Daniel Calvert, formerly head chef at Belon, misses the food in Hong Kong. No, he corrects himself, he misses everything about the city.
Still, the Briton (who left the neo-Parisian restaurant in August) is excited to be in Japan, where he will open two restaurants in the Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo at Marunouchi in June and July.
“It’s a much bigger city than Hong Kong,” he tells the Post on a video call from the hotel. “You realise living in Hong Kong is like living in a village. When I lived in New York [working at restaurant Per Se], this is how I feel again. It’s such a big city, there’s a lot of stuff going on, but nothing at the same time. In Hong Kong, you feel there is so much more energy.”
Calvert is overseeing two restaurants that will replace the hotel’s Motif Restaurant and Bar at the 57-room hotel. The first is Sézanne, a French fine-dining restaurant where he will be spending most of his time, and the other is Maison Marunouchi, an elevated all-day-dining bistro.
Sézanne is a French fine-dining restaurant and one of two that Calvert will run. Photo: Four Seasons Tokyo
Sézanne is named after a town in the Champagne region of northeast France where Calvert has family ties.
“It’s very famous for a blanc de blanc style champagne which I love, and the restaurant has a huge focus on Champagne, so the food is very much in that direction,” he says. “When I was a child, my grandparents had a home in Sézanne, but they didn’t know anything about champagne and nor did I at that point. I have a lot of fond memories there.”
White asparagus soup with shiro ebi and Piedmont hazelnuts. Photo: Four Seasons Tokyo
When Calvert’s overseas fans are finally able to visit Sézanne, they won’t see his usual dishes such as pigeon pithivier, roast chicken or millefeuille. The chef is keen on a fresh start and his new menu will be inspired by seasonal products in Japan. Dishes will be available in limited quantities, too – he can get freshly picked asparagus from Hokkaido a day after he has ordered it, a rack of veal once a month and Ozaki beef that is only slaughtered twice a month.
“When I first took on this project, what I had in mind was not that we want to approach it like a Japanese kaiseki [multi-course dinner] restaurant, but really keep the courses small, fast and focused on the ingredients, and reflect as much as we can the seasonality of Japan and the region it represents,” he explains, adding he hasn’t finalised the menu yet.
“At Belon, we were famous for precise cuts and that’s the style that I love, but I’m trying to focus the technique more on the cooking, rather than the plating. Presentation is important, but flavour is primary.”
Radis beurre from Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo at Marunouchi. Photo: Four Seasons Tokyo
Meanwhile, Maison Marunouchi will feature bistro dishes such as fish and chips and steak frites made using locally sourced, high-quality products and prepared to Calvert’s standards.
As the all-day dining restaurant will serve breakfast, lunch, dinner and afternoon tea, Calvert will depend on his team to make sure everything is in tip-top shape. Pastry chef Elwyn Boyles from Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry in the US state of California is joining the team, as well as an ex-colleague from Per Se and two former Belon chefs.
“I have a managerial role for most of the property, but you will see me at Sézanne for lunch and dinner every day for the next five years,” he says.
“As a chef you can run one kitchen, but when it comes to an operation like this, you have to learn how to manage many people and work with different work dynamics, and that’s definitely part of the next step for me. It’s almost like being a coach in a football team – you can’t kick the ball yourself every time, but I will try my very best to.”
Calvert says cooking is a universal language. Photo: Four Seasons Tokyo
The kitchen team are “fantastic”, young and have a good attitude, he says, and some have come straight out of culinary school. Calvert first observed the staff to see how they worked, before teaching them the basics, from making stocks to pasta dough and bread. Now, he says, they are almost as good as him.
Communication, though, has been a challenge – only a few of the Japanese chefs can speak English – and a lot of Google Translate is involved. Nevertheless, Calvert says cooking is a universal language, and involves a lot of tasting and leading by example.
“It’s all about taking the time to really explain things properly the first time, and then the next time it’s a little easier and the next time it’s a little easier. A lot of them speak a little French, too. I speak French, so it’s an Englishman speaking French to a Japanese guy speaking French.”
Miyazaki mango with shortbread crème chantilly. Photo: Four Seasons Tokyo
Sézanne has another Hong Kong connection besides its head chef – architect André Fu had a hand in designing the restaurant (as well as the hotel’s previous restaurant, Motif). The brief was to keep the interior relatively minimalist so that the focus would be on the food and dining experience, and he added touches to the kitchen that Calvert designed to make it look like an extension of the restaurant.
“We [Fu and I] had many conversations when I was still in Hong Kong, when most of the design was done. He came to eat at Belon just towards the end, which was nice for him to eat, and we developed a nice relationship,” says Calvert.
“The restaurant shouldn’t be too ornate – it should really be, not minimal per se, but quite intimate and allow the food on the plate and the service to really shine. Of course, there are amazing design touches in the room, but the food and the experience are going to take front and centre.”
The interior of Sézanne has been kept relatively minimalist by architect André Fu. Photo: Four Seasons Tokyo
Saba with hamaguri and escabeche. Photo: Four Seasons Tokyo
Sézanne and Maison Marunouchi are opening during Japan’s third state of emergency as the country struggles with a surge in Covid-19 cases and concerns remain about the delayed Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, which will begin on July 23.
The one silver lining about opening this summer is that Japanese diners will be able to try Sézanne before Hongkongers do. “If they can’t get a table, then it’s not going to be a great start for us,” Calvert says with a laugh. “So it’s probably a good thing, and it gives me a slower start.”