course most of his ingredients are organic, and bursting with fresh flavours are definitely Australian. I asked him how he described his cuisine and he said “Food. Some people come in and say it’s the best Japanese food they’ve ever had. I don’t argue, you don’t have to put a label on it. Having a lovely night, that’s all that matters.”

He works hard for his customers, from presenting the dishes in a way that is easy to eat, to making sure he watches the market and caters to what they want. “It tastes good and excited you? That’s what I want. I’m not looking for strange stuff. A lot of what I do is very subtle. And what wine goes best with it…”

Tetsuya has adopted one of the biggest growing exports of his adoptive country, wine. “Ninety-nine percent of guests consume wine. You’ve got to go with it. Food with wine or wine with food? Or wine friendly food.”

So much so that increasingly frustrated with allocation limits (for a restaurant that goes through 300-350 cases of Moet a year there’s a lot of thirsty mouths to ply) he has gone DIY and asked the wineries to blend him his own wine. “Make me one, I said, not a house wine, a first label for us. Their names come first, then ‘For Tetsuya’ in the corner. I work with five vineyards and go over for the blending.” This is a guy who knows what he likes and what he wants and isn’t afraid to go out there and get it.

Which is what happens at his favourite restaurant, Shirashi in Singapore. “Over the Christmas break once for seven days I ate at Shirashi – that’s 13 times. The 14th time the chef insisted in taking me out somewhere else.” He is refreshingly quick to sing the praises of other chefs, and at the same time they are also quick to voice their admiration of him.

“Personally I know a lot of people. The restaurant business is very small and getting smaller than ever by the second. From Europe and overseas they are coming to see us, and they are friends, we look after them. Michele Roux for example. And Farran Adria. ‘You don’t know me but I know you very well’ he said. ‘We are like amigos now.’ Very special. And Alain [Ducasse] too. ‘If you come to Pairs and you don’t tell me and I find out I’ll be very upset.’

“When I was invited to the Relais Gourmand the other chefs said welcome to the family. It’s a very nice industry. A hard business – but sweet.”
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