A Taste of Home: Chef Tetsuya Wakuda on His Favourite Eats in Japan and Australia
Japanese-born Australian chef Tetsuya Wakuda has always loved food, so much that he left his hometown of Hamamatsu, Japan at the age of 22 and moved to Sydney to work as a kitchen assistant at established restaurant, Fishwives. Here, he developed a passion for cooking, and he went on to train under the late chef and restaurateur Tony Bilson (dubbed Grandfather of Australian cuisine) at Kinselas, where he mastered French culinary techniques using the best seasonal produce. This became his culinary philosophy when he opened modern Japanese restaurant Tetsuya's in 1989, one of Australia's best and most awarded restaurants until today, and Waku Ghin at Marina Bay Sands in 2010.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic grounded the whole world, Wakuda admitted that one of the best things about being a chef was being able to travel to different countries to learn more about their different food cultures and flavours. While he considers Singapore home at the moment due to travel restrictions, his permanent base is in Sydney where he continues to run Tetsuya's. But he considers himself lucky as his profession allowed him to visit Japan as often as he could, and that only meant discovering more culinary gems worth going back for.
Here are his must-visit dining places in Australia and Japan.
What do you miss most in terms of food and drink when you are away from Australia and Japan, or haven’t been back for a while?
Tetsuya Wakuda (TW) The beauty of Japanese cuisine lies in its simplicity. Rice cooked à la minute, paired simply with fresh ingredients and homemade pickles—this is what I miss most. It might seem so basic and simple, but the patience and skills refined over decades just to make quality rice are incredible.
In Sydney, it is very common for people to go on boat rides and fishing trips. I enjoy heading out to sea with my friends, where we will either catch some seafood or visit a fish market. The taste I miss most is freshly barbecued prawns by the harbour or at my friend’s home.
What is the first dish you eat when you return and where do you go for it?
TW When I return to Japan, I usually visit my favourite ryotei (traditional Japanese restaurant), called Kyoto Wakuden. I particularly enjoy the seasonal grilled ayu (sweetfish) during summer.
I have a few favourite restaurants in Australia, and one of them where I always take my friends to is Buon Ricordo, one of the oldest and most popular Italian restaurants in Sydney. The chef is a good friend of mine for over 30 years, and one of the dishes I will always order is the linguine with tomato, basil & garlic—so simple, yet so good. Another famous dish at the restaurant is the truffle egg pasta, a must-have if you love truffles.
Do you have a favourite restaurant in Australia and Japan? For fine dining and for more casual experiences?
TW Among all the fine dining restaurants in Japan, one of the best in my opinion will be Kodaiji Wakuden in Kyoto. Their techniques and ingredients are truly top-notch. For casual dining, I go to a sushi restaurant called Iwasa Sushi at Toyosu Market. The prices are very reasonable, and the sushi is amazing. They do not take reservations, and long lines waiting outside during mealtimes are a common sight.
In Australia, my favourite restaurant for fine dining would be Flower Drum in Melbourne. It is one of the finest Chinese restaurants in the city with the best service—guests are treated almost like royalty. For a more casual experience, I will head down to Cafe Di Stasio at Fitzroy, a small Italian restaurant with authentic Italian food, fun-loving waiters, and great vibes. The owner, Ronnie di Stasio, is an old friend of mine who taught me a lot about the restaurant business.
If you have visitors or guests with you, where do you ensure you always go to give them a real taste of Australia and Japan?
TW Culinary is such a respected craft in Japan, there is a certain level of quality at any local markets, eateries or restaurants. I love to take my guests and friends to Toyama for its sake breweries and local markets. This is an up-and-coming destination among chefs, and famous for its sake and seafood. There are many small local restaurants by the seaside, and these seven to eight-seater restaurants serve excellent food. I also love to take my guests to the countryside to experience the real side of Japan and its quiet charm.
For Australia, I like to organise trips to Tasmania. Australians have this saying that you get to experience four seasons a day in Tasmania because of its unpredictable weather. It’s such a wonderful place with beautiful scenery, great seafood and art. I remember joining a “Tasmanian Seafood Seduction Tour”—it is a full-day cruise around some small islands, and you get to explore the bays, and enjoy wines, beers, cheeses, and fresh seafood on-board. I might also bring my guests for a walk at the beach and dig for oysters, or go fishing. If my friends love whiskies like I do, Sullivan’s Cove distillery is worth a visit as they have some of the best whiskies in the world. The vineyards at Tasmania are also fantastic – we can enjoy Pinot Noir from Apsley Gorge Vineyard, or Domaine A Cabernet Sauvignon. I enjoy them so much that I’ve brought them to Singapore to serve at Waku Ghin.
Where do you like to meet up with old friends for food and drinks?
TW I would love to visit Miyama in Japan. It is a rural area north of Kyoto, with beautiful mountains and rivers. There are many local restaurants that have kept their traditions of picking wild vegetables and herbs from the mountain, to serve to their guests on the same evening. A few of the more traditional restaurants even ban the use of phones so diners don’t get distracted and can truly focus on their food.
For Australia, I would love to meet my friends in Tasmania. The island has developed tremendously over the past 10 years, and some Australians living in cities like Sydney might not even have been there themselves. If I were to meet my friends in Sydney, I will take them to Golden Century. It’s a popular Chinese seafood restaurant among both locals and Singaporeans, and you can find almost all kinds of seafood there—king crab, crayfish, parrotfish, coral trout, clams, abalone and so much more.
Do you have a favourite bar or café in Australia and Japan?
TW My favourite bar is Star Bar at Ginza in Tokyo, a classy Japanese bar to enjoy a drink. When I’m in Kyoto, I’ll usually go to Bar K6, which serves very good cocktails.
In Australia, one of my favourite bars is Baxter’s Inn. The bar is hidden away in an alley, but it has a huge whisky collection and offers a very different vibe from the usual bars.
What do you always take back home with you when you leave Australia or Japan?
TW I have a set of knives from Australia that I bring everywhere with me. Good knives are very important to a chef.
I also love to collect Japanese whiskies, potteries, and art pieces, and often find myself bringing some with me whenever I return from Japan.
Where do you go to find authentic flavours of home where you live?
TW When I’m in Singapore, I’ll head to Shiraishi or Sushi Kou for their omakase experience for a taste of Japan. But since I’ve been in Singapore for over a year now to prepare for this re-opening, I’ve grown to love local food even more. Sometimes, my day starts at 6 am, when I head down to Tiong Bahru Market for chwee kueh.