Tetsuya's Pursuit of Excellence

The Australian story of a world-renowned restaurateur (DVD)

By Robyn Lewis
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Renowned chef Tetsuya Wakuda, Tetsuya's Restaurant, Sydney NSW

Renowned chef Tetsuya Wakuda, Tetsuya's Restaurant, Sydney NSW [©Portrait by Nicky Ryan 2007]

Tetsuya Wakuda and Tasmania beef
Confit of Tasmanian ocean trout at Tetsuya's, Sydney NSW
Tetsuya Wakuda with Tasmanian ocean trout
Restaurant and Japanese garden at Tetsuya's, Sydney NSW


There was once a small Japanese boy, who loved to fish near his hometown south of Tokyo. He fished and dreamed, and planned one day to escape his regional upbringing and the weight of expectation of a life of office work…..

At twenty-two that dream began to crystallise, when Tetsuya Wakuda arrived in Sydney for a taste of Western culture – but with no apparent skills, no English and little money. However, his sincerity shone through, and combined with luck he landed a job at a seafood restaurant named Fishwives, where he started as (you guessed it) a dishwasher.

The owner Danny (a friend to this day) discovered Tetsuya’s skill in handling fish and seafood, and he was soon promoted to scaling and boning whiting fillets – as Tetsuya says, 5 kg a day is a lot of fillets! But he didn’t complain; he learned English, to joke with his colleagues, to drink beer and to be part of the team. He also learned to cook.

Ten years passed before he was to return to Japan. At that time, fish was treated with little understanding in Australian markets and restaurants, and noted Sydney restaurateur Tony Bilson wanted more of the Japanese respect for and knowledge of fish handing in his own kitchen. So he took Tetsuya on, and another lucky door opened.

But it wasn’t luck but his incredible work ethic and love of food that eventually took him to the next stage, opening his own restaurant, Ultimo’s in Sydney, with a partner, $5000 and huge debts to suppliers. They showed incredible foresight and understanding when they gave him credit for a year.

Then luck arrived once more, in the form of two big name restaurant reviewers, Leo Schofield and Michael Gardiner, who were both entranced by the food and the move away from the ubiquitous red-checked tablecloths of the ‘French provincial’ restaurants of the time.

From these beginnings Tetsuya’s the restaurant was born, first in the suburb of Rozelle, and then later in Kent Street, where it remains to this day. The heritage building viewed from the street is reminiscent of colonial Singapore, but inside is a Zen-like temple to gastronomy, a seemingly separate world in a cityscape filled with towers, surrounded by a Japanese garden.

The DVD skillfully traces this journey, and we learn that another of Tetsuya’s big steps came when he was told by famed Italian restaurateur Armando Percuoco of Buon Ricardo’s, a Sydney institution, to be great he must not only be a good chef but a host, and to cast off his shyness, get out of the kitchen and greet his customers.

Throughout the video, his love of food, his modesty, humility and skill shine through, and there are many references to his incredible palate, the main ingredient “that makes a chef”. Indeed, David Levin of the Capital Hotel in London describes Tetsuya as “the finest restaurateur in the world”.

The restaurant itself sources its food ingredients from the fishers, growers and makers, much of it researched by Tetsuya himself. The DVD takes us on a journey as he discovered, assisted in improvement by breeding (a process that took them five years) and turned the excellent Tasmanian Petuna ocean trout – reared in the waters of Macquarie Harbour on Tasmania's west coast – into his signature Confit of Ocean Trout, deemed ‘the most photographed dish in the world’.

There are also stories of Robbins Island wagyu beef – grass fed in Bass Strait on perhaps the cleanest and most luxuriant pastures in the world – of Stephen Welsh the wasabi farmer, Tasmanian leatherwood honeymakers, knife forgers, potters (none other than Les Blakeborough) and more, all with evocative scenery to match.

It’s clear that Tetsuya is intensely interested in everything to do with food making, preparation and presentation, whether it’s watching a steel blade that will one day slice his sashimi being tempered in a forge, to studying sake and wine. Tetsuya is a ‘sake samurai’ – the only one outside Japan – and is an enthusiastic promoter of sake and food matching. His wine cellar, under the guidance of sommelier Greg Plowes, contains over 35,000 bottles of wine, many rare and all hand selected.

Tetsuya has developed a clear affinity, indeed love for, Australia’s island state and its high-quality produce, and is now Tasmania’s global food ambassador. There’s plenty of evocative scenery to whet any appetite, whether to taste the food at his restaurant, or perhaps to make a pilgrimage to the source.

The DVD is accompanied by a small booklet featuring four ‘recipes’ (described as ‘chef’s narrative’): Confit of Ocean Trout; Tasmanian Huon Salmon in Sake Marinade; Roasted Tasmanian Rock Lobster; and King Island Blue Cheese with Leatherwood Honey. All are achievable at home and the latter two are very easy.

The DVD is a foodie’s delight, and we see Tetsuya on his frequent travels (he visits Japan 15 times a year), and meeting with chef friends including Ferran Adria of Spain’s el Bulli and Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck in the UK. Both speak of their mutual love of food, camaraderie and mutual respect. Indeed, a brotherhood springs to mind, as they swap notes and tastes. Tetsuya reveals that his driver is not fame, nor fortune, but kinship.  This extends to mentoring young chefs on their own paths to food nirvana.

If there is a Buddha of food, it would surely be Tetsuya. Thirty years in Sydney may seem an unlikely scenario for the attainment of perfection, but the results and accolades speak for themselves. His restaurant has been rated amongst the fifty best in the world from 2002 to 2010.

Tetsuya has recently opened a omakase restaurant in a new Singapore hotel, Marina Bay Sands, which he has named Waku Ghin, meaning ‘a gushing forth of silver’, a reference to the silver of the knives. He designed it from the floor up (literally; the carpet swirls reflect the Damascus pattern of his hand-forged Tasmanian knives), and again it features several Tasmanian ingredients on its menu. Of course, being Singapore, few ingredients can be sourced locally; much is sourced from Japan, and as far away as Scotland and Canada.

It’s been a long and beautiful road for the boy, his dreams and his fishing rod, and these will no doubt continue, whether at the culinary heights of Singapore, relaxing in his handmade Huon pine clinker boat in Tasmania, in his adopted home of Sydney or beyond. The DVD traces this lovely journey with respect and insight, and captures the humility, the gratitude and the talent that makes Tetsuya Wakuda one of the food world’s greats.


Tetsuya’s Pursuit of Excellence is produced by Digital Kitchen (2010, Sandy Bay, Tasmania) and retails for RRP A$24.95. It is available from www.BrandTasmania.com or email info@brandtasmania.com



  • Sydney (NSW)

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