“If you want to be a good chef, you must have a passion for eating,” declares Tetsuya Wakuda – and food is never far from his mind. On his monthly visit to check on his restaurant Waku Ghin at Marina Bay Sands, the Sydney-based Japanese head chef displays a voracious appetite.
Among his favourites are durian, kaya toast, barbecued chicken wings and chicken rice. But his ultimate love is a home-cooked dry laksa by Melina Yong, wife of Dr N.K. Yong, a wine collector of international renown.
It is all for good reason, of course. Eating inspires Wakuda to create the exquisite dishes served at Waku Ghin, recently ranked ninth on the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2015 list. For his lifelong effort, Wakuda was also bestowed The Diners Club Lifetime Achievement Award at Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2015 Awards.
The tireless maestro also feels that wining and dining trains his palate to be sensitive, in order to maintain the sky-high standards his customers expect. If you think it is all just plain epicurean indulgence, think again.
Breakfast at Old Tiong Bahru Bak Kut Teh
Outside of Waku Ghin and Marina Bay Sands, this coffee shop is arguably one of Wakuda’s most visited places in Singapore. “On some trips, I can come here every day,” he confesses.
Judging from the enthusiastic reception he receives from the service staff, he isn’t exaggerating. He places his order by uttering one word: “Everything”. What follows are 16 types of dishes, including steaming bowls of pork rib soup, kang kong fried with garlic and chilli (“real food”, according to him), various types of pig offal and a steamed fish, Teochew-style.
Wakuda chanced upon this eatery about eight years ago, as he was wandering around the neighbourhood. Since then, he has never been able to stop coming back, often bringing good friends, such as fellow celebrity chef Justin Quek, in tow.
Visit Tiong Bahru Market
While he does not purchase any produce for Waku Ghin from the local markets, a monthly visit is imperative to find out what is available in Singapore, so he is kept up to date. He says: “Singapore has two seasons every day, because it is a hub and receives ingredients from the northern and southern hemisphere.”
He pauses at a fruit store, known to import more exotic items, and gestures at the white strawberries and loquat on display to senior sous chef Masahiko Inoue, who is part of his entourage this morning. A few stalls down, a wizened old man is battling a jackfruit, trying to wrench it open. Wakuda is transfixed, inhaling the saccharine scent and sharing a tip that the lighter the colour of the flesh, the sweeter.
At a vegetable store, a tray of yacon catches his attention. He has never realised this genre of root was available in Singapore. The stall owner helpfully passes a flyer to Wakuda, who promptly takes a photograph of the fruit to add to the 14,000 he already has in his iPhone. “I learnt something new today,” he chuckles.
Lunch at Imperial Treasure Fine Chinese Cuisine
Located three doors down from Waku Ghin and on the same floor is this Chinese restaurant which is Wakuda’s “canteen”, where he lunches whenever he is in Singapore. Once he sets foot in the door, there is an immediate outpouring of hospitality from the waitresses, one of whose husband he enquires after.
Familiarity aside, what makes him return is the quality of the food. Among his favourites are the drunken chicken and the Peking duck, of which half he can devour on his own. Despite his Japanese heritage and Australian citizenship, Wakuda expertly orders dim sum, such as chicken feet, pork ribs, prawn dumplings and carrot cake, in fluent Cantonese.
For a meal with eight of his crew, Wakuda has ordered a feast so plentiful that you could hear the table groaning under the weight of frog legs, brinjal and minced pork, three types of noodles, glutinous rice, and more. The generous host and boss chats with everybody and constantly urges them to eat and not be “shy”.
Meeting with Culina
Wakuda also makes time to catch up with Waku Ghin’s various suppliers while he is in town. This afternoon, Culina’s assistant general manager, Aldo Molinaro, swings by to present a pink slab of Himalayan salt, the latest offering by the fine food and wine specialist. Also sitting in is Christopher Christie, the executive chef of Marina Bay Sands, itself which also procures products from Culina.
Thirty diners with a variety of dietary restrictions such as no duck, lobster or pork – this is what the 32-strong team at Waku Ghin can expect for the evening. Wakuda supervises the discussion as the service staff allocation is made. It is only Tuesday but there is never downtime at a celebrity chef restaurant.
Dinner Service Commences
“It’s important to be different all the time to keep guests coming back,” says Wakuda, explaining why the dinner menu changes nightly. However, the one dish that’s never omitted is his signature marinated botan shrimp with sea urchin and oscietra caviar. If not, “there’ll be a revolution”, he says with a laugh. (Note: On average, per night, he uses four boxes of uni (250g/box), 40 shrimps and 350g of caviar to make this dish.)
When he slips out of the kitchen to work the floor, the guests are always delighted to see him. Some ask to take wefies, while others engage him in a discussion on the latest food trends. One guest even has a staff pour a glass of sake for him so that they can kampai together.
Supper at Adrift by David Meyers
With the last of the 30 satisfied customers sent off on their way, Wakuda and his team call it a night and walk over to Adrift by David Meyers – for a long-awaited supper. Wakuda has dined there more times than he can recall, despite the restaurant opening only in February 2015. The sharing plates served at this modern Asian restaurant are perfect for the large group that takes up four tables at the bar.
Pineapple ginger beer fight for space alongside caramel popcorn, buckwheat fried chicken and beef tartare, just to name a few. Tetsuya sits at the head of the table, looking on like a proud patriarch rewarding his children for a job well done.
When he feels the need for something more traditional, Wakuda hotfoots over to Nagomi Restaurant, a traditional izakaya and shochu bar in Cuppage Plaza. “There’s only one problem about coming to Singapore,” he quips. “I always put on so much weight.”
Back in the kitchen, Wakuda personally sees to the finishing touch of every dish, be it shaving truffles, arranging slices of John Dory with charcoal-grilled eggplant, or just checking the Ghin cheesecake. Often overshadowed by savoury dishes, the sweets have, of late, begun to hold their own. Wakuda reveals that, come June 2015, Waku Ghin will be serving its desserts at Rise restaurant in Marina Bay Sands, complemented by a counter that will offer pastries.
Gourmet & Travel is available at leading bookstores including Kinokuniya, Times and MPH. The digital edition for both iPad and Android devices can be downloaded via platforms such as the Apple Newsstand and Magzter. Both print and digital editions are priced at S$12.