Wada way to savour Osaka

Takeshi Wada’s culinary journey was ignited in 2015 after watching the movie Chef, which tells the story of a chef who started a food truck business after losing his restaurant job.

“I was 30 years old then, and the heartwarming storyline about the chef’s life and passion for cooking captured my imagination,” Wada recalls.

His restaurant Teppan Maru-Take was born out of his desire to share Osaka’s rich food culture with Malaysians. The pork-free teppanyaki haven located inside Seibu department store’s food hall at The Exchange TRX, Kuala Lumpur, is a culmination of his 15 years of culinary passion and experience.

Born in Kagoshima, Japan, Wada graduated with a degree in liberal arts at a college in California, the United States. Upon returning to Japan, he worked at some of Tokyo’s trendiest dining and entertainment hubs including Ristorazione Le Luce, Ristorazione LE G.A and Sabakuno Bara.

Chef Wada at work at Teppan Maru Take. — Photos: CHING YEE SINGChef Wada at work at Teppan Maru Take. — Photos: CHING YEE SING

“I was in the entertainment and club scene for 15 years, employed in different roles ranging from security and bar tending to customer relations and club management. My last position was general manager of Feria, an international lounge, restaurant and dance club in Roppongi. After a point, I couldn’t take all those nocturnal hours anymore and decided to quit,” he says.

He then focused on cooking and trained for six months at the highly sought-after yakiniku (Japanese barbecue) restaurant, Oyajinoyakiniku Aibou (Father’s Yakiniku Buddy) in Roppongi.

“I wanted to be in the thick of the action as a chef. Despite having to learn everything from scratch like how to cut meat and making use of innards, my determination and perseverance helped me through the tough learning process,” he adds.

Malaysian shift

A new opportunity arose when a Japanese company with diversified business interests approached Wada to start a teppanyaki restaurant in Malaysia. He elaborates: “After accepting the offer, I had to learn the art of teppan cooking for several months as the techniques were quite different from that of yakiniku. Teppan refers to the flat iron griddle and yaki means to grill, broil or pan-fry. Teppanyaki only became popular in Japan after World War II.”

It was challenging for Wada to train under a younger but more experienced teppan chef.

“We didn’t always see eye-to-eye at work, but we managed to iron out our differences. Once I mastered the art of teppan cooking, it made me happy to see my customers smile when they tasted my dishes,” he says.

The chef came to Malaysia in 2018 to oversee the opening of a famous Osaka-based teppanyaki restaurant and subsequently its daily operations.

There’s a long window in the far wall of the restaurant where diners can watch the chefs at work.There’s a long window in the far wall of the restaurant where diners can watch the chefs at work.

“Business was good as the restaurant was located inside an established shopping mall within Kuala Lumpur’s Golden Triangle. Unfortunately, the restaurant had to close during the Covid-19 pandemic and I was left without any salary, so I had to resign.”

When Malaysia entered the post-pandemic recovery phase, Wada started afresh by opening Okonomi by Tokyo Don restaurant at Pavilion Kuala Lumpur in November 2020.

His reputation as a teppan specialist drew customers who recognised him from his previous restaurant.

“Okonomi means ‘what you like’ or ‘as you like’ in Japanese, and our house speciality is Osaka-style okonomiyaki,” he says.

It’s a teppan-cooked pancake made from a thick batter of wheat flour with grated yamato imo or Japanese yam, cabbage and meat. The restaurant offers a multi-sensorial dining experience with its spartan Tokyo-style setting, allowing customers to watch teppan chefs in action, listen to the kitchen’s lively buzz and smell the appetising aroma of the freshly prepared food.

New venture

Following the success of Okonomi, Wada and his business partner opened Teppan Maru-Take last December.

Wada, 53, admits he likes living in Malaysia as he loves the year-long tropical weather. Due to his inherent dislike for the cold, he is more than happy to escape Japan’s winter. He also appreciates the many business opportunities available here.

“In Japan, it’s prohibitively expensive to start a restaurant business as rental, salary and the prices of ingredients are sky-high, but I find those costs still viable and manageable here. Starting out is the hardest part for any chef and restaurateur.

“Cooking is the only obvious aspect to outsiders, whereas insiders like us chefs and business owners know that hard work and time are necessary to manage a restaurant.

“Food preparation takes a lot of time and effort, and there are endless tasks to take care of each day. Even the simplest recipes need to be tweaked if we want to obtain the desired outcome,” he explains.

Salmon KatsuSalmon Katsu

Despite all these challenges and obstacles, he’s happy to juggle the dual role of chef and restaurateur.

“I’m a sociable person and as a chef, it gives me great satisfaction to see a fully packed restaurant.”

According to Wada, his biggest challenge is the tireless task of creating new menus.

“It’s a continuous process of learning and evaluating what customers want to eat, and what can actually be implemented in the restaurant.

“Sometimes we’re also challenged by unexpected requests from customers, requiring us to do some quick thinking.

“Once, I had a customer who brought in goya (Okinawan bitter gourd) and asked me to cook yakisoba noodles with it. It was unusual as the customary way for the Japanese to eat goya is to fry it with eggs. But I did what he asked and he was satisfied with the result,” says Wada.

Future plans

Not one to rest on his laurels, the chef reveals plans are in the pipeline to collaborate with Hinoya Curry, Japan’s famous curry restaurant chain.

“It will be an honour to create new dishes using Hinoya’s signature sweet and spicy curry recipe passed down several generations.

“Hinoya won first place in the 2013 Kanda Curry Grand Prix, Japan’s curry competition, beating 300 other curry restaurants. Today, there are over 100 Hinoya Curry outlets throughout Japan.”

Wada will be returning to Japan this summer to undergo training at Hinoya to familiarise himself with the restaurant’s trademark curry-making process.

“When I’m back in Tokyo, I hope to visit my parents and old friends, in addition to shopping for some kitchen equipment.”

When asked what is his favourite dish to cook, Wada says it’s beef and udon.

“I like these because both beef and udon taste great with minimal cooking. When it comes to the menu items for Teppan Maru-Take, I strive to replicate the same taste as what you’ll find in Japan.

“However, based on my observation and analysis, I realise the saltiness level needs to be adjusted as Japanese people prefer a saltier note compared to the Malaysian palate.”

To unwind, the workaholic chef goes for regular workouts at the gym in his condominium.

“I also enjoy eating out. As a big fan of Malaysian food, my favourite dishes are nasi lemak and roti canai among others. I have tried durian but it’s not to my taste!”

Moving forward, Wada has plans to give back to the local community by doing some charity work such as visiting an orphanage and cooking his delicious food for underprivileged children.

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