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Chefs : 2009
TETSUYA WAKUDA 183 again in a kitchen. Washing dishes. It was a start. And a little later on, when a chef named Tony Bilson needed a sushi chef for his restaurant, Kinselas, Tets stepped up. In return, Bilson taught him to cook. "I started by doing some Japanese food ... and then he gave me the chance to do other things and he basically told me to trust my instincts and to try mixtures." The kitchen at Kinselas was set up like a Japanese kitchen, "with a lot of Japanese knives," and Tets began to feel more confident there, not least due to Bilson's encouragement. He had the opportunity to test a lot of his 'mixtures.' But he was also learning that first of all cooking about technique, about precision and attention to detail. "Then you bring it to the next level; you work on taste and textures." Tets worked. And learned. Then he moved on. Six months here, a year there, working with others from whom he could learn. He helped start a few places: Roses, Kytes, Ultimo's, which he could have taken over "but the rent was very high and the position not so good ... and then this place came available." A tiny shopfront in suburban Rozelle that he called simply Tetsuya's. And tiny it truly was (the downstairs dining room sat around 20) but from little things big things can grow. ROZELLE By then Tets had married. Which was lucky, because that meant he had someone to help him in the kitchen, and as the kitchen was just about big enough for two it worked out fine. His wife, whom he taught, did cold larder and presentation. The restaurant sat 44 people, and the menu was four courses. Between them Tets and his wife served nearly 200 dishes every day. He didn't pre-cook anything, and he changed the menu every three to four weeks. Cooking was his life. But Tets did not cook for himself---he cooked for his customers. Having a restaurant is "about making people feel comfortable, about recognising your customers, and remembering what they like," he says. And what they liked was Tets' food. As one critic noted, his dishes, "conjured up in a kitchen roughly the size of the passenger section of a stretch limo, are subtle, elegant, exquisitely balanced and in no way designed to draw attention to their creator." Yet they could not help but do so. Though there has been much talk of 'fusion,' of 'Pacific- Rim cuisine,' these were not the dishes that Tets presented. His 'mixtures' were a combination of the Japanese tastes of his homeland and the French technique he had learned from Bilson, always exquisitely presented and guided by an extraordinarily sure hand. Or mouth. Because for Tets, there is only one real secret to cooking. You must like to eat. "If you eat, you taste, so you know." He pats his stomach. "You have to be a good eater." But simply being 'a good eater' does not account for Tets' success. His luck in finding himself in a country which boasted no great culinary history cannot be underestimated. Few places other than Australia, he believes, would have allowed his cuisine to develop in the way it has. In Australia, he says quite simply, has has been free to do as he will. This is due in part to the wave of immigration that followed World War II. Europeans, particularly Greeks and Italians, arrived in the tens of thousands. Asians, too, and those from the Middle East found homes from home in Australian cities, and their influence permeated the culture, and the food. In a way, Australian cuisine was but a blank slate, to be written on in a dozen languages or more. "Australia is a young country ... we don't have centuries of food history," he says. "Each cuisine has certain things you can do, you cannot do. And we don't have that." GROWING Because no one told Tets what he couldn't do, he just went on and did it. His passion was all- consuming. He had little in the way of family life. He had only Tetsuya's, his customers, and his staff. Which kept on growing. Though Tets' success had been virtually instantaneous, it was nearly four years before he was able to expand Previous spread: Australian chef Testuya Wakuda photographed, with fish, for a magazine feature in 2003. Opposite: Tetsuya in the kitchen of his Sydney restaurant, Tetsuya's, which opened in 1989 and is regularly named among the world's best.