Chef Tetsuya Wakuda has been described as having the best palate in the world. He can even turn scrambled eggs into a culinary experience.
Watching one of the world's most influential chefs whip up a batch of scrambled eggs is deeply satisfying. It is also a far cry from the first time I'd seen world renowned chef and restaurateur Tetsuya Wakuda in a kitchen. On that occasion I had been dining alone at his flagship Sydney restaurant, Tetsuya's, happily working my way through his 11-course degustation menu when suddenly, I became aware of a presence other than the cute Italian waiter, beside my table. I nearly choked as I realised it was Chef Wakuda, or "Tets", to his friends, in full chef's whites, beaming his happy smile at me. This shy man is a superstar in the culinary world. The awards and international attention that Wakuda has attracted since opening his signature restaurant, first in the suburb of Rozelle on a small corner shop site in 1989 before relocating to the current location in the Sydney's CBD in 2000, are impressive.
But this chef, who in 1982, at the age of 22, left his small town in Japan to travel to Australia, where he started washing dishes, is extremely modest about his achievements, claiming that he "just loves to eat and loves to try new ingredients". International chefs laud him as one of the greatest chefs in the world; Charlie Trotter has praised him with, "His amazing technique, Asian heritage, sincere humility, worldwide travels and insatiable curiosity combine to create incredible, soulful dishes that exude passion in every bite." Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adria have both gone on record describing Wakuda as having "the best palate in the culinary world" and I have lost count over the years of how often I've heard from top chefs and avid food enthusiasts that they regard dining at Tetsuya's as one of their most memorable meals. My curiosity had finally outweighed my fiscal sensibility and that's how I found myself face-to-face with the master himself. Tetsuya turned up at my table around course number seven and I'm not sure what we talked about, only that I was so captivated by his softly spoken manner and humility that when he offered me a tour of the kitchen I followed like a little lamb. Going from the serenity of the dining room - with its huge glass wall looking out to an internal Japanese garden - to the beating heart of Tetsuya's, the kitchen, was awe-inspiring. The only time I have ever experienced a kitchen on such a scale, with as many chefs (22 in total) going about their tasks in such a focused and co-ordinated manner, was in Paul Bocuse's three-Michelin star restaurant in Lyon. Here at Tetsuya's was the same intensity and focus. It is a highly complex process to operate a restaurant to near capacity most nights, delivering 11 courses to 120 guests, while ensuring that the quality is maintained to the highest of standards so the guests - of which over half are internationals who have booked well in advance- have their expectations exceeded, thus preserving the reputation of a "world class dining experience". It is mind-boggling to me, yet Wakuda exudes a calmness and clarity and even manages to maintain a cheeky sense of humour. He spoke of fishing, his ultimate form of winding down, how his obsession for collecting ceramics and artworks for his restaurant continues to excite him and how he didn't mean to be a chef when he started out but "I enjoy eating so much, as you can see," as he pats his round stomach. He freely admits there are easier ways to make a living than the path he's chosen, but what can he do - he loves the world of food and still finds it hugely rewarding. And like all of the masters it's the ingredients that he has such respect and love for and which guide him in developing his dishes. Take his scampi. He uses New Zealand scampi because our waters are "deeper and cleaner and produce a much sweeter product" and he serves it barely marinated so the flavour is left alone in its purest form. His advice to any chef in the business is not to follow others: "Look for ideas and be prepared to be influenced but firstly look at your own produce and let that guide you. Good food is good food and often individual ingredients don't need any help."
I can tell you in great detail every course and wine match up to about number seven; it was after that things became more hazy. It had started with a glass of vintage champagne and freshly baked bread slathered with unsalted butter whipped together with truffle, parmesan and ricotta, and went on to a cucumber soup, slivers of salted granny smith and a sheep's milk ice cream which opened my palate wide open for the next delight - tuna with Japanese peppers and garlic chips and a sake that didn't make me shiver. Wakuda's signature dish of confit ocean trout blew my mind with its texture and pure flavour and every dish was presented with that most beautiful and delicate of Japanese-influenced aesthetic.
But back to how he came to be cooking me scrambled eggs. Some weeks after I'd had that striking meal, Wakuda was in Auckland demonstrating to New Zealanders the advantages of a cooking technology favoured by more than 70 per cent of European households and commercial kitchens, yet still to take hold here in NZ - induction cooking. Here we tend to prefer gas or electric so Wakuda was here, in line with his partnership with Electrolux, to prove the consistency of this style of cookware and to change our minds.
There I sat in the packed auditorium watching the great master sauteeing paua (killing it slowly in a pan first - eek), cooking the perfect steak (always add pepper after it is cooked as pepper has the propensity to burn) and preparing that humblest of dishes, scrambled eggs.
What's fabulous about watching someone so highly skilled making such a simple dish is that you can relate to what they're doing and you stand a chance of gleaning some tips that you may be able to incorporate into your own cooking at home. I left not only a convert of induction but also of scrambled eggs - they were nothing short of sensational and reading the recipe here, you'll be able to see why. The cheese and cream to eggs ratio was just perfect for my palate.
He may be a genius in pursuit of excellence and his degustation menus award-winning but I'll always remember those scrambled eggs - they were just perfection.
Scrambled eggs a la tetsuya
1/2 cup grated parmesan
5 Tbs creamed corn
2 Tbs butter
Salt and white pepper to taste
1 Break the eggs into a bowl and 'cut' the egg whites with a fork, gently scrambling the eggs. Mix in cheese, cream and creamed corn.
2 Melt the butter in pan and season it with salt and pepper.
3 Add the eggs mix and stir gently over a medium heat until the eggs are set. Serve immediately.