With four restaurants and bars in green season, a host of buffets and other food events, the Hilton Niseko Village is a premier location for high-quality food in Niseko.
I was lucky enough to sit down with three chefs who work at the Hilton, Yoshio Kikuchi (Sous Chef at Melt, Bar & Grill), Manabu Ogawa (Sous Chef at Japanese Dining “REN”), and Tsutomu Oyane (Chef de Partie) to discuss how they ended up in Niseko, how they feel about the area, and how it’s affected their cooking.
Q: How did you end up in Niseko? Was it your own decision to come here?
Yoshio Kikuchi: I initially started working in Tokyo, but I’ve been in Niseko for quite a while – about 15 or 16 years. At the start I didn’t know what the area had to offer, because where I was born is very different from Niseko’s countryside. Of course, I met with no real problems and really loved the area, so I decided to stay.
Manabu Ogawa: I worked in Sapporo for a time as a French chef, but my mentor told me, “Why don’t you come to Niseko? There are all sorts of great opportunities for a chef here.” I checked out the area and decided to come, quickly realizing “Wow, this is a great place, I could live here with my family.”
Q: Having worked in other areas, what sort of unique opportunities does Niseko offer? How is the atmosphere around food and the gourmet industry different?
YK: The biggest difference quite simply is – vegetables. The most famous aspect of the area is how quickly and easy we can get our hands on fresh produce. Further, we have the unique chances to talk with farmers directly, so we can receive fresh vegetables from a short distance away in the morning and then offer them to our guests the same day.
MO: In particular, here at the Hilton we currently rent fields just down the street (near Milk Kobo), so we can hop in a car and check out the vegetable fields, think about how we want to use them, and then come back and cook it. Our guests up here will eat just about any sort of vegetables, and pastries are much more common.
TO: I agree as it’s the same for the fruits I use in my pastries. We can get hold of fruits and use them in cakes and baked foods the same day, which is something you don’t hear about too much in Tokyo or even Sapporo. This and also people’s desire to try these sorts of foods is unique to Niseko as a resort area.
Q: Although it’s clear that summer is the best time to enjoy fresh produce, Niseko is much more popular in the wintertime. How do you maintain food quality throughout the winter?
YK: Niseko has this mountain image, but the ocean is very close, and many fish are even more delicious when winter comes. In addition to great fish, Niseko and Hokkaido are known for great potatoes, too, which keep well through the winter.
MO: Exactly. In terms of potatoes and root vegetables, we have to wait a while to use them, but there are plenty throughout the winter, even though there aren’t too many green vegetables. Niseko has three main appeals – skiing as the main, onsen (hot springs), and terrific food, particularly our winter seafood –we try to focus on all three at the Hilton.
Additionally, as the Teppanyaki (Japanese grill) chef, we only use the highest-end beef, pork, seafood and other ingredients. To complement the food, we wanted to encourage a local style, mixed with modern décor and fusion ingredients.
TO: In terms of pastries, we receive many of our fresh fruits from the neighboring town of Niki where apples and cherries are quite famous. In the winter we switch our focus to Hokkaido’s great cheese and milk, emphasizing the best available ingredients.
Q: How has living in Niseko and the international atmosphere here affected your cooking?
YK: I try to keep simple dishes and side dishes in mind. I try not to change the ingredients too much, but rather let the ingredients and their flavors shine through, such as their sweetness and natural texture. I also try to think about how those flavors tie together.
MO: In Niseko I’ve studied new things like farming and different ingredients, one of which was asparagus. In Hokkaido green asparagus is well known, and people see it in the supermarket all the time, but white asparagus is something new to most people. They don’t know how to cook it or the simple way of eating it. Even now, when people are given a choice they’ll go for the green asparagus I think, but with white asparagus’s tastiness and charm it is a shame that people don’t realize how delicious it is, even though it’s fairly easy to find!
Q: Finally, last question – When you go out to eat, what type of food do you eat and where do you go?
YK: I go out for soba (buckwheat noodles). Or, because it’s Niseko, Jingis Khan (grilled lamb with special spices). Generally, I enjoy other Japanese foods.
MO: I like to go to nearby places for lunches, mostly because I’m curious how other people are cooking in the area. I get to see, “Oh, this is how they cook here.” In this area we’re all using the same ingredients but creating very different flavors. At the Hilton and around Niseko in general, we are trying to make sure that everyone can find something that appeals.