Each day, Thierry Voisin cycles both ways between his Hanzomon apartment and the Imperial Hotel, Tokyo. “I have new eyes here,” he said. “For me, this is like another planet.”
Young and sparkling, Voisin is the chef brought in April from France to take over management of the famed hotel’s main French dining room, Les Saisons. This appointment of a full-time chef from overseas marks an unusual step for the hotel to take. After complete renovation by Parisian designer Francois Le Grix, the highly acclaimed Les Saisons reopened as Voisin arrived to reveal its intensified French presence in Tokyo. When with his recipes he is in his working milieu, Voisin could still be in France.
With his parents and older brother and sister, Voisin lived in a three-generation household in Tours, where his grandmother took care of the family cooking. She did it to such effect that “nobody else was cooking in our family,” Voisin said. At 15 he entered a culinary school. “When you finished that school you said you could cook, but I can tell you, you could do nothing,” he said, his accent and his mannerisms underlining his French origins. Twice he took a summer job, where he “washed mussels and peeled potatoes.” At 17 he went to a chateau in the French Alps, where at first he continued to peel and chop vegetables. He progressed during five years there, until he was promoted to being in charge of meat, fish, and entrees. He moved to Paris, then to Rheims, where “everything was great.”
He established complete rapport with the owner and chef of Les Crayeres, Rheims. He describes Les Crayeres as internationally acclaimed and Michelin-starred, a place where he refined and polished his professional mastery and was completely happy. He and his wife, “who is a good cook, especially of desserts,” built their own family in Rheims. Their two sons are 14 and 10.
For its 110th anniversary, the Imperial held a gastronomic week in which Les Crayeres collaborated. “That was something new for me,” Voisin said. “I wanted to come to Tokyo.” In his appointment to Les Saisons, Voisin said he has “no worry, no stress. I am sure of my work. If you are too sure, it is sometimes not good. But I know the technique, the practice, and I have experience. I am very happy to work here.”
He reports that the Imperial employs 400 chefs, many of whom have worked in France. “If I demonstrate to the team once, they understand everything,” he said.
The Imperial is the hotel chosen for Princess Nori’s wedding ceremony next Nov ember. Now 115 years old, the hotel opened as Japan’s first fully western state guest house. It had the backing of the Imperial Household Agency, the aristocracy, and prominent commercial leaders in the Meiji Era. In 1923 it became the fabled Frank Lloyd Wright building, which opened the day the Great Kanto Earthquake struck and was, memorably, one of the few structures to withstand the severe shocks and succeeding fires. The hotel provided shelter and food for many earthquake victims. Today’s existing main building replaced the old in 1970, with the neighboring 31-story Imperial Tower going up in 1983. Now the hotel is undergoing a major renewal project which will span five years.
In its old guise, Les Saisons was named “Best Hotel Restaurant in the World,” the first of its kind in Japan to receive this honor, from the U.S. hospitality industry magazine Hotels. Voisin is keen to maintain and develop the restaurant’s reputation. He says he has created entirely new menus for Les Saisons, and believes Japanese people will appreciate them without modification. At the same time, he said, “No customer will wan to adapt his taste. I have to. This is true of everything.” In his work he is used to his customers becoming his friends, or even as close as his family.
Knowing his wines, he is favorably impressed by the Japanese-made wines he has tried here. He said, “The most important thing is to take pleasure in your wine, and in your food.” Voisin in his restaurant is also ready to cater to the requirements of vegetarians.
When he has a day off, Voisin says all his time is for his family. Each one is eager to enjoy as much as possible of Japan, and Voisin praises everything he has so far encountered. Sometimes he invites new friends to lunch at home, and he is delighted to cook for them. “And every night when I am cycling home late from the hotel, I see two special new friends waiting for me: two swans on the Palace moat,” he said.