Deep in Tasmania’s apple country, in the town of Franklin, 47 kilometres south-west of Hobart, locals of all ages (and a handful of boating enthusiasts from around Australia) are gathered to see the launch of a boat on the Huon River. Not just any boat, but a vessel handcrafted from rare Huon and celery-top pines – not cut, but harvested from the forest floor. The boat, commissioned by world-class chef Tetsuya Wakuda, is one of a kind.
Tetsuya is as passionate about boating and fishing as he is about food. As a young boy growing up near Lake Hamana, south-west of Tokyo, he spent countless hours at his uncle’s charter fishing business and sitting in a small boat, by himself, fishing for goby. "As a child, I hated school but I loved fishing," he recalls. "For me, being on the water, just floating and fishing, is the greatest relaxation."
The renowned chef’s love of boats was reignited more than two decades later, when a friend invited him to enjoy an afternoon of sailing on Sydney Harbour.
"There we were in the middle of the harbour, the Opera House on one side and the Harbour Bridge stretched out in front of us. I had a sandwich in one hand and a can of beer in the other. At the time, I remember thinking, 'This is luxury'."
With two restaurants – Tetsuya’s in Sydney and Waku Ghin in Singapore – Tetsuya is constantly on the move. "I spend a lot of time in the air," he says. Every month, he is in Singapore for about a week, plus there are other overseas trips for cooking engagements, usually charity dinners with fellow celebrity chefs. He also does four or five annual trips to Tasmania.
So, how did the Japanese-born chef wind up in sleepy Franklin? In the early 1990s, Tetsuya began visiting Tasmania in search of local produce for his Sydney restaurant. He met Peter and Una Rockcliff, who had just started farming premium salmon. "What’s wrong with ocean trout?" Tetsuya asked. The Rockcliffs had no answer, and so began a friendship, the makings of Tetsuya’s signature dish – confit of ocean trout – and a supply arrangement with the Rockcliffs’ seafood business, Petuna, that spans 21 years.
Since then, Tetsuya has beaten a path across Tasmania, hunting down unique and top-quality ingredients. As a result he has established strong relationships with local producers. There are the wasabi growers at Shima, in Perth, in northern Tasmania; the grass-fed beef farmers at Cape Grim in the north-west; the family of leatherwood honey producers at Mole Creek; and the abalone and sea urchin harvesters who dive on the edge of the Southern Ocean. These are the independent farmers and fishermen who supply Tetsuya with produce for use in his Sydney and Singapore restaurants.
It was on an excursion to inspect produce that Tetsuya spied the unassuming The Wooden Boat Centre in Franklin. He went in to have a stickybeak. "When I saw what they were making by hand, the beautiful timbers and shapes, the craftsmanship, I said, 'I’d like one, please.’ They told me there was a two-year waiting list."
Tetsuya put his name on the list. Two years later, he is launching Belle, a 38-foot motor sailer (put simply, a boat with sails and an engine) into the icy waters of the Huon River. "The boat gives me even more of an excuse to be here," he says, adding that many of the locals have embraced him as their own.
"I feel very comfortable here. Tasmanians are very friendly and so down-to-earth. They have a real sense of community and I appreciate their no-nonsense attitude."
It’s no surprise that Tetsuya sees parallels between his native Japan and Tasmania. "Like Japan, Tasmania is rich in many things: natural resources, craftsmanship and tradition," he says. 'People here understand the importance of heritage and appreciate that quality in all pursuits takes time. It’s a special place. I consider it my second home. Every time I come here, I enjoy it more."
Tetsuya has established long-term friendships with many locals and happily immerses himself in the community. Following the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan in March this year, he joined forces with local chefs Andre Kropp (Henry’s Restaurant), Luke Burgess (Garagistes), Oliver Mellers (Rhubarb Catering), Hugh Whitehouse (Saffire), Alistair Wise (Sweet Envy) and Rodney Dunn (The Agrarian Kitchen) to host a fundraising dinner that raised $150,000.
Luke and Rodney, who both worked as apprentices for Tetsuya in Sydney, have established successful businesses in and around Hobart.
"Tets has a great appreciation for quality. He is uncompromising," says Luke. "He constantly strives for the best, from his staff, from his ingredients and from his suppliers. He loves to find undiscovered ingredients, which is why he is so attracted to Tasmanian produce."
Tetsuya nominates Luke’s Garagistes, which is co-owned by Kirk Richardson and Katrina Birchmeier, as one of his favourite restaurants. "It’s a truly local food experience with great attention to detail and delivery. Even the plates are made locally," Tetsuya says. Ceramicist Ben Richardson, Kirk’s father, is responsible for the hand-turned platters, plates and bowls. Made with local clays, shale and sandstone, each piece is a work of art.
Tetsuya has a strong appreciation for ceramics. At his Sydney and Singapore restaurants, the food is served on handmade ceramics by Mitsuo Shoji, an acclaimed Sydney-based artist.
In April, Tetsuya was invited to be among the three judges of the inaugural national Vitrify Alcorso Ceramic Award held at Colville Gallery in Hobart. Ben Richardson, one of the four finalists, won the award. It was the Tasmanian ceramicist’s use of local materials and his commitment to innovative specialised techniques that impressed Tetsuya. The granite that Ben grinds for his glazes comes from the Freycinet Peninsula, the wood he uses to fire the kiln is local black wattle, and he digs up the clay himself.
The galleries and shops that support local artists are among Tetsuya’s favourites, including the Henry Jones Design Gallery, in Hobart, which showcases contemporary jewellery, glass, sculpture and furniture. "I like to buy things that reflect the place and the people who made them," Tetsuya says.
Across the cove is the Salamanca precinct, where the indigenous Mouheneener people hunted kangaroo and dug for mud oysters before European settlement. Later, the area became a base for shipping and trading companies, including whaling fleets. Today, it is home to Hobart’s famous Salamanca Market, held every Saturday and boasting 300 stallholders. Honey producers set up beside cheesemakers and apple growers; strawberry farmers add dollops of cream to their berries; and bakers have warm bread and hot pies in the oven.
"My ideal weekend is arriving in Hobart on a Friday night, staying at the Henry Jones Art Hotel and having a late dinner there at Henry’s Restaurant," Tetsuya says. "The next morning, I love walking through the marina to the markets."
Tetsuya buys vegetables from the stalls of the Hmong market gardeners, third-generation vegetable farmers whose descendents, originally from Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, settled in Tasmania after the Vietnam War. 'The produce is incredible. Anything you want you can find, and it’s all of exceptional quality," he enthuses.
"Tasmanians look after the soil and they respect the earth, which is reflected in the taste and appearance of the food, like the small heritage apples from Huon, which have such wonderful flavour."
On the way to his boat, Tetsuya stocks up on deli goods and local beer and wine at his friend Peter Trioli’s Wursthaus Kitchen near the marketplace. "On the boat I don’t fuss about food," Tetsuya says. "It’s supposed to be a relaxing time, so I keep it very simple, just cheese and bread, or I’ll make a risotto [with local crayfish or spanner crabs].
"I look forward to summer; the water sparkles," he says dreamily. "Maybe I’ll come for even longer," he muses. "This trip [to launch the boat] has been my longest." How long has he been here? "Four days."
The hit list
Purchase fresh or smoked fish, such as ocean trout and Atlantic salmon.
134 Tarleton St, East Devonport, (03) 6427 9033, petuna.com.
R. Stephens Apiary
Honey sales at the factory door.
Mon–Fri 9am–4pm, 25 Pioneer Dr, Mole Creek, (03) 6363 1170, leatherwoodhoney.com.au.
Fresh produce grown by stallholders such as the Hmong market gardeners.
Sat 8.30am–3pm, Salamanca Place, hobartcity.com.au.
Order fresh wasabi direct from the growers. (03) 6398 1633, shimawasabi.com.au.
The Tasmanian Honey Company
Purchase organic leatherwood honey products.
Mon–Fri 9am–4.30pm, 25A Main Rd, Perth, (03) 6398 2666, tasmanianhoney.com.
Visit this one-stop shop for European-style
deli goods and premium wines. You can also pick up Cape Grim beef products here.
1 Montpelier Retreat, Battery Point, (03) 6224 0644, wursthauskitchen.com.au.
Eat & drink
A wine bar with a substantial menu starring locally grown and foraged produce, with a focus on communal dining.
103 Murray St, Hobart, (03) 6231 0558, garagistes.com.au.
Located on Hobart’s waterfront, enjoy the hotel restaurant’s fresh take on classic dishes. Henry Jones Art Hotel, 25 Hunter St, Hobart, (03) 6210 7700, thehenryjones.com.
Get your fill of cakes, puddings, sweets, pastries and breads.
341 Elizabeth St, North Hobart, (03) 6234 8805, sweetenvy.com.
See & do
The Agrarian Kitchen
Reconnect your food experience with the land by attending a class at Tasmania’s first farm-based cooking school. Classes on starting your own vegie patch are also available.
650 Lachlan Rd, Lachlan, (03) 6261 1099, theagrariankitchen.com.
Henry Jones Design Gallery
Fine pieces of Tasmanian art for sale in a historical waterfront building.
25 Hunter St, Hobart, (03) 6210 7700, thehenryjones.com.
Ben Richardson’s workshop and showroom of ceramic works for sale (phone before you visit).
1466 South Arm Rd, Sandford, (03) 6248 9023, benrichardson.com.au.
The Wooden Boat Centre
See boatbuilding in action where Tetsuya’s Belle was constructed.
Main Rd, Franklin, (03) 6266 3586, woodenboatcentre.com.
Photography Alan Benson