A chat with Bras and Bourassin at Lake Toya Japan

Fine Dining Explorer - 11/12/2014

For those who crave for Gargouillou or Chocolate Coulant during the five-month winter closure of Bras in Laguiole, there is always the option of visiting their other 3-star establishment in Hokkaido, the northern island of Japan.

Throughout the 90s, there were many tempting opportunities for Michel Bras to branch out his restaurant beyond his beloved Aubrac from New York to Singapore, but none of these major hubs had the elements suitable for his cuisine. It was Lake Toya, a place completely foreign to the chef, that attracted him immediately after a short winter visit 10 years ago.

The restaurant is located in one of the most scenic spots in Japan, reachable by a two-hour train ride followed by a half-hour bus journey from Hokkaido’s capital, Sapporo. Strategically set at the summit, this white structure offers a breathtaking view of the region with Lake Toya on one side and Uchiura Bay on the other. Stunned by the natural landscape of the surrounding, along with the abundance of excellent regional produces, Michel and Sébastien Bras were convinced this would be a perfect site to establish the first Family Bras cuisine outside Laguiole.

Since the restaurant's opening, Michel and Sébastien have often spent weeks here during their five-month winter break to tirelessly explore the region and work closely with local farmers. Claiming the highest honour in the first edition of the Michelin Guide of the region, Bras Toya is confirmed to be a world-class dining experience in the same league as Bras Laguiole.

I couldn't have come at a better time as Michel was in the kitchen with Cédric Bourassin, who heads up the team of 30 kitchen and service staff at Bras Toya. Since I was fascinated by this place and had many questions on my mind, I decided to grab them for a quick chat after my eagerly anticipated meal.

(Translated from French)

Firstly, why did you decide to open a restaurant outside France, and how did you pick this particular location for your restaurant?

Michel Bras: My first visit to Japan was 25 years ago and I already sensed what this country had to offer. The first book that I wrote 20 years ago was immediately translated into Japanese due to popular demand in the market, so I have always had special feelings about Japan.

Over the years, I received many proposals to open up restaurants in major cities outside France. As you know, Family Bras is never after the money. We try to give a sense to our life and we prefer the countryside over major cities, which is why we had rejected all previous proposals.

It was in October 2001 that I received a proposal from this hotel inviting us for a visit. As usual, we initially rejected the offer, thinking it was another city establishment, but they were really keen to show us the unique location that this hotel occupied. After numerous calls, Sébastien and I finally came in December. It was an extremely long journey with various connecting flights for us to get from Laguiole to Sapporo. Then from Sapporo, it was still two hours of driving in the snow to get here. This was one of the longest journeys in my life!

We arrived at night time. It was completely dark when driving up the mountain on that winding road covered by a layer of snow – stressful and tiring. The hotel was not open yet, with interior works all over the place. That night, there were just two guards and us in the whole hotel with 386 empty rooms! We were so scared and could not sleep the whole night despite being exhausted from the journey. We kept thinking “what a mistake to come all the way here”; it was a crazy idea.

The morning finally came and the sun rose. The first thing they did was to bring us was here, on the top floor of the hotel with floor-to-ceiling windows on both sides. The view was impressive – white everywhere as the mountain was completely covered with snow, with the lake on one side and the ocean on the other; it was like a paradise. Despite it being dusty everywhere, they said to us, "You have all this space to yourself. Do whatever you want with it. You can hire your own firm to do the design." We were so pleased and accepted the offer within a few weeks.

What were the challenges you faced when establishing this restaurant?

Michel: Yes, there was cultural difference. I don't speak Japanese; I didn't know their culture; I didn't know how things worked in this country. At that time, there were no foreign restaurants here. We didn't want to do Japanese cuisine here; we wanted to do pure Family Bras cuisine. The true Family Bras cuisine needed to use local ingredients. Despite the abundance of high quality produce in the region, this was the main difficulty we were facing.

At that time, the system of purchasing ingredients here was bizarre. We went to the local market to buy ingredients but quickly realized that the high-quality ingredients were all shipped to Tokyo so we had to buy back local ingredients from Tokyo. This totally contradicted our philosophy and initiated us to source our own ingredients from local farmers directly. We looked for local producers for butter, crab, lamb, vegetables, etc. We now have two gardeners who work just for us. It wasn’t easy, but we are now really cooking the true Family Bras cuisine.

Cédric, knowing that you started your career in France, what made you wanting to go abroad?

Cédric Bourassin: It is always a big adventure to leave one’s family and to live in different countries. For me, not only did I want to work in a different country, I also wanted to experience a completely different culture and Asia was a location that had always fascinated me.

I've known Michel for a long time. I started working at his restaurant in France before I went to Malaysia as a chef for the French ambassador. I was there for three years and that’s where I met my wife, Alice. Then I returned to France and worked in Bordeaux for two years. I stayed in touch with Michel and knowing that he needed someone in Japan, I took the opportunity without hesitation. And here I am, back in Asia again!

Was it difficult for you initially with the huge culture difference?

Cédric: I didn’t experience much difficulty in Japan at all. Of course there is a language barrier when we travel around Japan by ourselves but in terms of the kitchen, I am lucky to have many local chefs who speak French with prior experience in a French kitchen. So the system of running the kitchen is the same as in France. We adapt a bit, of course, but since I am here to cook Family Bras cuisine, like in Laguiole, we adapt to local ingredients and make the best use of what we receive daily. Meanwhile, I try to learn some Japanese… slowly, very slowly.

How do you compare Bras in Laguiole to Toya?

Michel: The main difference is really just the ingredients. We use local vegetables, local seafood, and local meat. A few years back, we started a big project where Cédric looked for local producers in order to maximise the use of local ingredients. At the beginning, this was very difficult and most of the time was spent on researching and making contacts. But now, some local producers come to us. It is getting much easier. We even have gardeners who plant whatever we want them to plant, just for us, and we get supply from them on a daily basis. So I would say that the cuisine is the same, but this is a version of the Family Bras cuisine based on local Japanese ingredients. And my philosophy is always the same – “Simple ingredients are often the most powerful”.

While we continued to enjoy our tea, the snowfall finally stopped, and slowly in front of our eyes there appeared a marvellous view of the mountain and lake covered by a layer of snow. Michel said in an exciting tone "Look at this! Isn't this magical? This is exactly what I witnessed when I arrived here ten years ago!"