The down-to-earth star/ 9 FEBRUARY STREATS
By Amy Van

He has been hailed as one of the best chefs in the world. Yet, Sydney's renowned Tetsuya Wakuda continues to call himself "just a cook". Having garnered a cult status in Australia, Japan and other countries, he has remained unassuming and totally unaffected by success.

"I feel bad when people call me a chef. I don't think of myself as a top chef," said the culinary maestro who was here last week for the Raffles Hotel Wine, Food and Arts Experience to present his culinary viewpoints at a cuisine symposium.

Having been on the gastronomic scene for about two decades, Tetsuya has carved out a straightforward philosophy. Simplicity is the backbone of his cuisine, and ingredients play an essential role. "We don't try too hard with great ingredients. I see how I can bring out firstly the texture of the ingredient, followed by flavour and cook it till perfection to garner 100 to 110% of the taste."

"Yes, cooking is science in some ways, but I don't actually see it that way," he shared. Essentially, he bends over backwards to source for the freshest produce. "It doesn't matter how good a cook you are; if the produce is not great, you don't see the results. Try to uplift the flavour and let the ingredient speaks for itself," he advised.

Take for instance the New Zealand cold water scampi, which he serves in his perpetually booked-out restaurant Tetsuya's. He simply dusts ground tea leaves to enhance the shellfish's natural flavour. "Tea has tannin which gives an interesting taste and lifts the scampi's sweetness." Then he adds shellfish oil, salt and pepper and roasts it over high heat for a couple of minutes, and voila!

Simplicity is yet again injected into his light lobster mousse (without cream). The Japanese mastermind uses high-speed to blend shellfish stock, lobster meat and herbs, then add olive oil and emulsifies it till a mousse is formed. Then he places the bowl in ice for a few minutes to set the mousse, resulting in velvety fresh-tasting richness.

Nowadays with the escalation in deadly food-borne illnesses, Tetsuya is a relentless advocate of natural produce. "We are ever more careful with food safety. We must know where the produce comes from." He uses natural chemical-free ingredients without antibiotics or hormones, such as ocean trout from the pristine cold waters of Tasmania. This apparently has become one of the most popular fishes in Australia.

Having built strong friendships with suppliers and farmers, Tetsuya enjoys peace of mind with the produce he receives. Meanwhile, he continues this strong bond with other chefs and shares suppliers' contacts with his counterparts.

The "people person" also said that he has made friends with many of his customers and offers unparalleled service to diners. "If our restaurant is full, we recommend people to dine at another restaurant or make bookings for them. It's important to have that kind of good guest relations - and that's what makes Sydney's restaurant scene really active and internationally known."

A jovial man who is unperturbed by his taxing hours, how much is his personality reflected in his cuisine? "I love my job and my business, so of course I'm happy. I'm not a formal person. I'm always excited about cooking and ingredients. You cook from the heart and to make someone happy. You don't cook for someone you don't like, but for great friends and family. It's that simple."

(Photos courtesy of STREATS)

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