At Chimikepp Hotel in the middle of Hokkaido, GLOBIS faculty Cristian Vlad sat down with renowned Michelin-star chef Masaki Watanabe. After working in some of the most coveted locations for chefs around the globe – The French Laundry in Napa Valley, The Beau-Rivage Palace in Lausanne, and Benu in San Francisco among them – Watanabe has made the decision not to compete.
CV: After such a stellar career, how did you end up in the middle of nowhere on the shore of Chimikeppu Lake?
MW: This is such a tough question! 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. 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 didn’t hesitate for a second. It was the opportunity to live out an old dream: getting to do so much more than cooking. Here I can raise a team, improve existing operations, create a brand, and be directly involved in hotel operations from beginning until the end. You cannot imagine how much joy there is in getting your hands into everything – everything that impacts your kitchen and, even more importantly, that impacts the ultimate experience customers walk away with.
CV: It’s quite rare 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! No neighbors, no sign of modern civilization!
MW: That’s exactly it. The moment I arrived in Chimikeppu, I felt as if the gods of the mountains stepped out to greet me. It was such a precious feeling of urban detoxification.
CV: For someone so well traveled as you, doesn’t it get boring or lonely?
MW: I thought so when I first arrived, 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’s 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. 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, so that’s what we offer.
CV: How do you manage to compete with so many other hotels, ryokans, restaurants and resorts all over Hokkaido?
MV: Actually, at Chimikepp, we make a conscious effort not to compete. We like to keep our guests away from the crowds and selfie-sticks you get all over Sapporo, Furano, Niseko, Hakodate, Otaru, and all the other places in Hokkaido. It’s actually pretty easy, surrounded by so much nature. The unpaved winding roads to our lake keep all the big buses away, and only the discerning few who really want to be here make the journey.
There is a natural selection of customers, so to speak. We really like it that way. We found out that it’s really great for business.
CV: Great for business how, exactly?
MV: Success in the service industry is all about matching supply and demand. We are doing a beautiful job matching the right supply with the right demand. Our recent Michelin star recognition has certainly been a great reward for all of the hard work our team has been putting forth to create a world-class customer experience.
Still, we need to be mindful about keeping the balance right, or our unique offering will crumble. Our guests fly in from all over the world to be here with us on the quiet shores of the Chimikeppu Lake, and this is how it should stay.