Raw Talent

How a novice sushi chef rose to the top of Sydney's food chain.

In an age of cavernous restaurants and empire-building chefs, Tetsuya Wakuda has a perverse ambition. He wants—desperately—to open a smaller restaurant.

Having won Australia's only national restaurant competition, the Rémy Martin Cognac/Australian Gourmet Traveller Restaurant of the Year award, twice in the past five years, the Japanese-born Wakuda is now widely considered the country's finest and most original chef. Yet he has his sights fixed firmly on the small time, inspired by a recent visit to a tiny restaurant in Osaka called Kahara.

"There was no menu and no tables, just room for eight people at the counter," he states, recalling that the meal began with freshly opened wild summer oysters served with a bottle of "Y," the dry white wine from Château d'Yquem. "But what really knocked me out," he says excitedly, "was that the chopsticks had been soaked in cold water, to accompany the oysters," which were followed by two slices of highly esteemed Sanda beef, from Kansai, the memory of which sends Wakuda into almost metaphysical rapture. "The only flavorings used were salt and pepper, yet it was everything that you could have wanted beef to be. I said to the chef, 'How perfectly you cook.' But he just looked at me and said, 'At last, I am beginning to know how to cook meat.'"

Although Wakuda may dream of one day opening Australia's first eight-seater eatery, that doesn't mean his present restaurant, Tetsuya's, is a gastrodome. Located in a former coffee shop in the working-class Sydney suburb of Rozelle, Tetsuya's barely seats 50 people. In spite of its sleek leather-clad Danish chairs and eclectic collection of modern and Australian Aboriginal art, the dining room is almost pretentiously modest and unassuming. It certainly belies the magnitude of the restaurant's reputation: Since it opened in 1989, Tetsuya's has been booked out six weeks ahead—and the waiting list would be longer, but Wakuda only allows bookings that far in advance.

In Japan, Wakuda has achieved almost superhero status through his appearance as a character in a blockbuster manga (cartoon or caricature) comic book, Oishinbo. The six million readers who weekly devour the strip, a satirical commentary on contemporary life, were last year introduced to a dedicated, hardworking Japanese chef who lives in Australia, wears plain black polo shirts, drinks Krug, and spends most of his days and nights in the sushi-size kitchen of a suburban Sydney restaurant.

That, in fact, is not far from the life Wakuda leads. On the day I meet him for our interview, he is clambering up the shelves of his stainless-steel serving counter, as precariously balanced as a kid on a back fence. He has to perform this tightwire act to check out four roasting duck breasts whose sleek mahogany skin is crisping under the salamander. It is mounted very high up, and Wakuda is not very tall, but there is simply nowhere else the salamander could go.

In a country whose tendency to build up national heroes only to cut them down again is so prevalent that it is known as the "tall poppy syndrome," Wakuda is a freak. Everybody likes him. Australia's food media—rarely unanimous—are bound by a common respect for his craft. Regular diners adore him with a zealousness bordering on fanaticism. Even fellow chefs—a bitchy lot, on occasion—love the man.

Only his staff, and the people who supply his produce, see the dark side—the quick temper, the flashing eyes. Like the young female chef who refused to stop and taste the tripe that Wakuda was cooking. She was dismissed on the spot.

"She didn't have to like it, but she had to taste it," he says.

Or the supplier who came to the kitchen incensed when Wakuda complained that the duck breasts were too small. The argument would have turned into a brawl had there been room—the kitchen is as snug as a Rubik's Cube—and the two didn't talk for six months. Then there was the ostrich supplier who couldn't understand why Wakuda wanted only a single muscle of meat from each bird, leaving him stuck with the rest. The explanation was simple—only one muscle delivered the tenderness and flavor Wakuda deemed necessary for a barely seared carpaccio flavored with truffle-scented honey and rosemary.

Describing Wakuda's food is perilous. It is a unique blend of French and Japanese cooking, a style too refined and single-minded to be called Fusion or East-meets-West or Pac Rim. This is no wham-bam culture-clash cooking but a personal cuisine with deep culinary roots and a long pedigree. Comparison with Nobu Matsuhisa is inevitable, though Wakuda relies less on traditional Japanese dishes.

"I'm probably more Western, because I'm always thinking of what wine will work with my food," he says.

Indeed, the clues to his cooking do seem revealed through wine, particularly the idea of balance. The flavors in a Wakuda dish are delicate, blended, nuanced, and designed to last long in the mouth. Nothing is too strong, sweet, or violent. There's a look of elegance, lightness of touch, nobility of form, brilliance of color on the plate.

When he arrived in Sydney in 1982, at age 23, ostensibly on his way to America after dropping out of university in Tokyo, he had little English and no formal culinary training. Just a love of food and desire to learn another language. Thanks to a neat bit of cultural stereotyping, Wakuda scored a job as sushi chef at Kinsela's, working alongside Tony Bilson, one of Australia's most renowned French-driven chefs. Bilson had just lost a famous master sushi chef and claims that at the time he had no idea that Wakuda's only real sushi experience had been eating the stuff.

In fact, to Bilson that was a virtue. "I never hire anyone because of their technical skills—you usually have to train that out of them," he says. "Wakuda was obviously very interested in food, and I think he genuinely wanted to be a great chef." Within weeks Sydney's reigning food critics were lauding the sushi at Kinsela's as the finest in the country.

Wakuda was fascinated by the ritual and precision of classical French technique, and he began to borrow heavily from it, incorporating elements into what was rapidly becoming his own cooking style. "It was a creative kitchen," states Bilson. "Everyone was influencing everyone else."

By 1986, Wakuda had opened his first restaurant, Ultimo's. The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide of the time noted a "culinary intelligence and a sense of balance" in his grilled scampi with herb and sea urchin sauce, and sugar-cured tuna with wasabi mayonnaise. Three years later Wakuda opened Tetsuya's.

According to Bilson, Wakuda is at the cutting edge of Australian contemporary cuisine. "It's individual, it relates to wine, and he is totally dedicated to it," he claims.

When he first won the Restaurant of the Year award in 1993, guest judge Anne Willan, an author and cookery teacher who lives in France, praised Tetsuya's for "rarely overstepping the knife-blade line between creativity and mere flamboyance."

The 1996 judge, British-based, American-born food author Robert Carrier, goes further, calling Wakuda's cooking "the perfect food for our times. He is on another plane from other cooks. If I were an omnipotent food god and could pick him up—restaurant and all—and put him down in Paris, London, New York, or San Francisco, he would be amongst the three or four best in each location. And what's more, he would fit in perfectly."

Wakuda discarded his à la carte menu several years ago when regulars began asking him simply to feed them. The fixed menu changes constantly, although it almost always includes his signature dish, a confit of ocean trout with ocean trout roe and parsley oil. The trout, which is cooked in extra virgin olive oil at around 140 degrees Fahrenheit for up to 80 minutes, depending on the weather, looks like a piece of raw fish—yet it slices like butter and glides over the tongue like silk. For this dish alone, the kitchen goes through 528 gallons of the finest Umbrian olive oil and five tons of salmon annually.

"Temperature and timing are everything," says Wakuda, and not a minute goes by without one of the kitchen timers buzzing or ringing, and being set and reset. The staff time their movements so they glide around, under, and over each other like eels in a crowded pond. Wakuda himself works in fluid, single movements, slicing a duck breast with a long, single swoop of the knife. His slices are as uniform as if they were done on a machine, this despite the fact that Wakuda has one eye on chef Simon Long, who is plating the famed ocean trout across the kitchen.

Long lifts the tranche of fish from its bath of olive oil, dusts it with ground kombu (kelp seaweed), and gently drapes it so that it follows the natural line of the fish. Wakuda watches as if it is the birth of his first child. At one stage alarm shows in his eyes and he looks as if he's about to speak. Then his eyes fall upon me, and he returns to his slicing. I feel like a regional school inspector, saving students from the teacher's wrath by my presence.

The trout has the subtle grace of Japanese pottery, and an appearance that pleases without showing off. It seems as if it has literally grown on the plate. Colors are compatible and soothing, and flavors run into one another in a gentle, natural progression from the prickly saltiness of the roe to the sweet earthiness of the parsley oil, and onto the lush richness of the salmon. This is perfectly rounded food.

An enjoyer of the good things in life, Tetsuya Wakuda is drawn to dark, unstructured clothing; handmade pottery; beautiful women; boisterous, loyal male friends; and vintage Champagne. His private life is practically nonexistent. He sleeps no more than five hours a day and says he can unwind only when he is cooking, which is also when he does most of his thinking. (It's the sort of life that is difficult for another person to live with. Wakuda's marriage ground to a halt two years ago.) His apartment has recently been decorated in exactly the same style as his restaurant. The floors, the color scheme—everything is the same. His best friends are chefs; his greatest hobby is eating out; his bedtime reading is one of his 2,000 cookbooks.

What spare time he does have Wakuda spends experimenting with new dishes. The ocean trout took three months of solid work, changing times and temperatures daily until the dish succeeded. He took the same approach to oeufs à la neige (giant quenelles of soft meringue filled with two sauces), a dish he learned about from a local food critic, who'd had it at Joël Robuchon in Paris. It took Wakuda six months to work out how to make the quenelles while retaining the necessary delicacy.

"Getting the first sauce into the meringue was easy," says Wakuda. "It was the second sauce that was difficult."

Today the set-course meal begins with a platter of five delicate hors d'oeuvres, beginning with a little shot glass of cold aubergine, potato, and leek "soup." I find it too refined, but the rest of the platter revelatory, from a single succulent Spring Bay scallop set in a delectable tingle of lemongrass and ginger to a sweet, fleshy scampi tail touched with scampi oil and tea, and a little pile-up of sweet blue swimmer crab on sushi rice. Then comes the ocean trout calling card, followed by a fillet of milky veal seared with wasabi and sea urchin butter. It sounds an unlikely combination, yet the flavors only accentuate the veal. Next up is the four times cooked breast of duck (steamed, grilled, crisped, then warmed in the oven) with pink fir-apple potatoes, shredded daikon strips, and truffle oil; the finale: a blue-cheese bavarois served with a tiny dice of nashi pear in Sauternes jelly. This dish shouldn't work at all. By its very nature it crosses too many boundaries of culinary decency; yet it shakes, shimmers, quivers with light smoothness, barely sweet and barely blue but unmistakably both. The finest, silveriest spoon would seem too large and clumsy to cleave this dessert in two.

Wakuda created the bavarois for a special lunch the restaurant was preparing for a nashi pear promotion. "They asked me to just serve some pear with cheese, but I couldn't do that," he says. "I would have felt like an idiot."

At 5 a.m. on the day of the lunch Wakuda was in his kitchen with still no idea of what he was going to serve as dessert. The words cheese and pear kept running around in his head until, on a whim, he whipped up the bavarois. "I'd never made anything like it before, but for some reason it worked perfectly," he says. Wakuda then spent the next two months working out exactly what it was he had done.

Wakuda dismisses claims that he is forging an Australian cuisine. "A cuisine has to come with a background and a culture," he says. "Australia is working its way toward a cuisine, but we have much to learn from other, older cultures first." Tony Bilson agrees, claiming that cooking has more to do with individual chefs than any national view, and that Wakuda is simply an exciting, truly individual chef.

Some people think Wakuda's food is so special they want it to be their last taste on Earth. Last year he was asked to cook six "last suppers." Most were taken in the restaurant, but two were prepared and packaged, with reheating and serving instructions, for people too ill to travel. For him, this is the greatest honor of all.

Wakuda knows his worth, yet he has enormous reserves of modesty. They are born of a recognition that there are greater heights to be achieved than appearing in comic books and on television. He is driven by his craft and informed by his own cultural background. Yet he prefers speaking English to his native tongue, sleeps in a high Italian bed rather than on a Japanese futon, and is as obsessed with wine as he is with food. "Maybe I'm not really Japanese," he says, with a cheeky grin.

It is the end of service, and 350 plates of near-perfect food have gone out in three hours of nonstop, full-on work. Wakuda is exhausted, slumped in the corner of the kitchen; his chefs are knocking back fruit smoothies before starting to prep dinner.

The only hiccup at lunch was the arrival of three "strict vegetarians," who had not mentioned the fact when they booked. That caused Wakuda to pause in mid-slice. "Gentlemen," he said quietly, "this is what we shall do." The diners received roasted asparagus over braised witlof (Belgian endive), grilled potato jelly, noodles with mushrooms, and a table-size platter featuring six of the restaurant's desserts.

"A customer is a friend, " Wakuda explained. "Whatever they want in my restaurant they can have."

Lunch: Tues.-Sat. $92. Dinner: Tues.-Fri. $131. 729 Darling Street, Rozelle, Sydney; 61-2-95-55-10-17; fax 61-2-98-10-48-24.

Terry Durack is the weekly restaurant reviewer for The Sydney Morning Herald.