On a brilliant, bright, sunny Saturday afternoon in Sydney, Australia in 1990, Lara and I took a taxi to the slowly-gentrifying working class suburb of Rozelle. We were armed with three bottles of wine and were on our way to dine at a restaurant called Tetsuya’s ran by a Japanese chef named Tetsuya Wakuda.
It became an afternoon that seductively confirmed my increasingly obsessive interest in the cuisine of chefs who genuinely do their own thing — an interest that has stayed with me ever since.
While we had started to dine at the best restaurants in Sydney at that time — Neil Perry’s first Rockpool, Christine Manfield’s Paragon (and later Paramount), Stefano Manfredi’s Restaurant Manfredi (and later Bel Mondo), Peter Doyle’s Cicada, and so on, and the following year we would eat at David Thompson’s Darley Street Thai — Tetsuya Wakuda’s Tetsuya’s was something different.
This humble Japanese chef had come to Australia at 22 years of age and soaked up the French technique that informed the cuisine of nearly every chef in Sydney at the time and the chef was soon creating his own hybrid cuisine that was completely his own.
The succession of dishes on that sunny afternoon were mind-blowing. It wasn’t just the creative combinations, but it was the sublime flavours and textures. Three hours after sitting down, the soft-spoken chef came to our table and chatted with us for half an hour. Later he took us on a tour of his modest kitchen.
For many years afterwards, whenever I cursed my tiny kitchen in our apartment in Potts Point, I thought of how Tets (as he’s known by those fond of him), could turn out such beautiful food from his small kitchen for far more people than I was for my ludicrous, over-the-top dinner parties.
When Tets finally released his cookbook in 2000, I had already been contemplating a change in career to become a chef. I cooked every dish in that cookbook at least once. I’ve made his Tartare of Macquarie Harbour Ocean Trout with Goat’s Cheese for countless dinner parties as a very small starter, always being told by our guests that it could have been at least twice the size — and probably should have considering I had to use 23 ingredients to make it!
Many years later, after having decided to stick to design and photography, and after too many long nights making the same dishes over and over again at a friends restaurant, we began to write about and photograph food. Our travel writing and photography work almost inevitably led us back to Sydney’s best restaurants and Lara and I found ourselves a few years ago at Tetsuya’s new address in Sydney for a food shoot and a portrait.
The exquisite food was easy to photograph, just as it had been so easy to eat all those years before. And the elegant room was also a breeze to shoot. There was just one problem. Tetsuya wasn’t there.
Tets phoned the restaurant to say he was feeling ill but would still come in, however, he asked if the shoot could be quick. I started to scout locations and set up lights. But just half an hour later, after visiting his doctor, the chef was being rushed to an operating theatre to have his appendix removed.
When we had the opportunity to come to Singapore last week for Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants and write about the city’s restaurants for stories, a Tetsuya’s restaurant, Waku Ghin, sitting at number 11 on the list, was the first to come to mind. We just had to eat there.
Tetsuya had been enticed to Marina Bay Sands in Singapore to open a restaurant that would allow the chef new freedom. With his Sydney restaurant humming along nicely, (many of his guests are from Asia and demand his greatest hits menu) he embraced the opportunity. At Waku Ghin, not a single dish is shared with his Sydney location — unless a guest requests one, of course.
When we visited Waku Ghin last week, we found a very different restaurant to both of Tetsuya’s Sydney eateries. There was no tight — or hot — kitchen. It is a huge space with induction cooktops keeping the temperature at a zen-like 26˚C, virtually unheard of in a commercial kitchen.
And this time, we had a long interview with Tets, who recalled the Rozelle days fondly, and was happy that his Singapore restaurant had moved up to number 7 on the list, although he admitted he was tired from all the travel and interviews. We told him about our experience at his Rozelle restaurant, and we discussed some of the dishes from the old days, including a certain fish dish loved by all that he still can’t take off his Sydney menu.
During the interview, I decided that I didn’t want a straight chef shot for my portrait. I’ve never thought of Tets as a kind of Alpha Male guy in the kitchen — so no tough guy stance with arms folded. Instead I wanted to try to capture the warmth that the chef radiates. Given that he was so comfortable at the table during our long conversation I simply moved a light into position and fired away.
This photo was one of the first I took and even though I was still dialling my lighting and camera settings, it quickly became my favourite when reviewing the images. Tets looks relaxed and happy — unlike the guy on the other end of the camera who was desperate to capture something that showed the spirit of a man who has, in some ways, influenced my life so profoundly.
Update: Tetsuya has fittingly won The Diners Club® Lifetime Achievement Award – Asia 2015.
Details: Nikon D600, 85mm f/1.4D Nikkor @ F4 @ 1/60th second @ ISO400.
Natural afternoon light is coming from camera left, softened by a light reflector used as a diffuser. There is a flash on-camera essentially there to trigger a flash in an octabox camera right, that apparently did not fire for this frame…