It s no secret to discerning Gulf travelers that Tokyo is one of the greatest food cities on earth—not just for Japanese food. At the Mandarin Oriental Tokyo, towering above the rest of the city, sits Signature, a Michelin-starred French restaurant that has held that distinction from Michelin since the guide first started rating Japan more than 10 years ago. There, Executive Chef Nicolas Boujéma, French himself, crafts exquisite French dishes in the traditional style, in an era where gastronomy and fusion is all the rage.
Boujéma first started work in a kitchen at 14 years old as an apprentice, before moving to a small restaurant on the Mediterranean, a time that he remembers fondly.
“It was the good old days—we cooked only fresh items, we had a big team—12 chefs to make food for 90 guests. There was more knowledge around,” says Boujéma.
Just after turning 21, Boujéma was first able to work in a Michelin-star kitchen.
“I moved into a two-star Michelin restaurant because I was very interested to learn what a two-star restaurant meant. It was a big experience. The restaurant made very traditional old-style dishes, such as Canard á L’Orange, Pa Souffle. It was 85 per cent French classics on the menu, and that’s where I built my base, such as how to make the perfect hollandaise, béarnaise, sweet and sour sauces—everything.
“I learned when I was 21 that being in a Michelin-starred restaurant was the real place to learn. I went to a two-star restaurant in the French Riviera, and in my first visit, meeting the head chef who was so fantastic that I asked myself, how could I reach this level of perfection? He really woke me up. Since that moment I never quit again a Michelin-star restaurant.”
At the age of 27, he set his sights on one of the most lauded restaurants in the world, the three-star Michelin rated Auberge de l’Ill in Alsace, France.
“I’d never worked in a three star! When you applied to this restaurant, the rules were that you had to restart at the bottom, even if you were an incredibly experienced chef. I waited 12 months to get that position, and then started at the lowest level, then worked my way up to Sous Chef in the four years that I stayed there,” said Boujéma.
With his extensive Michelin-starred restaurant experience, Boujéma notices a big difference between them and your average restaurant—though not always immediately.
“I notice it from the inside. Sometimes you don’t understand on the spot—you understand two to three years after working there. Even just now at 37, I understand the advice that I received from Michelin-star chefs during my training, or people I worked with. I’m understanding why they did things a certain way. When you become a chef on your own, you want to do everything your way, because now you are the chef. You start something from scratch, you take a recipe, you go left and right, and after one year, you come back to the point where the thing you learned at the very beginning was way it works best,” said Boujéma.
Moving to Signature, Boujéma was able to make the menu his own, while still maintaining the philosophy and attention to detail that won Signature the Michelin-star in the first place.
“The previous general manager gave me his vision—he wanted to start with the old chef style, but he wanted something a bit of more modern, while keeping the French identity pure. We are happy and proud to keep that with absolutely no fusion. When I arrived, I changed the recipes, I trained the waiters with how I see the food, but we kept our philosophy the same as before. I didn’t make a revolution—my style is modern classic, I’m not the guy to make a revolution!” said Boujéma.
Maintaining excellence requires a level of dedication that not many could match. Bouejma finds keeping self-discipline to the levels needed not only for himself but for his staff to be his greatest challenge.
“To be rigorous with yourself, that’s the most difficult thing. Some people are born with that, but when you’re born lazy, or you need to put all of yourself in the job, that is hard. I was already a hard worker, but when you want to reach the level of a restaurant like this one, it’s not 12 hours, it’s 14-15 hours every day. You need to be super rigorous to survive that, and only if you are rigorous with yourself then you can ask your team to follow you. If you are not strict with yourself, no one will ever follow you. You will go nowhere,” said Boujéma.
As most of the guests are from Japan, Boujéma has had to adjust his preparation to suit the tastes of the Japanese clientele, something that he has had to learn by trial and error.
“When you arrive, you cook your way, and the complaints came that it was too salty, and too big. You see my size—I’m triple the size of a Japanese lady! I’ve had to adapt the portions, adapt the salt, and you start to see that the guests get emotions from very simple things. You can’t put ten flavors in one plate; you can have a max 2-4 per plate.”
Boujéma is ever the traditionalist, something he announces with pride. While he fears that young chefs are not keeping to those traditions as much as he would hope, he believes that the strength of French cuisine, and its undeniable influence, will keep it strong for centuries to come.
“I feel that French cuisine is the base of all the kitchens in the world, in terms of technique. When other cultures want to elevate their cuisine, they have to put a French mindset into it. Some chefs are loss because there is a big boom in French cuisine worldwide, and I’m scared about the young chefs. I’m scared they will be lost in the future. I’m scared they will not learn the basics. While some restaurants are doing good, innovative food, there are chefs who after five or six years cannot do the basic staples of French tradition. I’m scared about that the tradition will be lost.
“I’m sure French cuisine will come back with a new ambassador, someone who knows the basics, and wants to stage a revival. It will need to be adapted, but French cuisine will shine again, and brighter than ever before. Everyone in the world learned from the French kitchen, but now French people will have to learn again, too,” said Boujéma.