Q&A: Tetsuya Wakuda of Tetsuya's

Becky Paskin - 17/01/2012

Since the World's 50 Best Restaurants awards launched in 2002, Tetsuya's in Sydney has been a rock in the ever-changing list, despite seemingly moving up and down with the seasons. But in 2011 the seafood-focused restaurant slipped 20 places to number 63, leaving Quay the only establishment remaining from Australia. Now with just three months to go until the 2012 list is revealed, owner Tetsuya Wakuda is just hoping to remain on the top 100 list rather than climb back into the top 50. With a new restaurant to handle in Singapore and Tetsuya's as popular as ever, the chef is remarkably optimistic about the future.

Tetsuya's has been in the World's 50 Best Restaurants list since it began, but after nine years it has dropped out - why now?

We have been there for so many years but our name is still mentioned in the top 100, so I'm just grateful for our continued association with it. It's a people choice, and you have to accept that whatever it is. We've been doing things the same; we dont really change. Our cuisine is our cuisine and I don't really follow the trends. Even Ferran (Adria) came here and said "I still like this restaurant, the food is good", because cooking food is actually entertainment. The most important thing is that a restaurant serves everyday food and thats what matters. You can't ask more. After the event last year Thomas (Keller) who's Californian restaurant The French Laundry fell off the list too, told me after that he is still happy as they still have business and again we cannot be all our life at the top. The important thing is that theguests are happy. There are now all these young chefs coming up and there's not room for everyone.

You're known for integrating your love of art into your food - how important is art in the restaurant experience?

Art creates ambience but it's very personal. I like art a lot and that is my passion so the restaurant itself reflects that. People come here to escape from the everyday world, so when they come through the gate we cook for them, serve them what they want and they can enjoy the environment and the art the garden. It's a package. This is our style and it's not right or wrong. This is what people expect and it's what we give. This is Tetsuya's.

Tetsuya's has been up and down the World's 50 Best Restaurants list for years, do you have hopes of it going back into the top 20 again?

Of course I want to be back there it's a peoples choice. What we know we do. We don't try to be a certain number and change to fit that. We are Tetsuya's, the experience and the food and that's how we are and what we try to be. We reinvent ourselves, everybody does, but in the end we get whatever place we are given. But we are very lucky just to get our name mentioned - how many millions of restaurants are there in the world? Just to be in the top 100, of course nuber one or two is great, but it's an association and to get invited to go to the awards is lovely.

Is there any rivalry between you and the other Australian chefs to get high in the list?

Not really. We've known each other for a long time and it's really most important to keep your restaurant active, people positive and dining room full. That's most important. We have 60 full-time employees, some of which have worked for me for 25 years. People make you what you are, it's a team effort.

How would you describe the dining scene in Sydney?

There is less of a fine-dining scene now as more people turn to bistros. In fact it's so popular someone has termed it 'bistrology'. People like more casual food everyday. Paris is the same, where a lot of the two Michelin-starred chefs now have casual bistro places too. In Sydney and Melbourne too, people are starting to go out more rather than cook at home. They probably eat out four or five times a week, but fine dining will always only be there for special occasions.

You opened a new restaurant Waku Ghin in Singapore last year - what's the reception been so far?

Better than expected. I've been to Singapore hundreds of times over many years - my heart is there. For Singaporeans it's a passion to eat and not just to satisfy hunger. The restaurant is small with just 20 odd seats and situated in the Marina Bay Sands complex alongside the likes of Daniel Boulud, Joel Robuchon and Santi Santamaria. It's such a big corporation it's quite amazing. Food wise, its a tailor-made menu. We tell people what ingredients and dishes we have and they say what they fancy. There is a menu but there isn't. Tetsuya's is very Western with some Asian twists, but Waku Ghin is more Asian with a Western touch. Here in Australia we have to use local produce because quarantines are so strict - if they find even one bit of dirt on your shoes you have to wash them. But in Singapore they have no produce at all so everything needs importing. There are no herbs, no eggs, no nothing. It's just a city, a hub designed for tourism, airport and finance only. Even the water comes from Malaysia.

Would you like to see Waku Ghin enter the 50 Best?

Yes of course if it's possible, but the covers are much smaller, so the chances are much smaller too. Plus it's hard to book.

You've been named one of the most influential chefs in the world. Why would you say that is?

I do what I like to do. A lot of chefs now they do sous vide-type cooking but we've been doing it for more than 20 years, I didn't even know it was called sous vide when I started doing it. At the time people told me I was crazy because it was expensive, but it was something I wanted so I built the equipment in my kitchen. I make decisions to do what I want.

What does the future hold for Tetsuya's and Waku Ghin as well?

I'd like in the future have service staff who stay long term and help us go to the next stage. Next year we will take a different appraoch and define it, and Waku Ghin is the same. I'd like the staff from the two restaurants to swap over so they can see the cooking ethos of the group. Alain (Ducasse) and Joel (Robuchon) say that when the group gets bigger people grow, and naturally you have to grow too because otherwise people leave you and they are an important part of business. Talent is a great thing, and you want to work with great talent for a long time.