Innovation in the Kitchen... in a Michelin-star Hotel in the Mountains of Hokkaido
Cris Vlad traveled to Chimikeppu Hotel in the middle of Hokkaido to interview a renowned Michelin-star chef who succeeds by choosing "not to compete" (yes, we are as surprised as you.)
CV: Masaki, you have had a stellar career in hospitality, living and working in some of the most coveted locations and with some of the most glittering providers of hospitality... The French Laundry in Napa Valley, The Beau-Rivage Palace in Lausanne and Benu in San Francisco, to name just a few. How come you decided to set up camp on the shore of the Chimikeppu Lake, right in the middle of nowhere in Hokkaido?
MW: This is such a tough question, Cristian!... I don’t even know where to start. Long story short, though, I might call it pure serendipity. I was raised as a chef and have always been fascinated by the world’s various cuisines, developing a keen personal interest in the French way of cooking at an early stage of my career. I have also been interested in hotel and restaurant operations and I wanted to explore various opportunities for innovation in hospitality practices. To me, cooking is an art and, to my mind, the whole customer experience, from the very moment of booking until the return home, needs to be elevated to a whole new artistic dimension in modern hospitality practices.
When the opportunity to join the Chimikepp Hotel in Hokkaido presented itself five years ago, I did not hesitate for a second. I immediately recognized the opportunity to live out an old dream: getting to do so much more than cooking – raising a team, improving existing operations, creating a brand and being directly involved in hotel operations, from the very beginning until the end. You cannot even imagine how much joy there is in getting your hands into everything, absolutely everything that impacts your kitchen and, even more importantly, the ultimate experience that customers walk away with.
CV: THAT I can understand. I too take a very keen interest in hospitality practices and know how rare it is for someone to be directly involved in the total production of customer experience. You must feel like a conductor on a stage. And what a stage you have in front of your hotel! The whole wide open lake, the boardwalk, the mountains, the forest and squirrels. No neighbors, no sign of modern civilization!
MW: That’s exactly it, Cristian. The moment I arrived in Chimikeppu I felt as if the Gods of the Mountains stepped in to greet me. It was such a precious feeling of urban detoxification. I remember it like it was yesterday.
CV: I must confess that driving on an unpaved road for nearly half an hour from the last sight of asphalt in order to get here was quite an adventure. For someone so well-traveled as you, doesn’t it get boring or lonely at times?
MW: (laughter) I thought that I might get a bit lonely when I first arrived, I must confess, but it hasn’t quite happened yet. I do love traveling and I travel as often as I can. I just returned from an international cooking seminar in Shanghai and I plan to visit Europe again next March. I make it a personal practice to close down the business for a week in November and for two weeks in March, which are our low seasons. March and April are the peak cherry blossom season down in Central Honshu, and that is where all the customers go. This is a good time for us at Chimikepp Hotel to take time off to travel, to rest and prepare for the upcoming season. I realize now that when I was working for bigger hoteliers, taking two whole weeks of a vacation was practically impossible.
CV: Time must have a completely different flow here at Chimikepp.
MV: Yes, it does. We only have 7 guest rooms and even at peak season we only cater for up to 15 or 16 people at a time. Our guests come here to disconnect and this is what we offer.
CV: How do you manage to compete with so many other hotels, ryokans, restaurants and resorts all over Hokkaido?
MV: As a matter of fact, at Chimikepp, we make a conscious choice NOT to compete. We like to keep our guests away from the herds of view-obstructing selfie-sticks you get to see all over Sapporo, Furano, Niseko, Hakodate, Otaru, you name it, every single famous location in Hokkaido! Mother Nature has created it for us that way. The unpaved winding roads leading to our lake keep all the big buses away and only the discerning few who really want to be here finally make the journey through the forest. There is a natural selection of customers, so to say. We really like it that way. We found out that this is really great for business.
CV: What do you mean, exactly?
MV: As you well know, Cristian, success in the service industry is all about matching supply and demand. With all due modesty, I believe that we are doing a beautiful job at matching the “right supply” with the “right demand.” We need to be mindful about keeping this balance right; otherwise, our unique customer offering will all be negatively impacted. Our guests fly in from all over the world to be here with us and to spend quality quiet time by the shore of the Chimikeppu Lake – and this is how it should stay. Otherwise, the Gods of the Mountains will be really mad at us. (laughter).
CV: Hold on – from all over the world, you say?
MV: Absolutely! We have guests here coming all the way from Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, Europe, North America and, of course, all over Japan. Many of our guests come here more than once and we make sure that each time they come they have a unique and memorable experience.
CV: What is it, really, that brings people from so many remote locations?
MV: Firstly, many of our guests are great lovers of Japan, people who have been to this country more than once and who always look forward to coming back. We realize that our guests have so many tempting choices to think about, but I believe that the cozy atmosphere of our hotel, the dishes we create with utmost care and by utilizing organic local ingredients, the purity of the air and the unique feeling of being in touch with all natural elements work together to create a memorable experience.
CV: You seem to have achieved a lot in a very short period of time. Has the recent Michelin recognition impacted your business in any way?
MV: It certainly has been a great reward for all of the hard work our team has been putting forth in order to create a world-level customer experience. Moving forward, I am convinced that the team will work even harder to create special memories for our customers – food lovers, nature lovers and, last but not least, lovers of Japan.
CV: Good luck with all your future endeavors! It seems that there is still so much more fun to be had.
Chef, Chimikepp Hotel
Native to Shizuoka, Masaki Watanabe studied the art of cooking at the Musashino Cooking College in Tokyo and apprenticed in Annecy, France. A world acclaimed chef, Masaki worked for internationally famous hoteliers in Switzerland, France and the US. He now cooks French-inspired cuisine at Chimikepp Hotel and supervises the management a wide range of operations: procurement, transportation logistics, marketing, communications and talent operations. Under his leadership, the Chimikepp Hotel was awarded a Michelin star in 2017.
GLOBIS Partner Faculty; IBM Global Business Services, Talent & Engagement Associate Partner; President & CEO, JCE Japan Creative Enterprise
A seasoned veteran of business transformation, organizational development and innovation initiatives, both in terms of product and organizational innovation, Cristian Vlad is the President and CEO of JCE Japan Creative Enterprise, a young and dynamic agency which helps corporate teams transform their business and manage their talent. Cristian has been advising global clients on the role of diversity, human capital, creativity and corporate communications as strategic business drivers to foster innovation and stimulate business growth. He has been recognized by both multinational corporations and emerging enterprises as a thought leader in the areas of business strategy, relationship management, organizational development and architecture, leadership, social media, collaborative environments, people operations, transformation and business model innovation. In parallel, Cristian is an IBM Global Business Services consultant, advising corporate clients on Talent and Organizational Transformation projects. Prior to his current role, Cristian was project manager at Toyota Motor Corporation, where he led a team of advanced product development professionals within the Corporate Value Creation Department. He also consulted on numerous organizational changes, corporate rebranding and transformation projects globally, in a wide rage of industries. Cristian holds an MA in International Relations from Hirosaki University and a dual BA in Communications and Foreign Language Education from the University of Bucharest. Cristian currently resides in Fukuoka, Hong Kong and San Francisco.