First Day: How a chance encounter started celebrity chef Tetsuya Wakuda’s career

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Tetsuya Wakuda might seem like he’s been cooking all his life but the Japanese-born chef says it was actually a chance meeting on his first day in Sydney that got him into the kitchen.

When Tetsuya Wakuda arrived in Sydney from Japan in 1982 he had no plan and no place to stay.

"I got in a taxi and I said, 'The city' and the taxi driver drove me to the corner of Oxford and Bourke Street," he says.

"I was 22 so I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I just wanted to visit Australia. That was a long-time dream."

Keen to find somewhere to stay, Wakuda – who spoke only broken English – wandered into a nearby real estate agent run by father-and-son team George and Bill Lazaris.

"He seemed like he needed some help," Bill recalls. "I took an instant liking to him."

That chance encounter would change the course of Wakuda's life in Australia and eventually lead him to cooking, something he had never done professionally in Japan.

Now 56, Wakuda is the owner of Tetsuya’s, one of the most celebrated restaurants in Australia. Known for its distinct blend of French and Japanese cuisines, the restaurant sits in the heart of Sydney’s central business district. Its signature dish, the the Confit of Petuna Ocean Trout, is said to be one of the most photographed in the world.

Japan

Wakuda always wanted to go overseas and became captivated with Australia after watching nature documentaries at his home in Hamamatsu, in Japan’s Shizuoka Prefecture, as a child. 

"[There was] something about Australia," he says. "Ayers Rock, Great Barrier Reef. I was fascinated."

 Wakuda wasn't particularly close with his parents growing up and often spent holidays staying with relatives in other parts of Japan. 

Still, his parents did their best to deter their son from leaving.

"They said, 'You could go on holiday for a year, that’s okay but otherwise, why? You don’t have no knowledge, no language, no skill and no connections overseas.'"

But in the early 1980s, when Wakuda was studying business administration at university, he decided it was time to go.

With no option of financial support, he dropped out of university and started working part-time to raise enough money for the trip. In 1982, armed with a one-way ticket and $3000, he left Japan.

It would be more than 10 years before he would speak to his parents again.

Bill and George

"I make the best Greek coffee in Sydney," George yells from the tiny kitchen at the back of a small real estate agency in Sydney's Surry Hills. He has owned the business since 1965 and appears at home as he prepares the syrupy brew and emerges with two Styrofoam cups.

At a desk near the kitchen door, Bill Lazaris is on the phone. Bill, who has been working with his father since 1980, does most of running of the business these days because George is 84 and has less energy than he used to. 

Both men were at work on the day Tetsuya Wakuda showed up to their office looking for a place to live.

"It was a bit strange that he didn’t have any plans and he didn’t have anywhere to go," Bill says. "But I was happy to help him because he seemed like a very nice person."

Were you born overseas? We'd love to hear about your first impression of Australia as a new migrant. Contact us on sbsnews@sbs.com.au or via Twitter @SBSNews using the hashtag #FirstDaySBS

Bill drove Wakuda to a few properties in the area before they decided on a one-bedroom flat on Crown Street.

After that, Wakuda visited the family once a week to pay his rent in cash and he soon became a member of the family. On one such visit, Wakuda told them he wanted to improve his English and asked if they could recommend a language school.

"George told me to get in to car and then he took me to friend’s restaurant," Wakuda recalls.

"I turned around and George was gone.

"The chef said, 'See you tomorrow, 9 am sharp'.

"That's how everything in my career started."

Later, when Wakuda asked George why he had organised the job for him, George told him it was the best way to learn English without having to fork out for lessons. He had worked in a kitchen himeslf after migrating from Greece.

Tetsuya’s

A few years after he arrived in Sydney, Wakuda attended a friend’s birthday party at an upmarket restaurant in Sydney's CBD.

The dress code was formal and when Wakuda turned up without a tie on, he was turned away at the door.

In 2000, Wakuda entered the restaurant again, this time as its new owner. It was the second restaurant he had opened – he opened the first in 1987 with a friend – and the second site for an establishment he had named "Tetsuya's".

Sitting inside the restaurant today, he laughs as he recalls a final meeting with the previous owners.

"They said, 'I heard you want to do a major change,' and I said, 'Yeah, what I'm thinking is that if people want to wear a tie, I won't let them in.'"

Tetsuya's offers a ten-course degustation menu combining Japanese flavours and classic French technique. Dishes include, "Soy cured Tuna with sea lettuce and wasabi," and "Duck breast with orange, caramelised witlof and Tasmanian pepper berries". But for all the hype that exists around his cuisine, Wakuda is having none of it.

"People say it’s fusion but whatever people feel is okay. I don’t put a title on it."

Life-long friends

Wakuda doesn't get to visit the Lazaris family business much these days and on this particular occasion he's suprised at how much it's changed.

It's been recently renovated and looks different to the office he entered on his first day in Sydney all those years ago.

George Lazaris comes out of the back room and walks towards Wakuda with a grin. The men embrace and George wipes away a tear as they stand side by side in the reception area.

The family still regard Wakuda as one of their own after more than 30 years. Bill now has two children and recently took them to eat at Tetsuya's for the first time. "They loved it," he says.

Wakuda still visits Japan and speaks with his parents – they made contact after ten years when relatives saw him on a Japanese television program and called to tell them - but says he sees the country "with foreign eyes" now.

"I've lived here much longer than I've lived in Japan now," he says.

Bill Lazaris says he isn't surprised that Wakuda made so much of his life in Australia.

"He would've have been a success at anything he did," he says.

"He didn't come here to be a chef. He didn't come here to own a restaurant. Yet he became a huge success."

But Wakuda believes he owes his career in large part to the family that introduced him to cooking.

"I never thought I’d become a cook, a restaurateur," he says.

"I never thought about it."

This story was produced as part of the SBS series, First Day, airing on SBS World News throughout January.

Source SBS

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