The Melbourne outpost of the W Hotels chain has become one of the most talked-about places to stay in the city since it opened at the beginning of 2021. And with in-house venues such as Lollo and subterranean cocktail den Curious, it has established itself as a notable drinking and dining destination, too.
Warabi, the hotel’s Japanese fine diner, launched nearly year after the hotel first opened its doors. The omakase-style restaurant takes guests through a nine-course procession of “chef’s choice” dishes, and has quickly established itself alongside Japanese heavyweights such as Minamishima and Ishizuka.
Omakase restaurants attract fervent fans, many of whom support specific chefs rather than the restaurant itself. It’s always a big moment when a new chef takes over.
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We caught up with Warabi’s new head chef, Hajime Horiguchi, who stepped into the position last month. Here’s how he plans on making his mark.
Tell us about your career so far. Where have you worked and in what kinds of roles?
I began my apprenticeship in 2002 in Kyoto and returned in 2004 to the same restaurant as sous-chef. Between 2006 and 2014, I spent some amazing years as sous-chef and then executive chef at Wasabi in Noosa, where my love of celebrating local produce was formed. Following this, I held head chef and sous-chef roles across the Asia Pacific, including at Minamishima and Maguro. I was also able to lean into my entrepreneurial side and opened Tanto, in Hervey Bay.
How would you describe your cooking?
I make sure to use local produce and develop dishes with modern presentation that together heighten the intensity of classic Japanese flavours.
For those who have been to Warabi before, what can they expect to have changed about the food and experience now that you’re there?
My aim is to have a more elevated and fun approach to Japanese dining, so expect new interpretations and presentation of food, alongside excellent sake wine and non-alcoholic pairings.
What inspires you in the kitchen?
My dad is my greatest mentor. He owns a French restaurant in Kyoto, so I grew up in kitchens, ever since I was a little kid. I’m also inspired by my wife. She’s a designer, and sometimes I take her design philosophy to my approach to cooking. Generally, working in the kitchen is my playground. Being amongst the action inspires me every day – it is the best way to show who I am.
What’s on the menu? What are you most proud of?
Unagi is my long-time signature dish – I am very proud to showcase this to Melbourne. I’m also proud of the spanner crab dish from the current menu. The menu was also developed with my team – it’s great to have their contributions and insights.
What can people expect from a night at Warabi?
Guests can expect to have a fun time, with food, music, beverages and the atmosphere of Warabi all contributing to the experience. We want you to come, relax, and enjoy something memorable.
What are your aspirations for Warabi?
There are six chefs working every service. It’s all hands on deck to get the prep ready and to execute the service. Our goal is to be the best version of us that we can be, and constantly push to elevate and evolve.