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Tetsuya Wakuda on Tony Bilson: 'He is a part of every dish I create' | Food

My first impression of Tony Bilson, one that remained with me throughout our friendship, was of a man with vibrant, happy energy. Our meeting was by chance. I was walking past his restaurant and saw my ex-general manager. I was working as a kitchen hand at Fishwives in Surry Hills at the time and my ex-manager was waving at me from inside a restaurant called Kinselas. I went in to say hello and she introduced me to Tony.

I could speak a little English by that time, so we got to talking about what I was doing and where I was working. Tony said to me, “Why don’t you come and work for me?” I had no idea who he was at that time. I told my current job what had happened and they kindly let me go. They agreed it was a great opportunity and I should take him up on his offer. So I did, and it was the best decision I ever made.

I remember my first day. I was nervous. But Tony was engaging and happy – his whole team, and the entire restaurant, felt like an extension of him. I had helped the chefs at my old job clean the fish. I would do small jobs for them, but I had no idea how to be a chef, nor had I ever wanted to be a chef. But Tony inspired something in me. From that first meeting, he believed in me. It was quite amazing.

I got to learn many different sections in the kitchen, especially the meat and fish sections, which I loved. Tony was always very, very kind to me – I don’t know why, but always so nice. Working at Kinselas is where my interest in food began. Funnily enough, I never saw myself having a career as a chef until I left Kinselas and opened my first restaurant in Ultimo, but Tony is the one who piqued my interest. It was where I developed a love of food.

After about a year of working with him, Tony’s business partner Leon Fink’s daughter was getting married, and as I was Japanese, they asked me to make sushi for the wedding. I had never made sushi in my life before but it was the 80s and I was Japanese, which seemed to give them confidence.

I just made it my own way, not the traditional way, and catered the whole wedding. I must have done a good job because he asked me to start making it at Kinselas. I had the best time there. I loved Tony’s food and ate it a lot. I often worked the pre-theatre menu section at Kinselas so would miss the staff meals. Tony noticed and would always ask me what I wanted when I came to work and would make me something special to eat. He would make me whatever I wanted. He was a very generous man, a kind man.

During service, I got to taste his food, too, while cooking; he was always trying to teach me about taste and flavour, expanding my palate the whole time. His food was so delicious, as was his craftsmanship, the way he cooked, his style. His French food was nothing like any other French food I had tasted. It was unique, and he taught me the perfect French food to cook. I fell in love with his cooking style and took it with me into my dishes. My food is a mixture of Japanese (my culture) and the European touches I fell in love with under the tutelage of Tony. He is a part of every dish I create.

The restaurant was crazy popular at that time in the early 80s – everyone used to come there, it was the place to be seen and it was always happening. Under Tony’s leadership, we were all so committed. You knew you were working in a special place and it was a magical moment in time. He was one of the greatest chefs in Australia and was my favourite boss – the greatest mentor of my career.

Over the years, we remained great friends, and I have only the fondest memories of him. Tony was one of the most talented chefs I have ever known or worked with. He has been a huge part of my own journey and has celebrated my achievements with such happiness. He used to call me his “favourite old chap”. He never called me Tetsuya. Every time he saw me he would say, “How are you, my favourite old chap?”

Of this great man, what can I say – his impact on my life was everything. I can say with absolute confidence that I wouldn’t have a restaurant or be who I am today without Tony Bilson. He was a very special, amazing person and always had a passion and vision for the restaurant industry, and the whole restaurant industry will miss him.

Life can be hectic for everyone, and I travel a lot for my work. Luckily I got to say goodbye to Tony, for which I am very thankful. I had just arrived back in Singapore from a one-day trip to Sydney when I got a text from Tony’s wife, Amanda, telling me that Tony was weakening and could I come and see him. I turned around and got on the next flight back to Australia.

When I walked into his room, he opened his eyes for just a minute, we looked straight at each other for a moment in time, and everything was said. That was us saying goodbye. I will miss that wonderful man; he shaped Australian gastronomy and impacted so many people’s lives positively. I know there will be many stories like mine. I will miss my most respected mentor and always remain in his debt and grateful for the day I walked into his restaurant.

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