Sophie Cornibert : What is your relationship with the ocean?
Lionel et Manuela : We have to protect and conserve the ocean at all costs. Fishermen are becoming scarcer, but there is an increasing number of pleasure boats with heavy anchors, lights, noise, and generators that frighten the fish and scare them away. So we have to fight back and keep doing our work as best we can. My family has been fishing for three generations. I started when I was 14 years old and have always fished alone. I never know if I’m going to catch enough fish, so it's hard for me to hire a deckhand who could take over the navigating part. On the other hand, that time alone at sea forces me to use all my skills.
SC : What does it mean to be a caring fisherman?
L&M : Caring fishermen are a dying breed! (Laughs) It's about fishing as well as possible by only focusing on small local catches, on that which the ocean has to offer. Depending on the weather and the time of year, I go out fishing at 3-4 am or 5-6 am. I drag nets and fish with a block and tackle. Today in my nets there are mullet, sea bream, octopus, pike, scorpion fish and cuttlefish. I bring them into the harbor — you can't get any fresher than that — and then Manuela scales, washes and fillets them. That direct contact is what constitutes my caring.
SC : Do you have a favorite species of fish?
L&M : I love fishing for swordfish, but Mauro doesn't cook it. He prefers something like horse mackerel, which we set aside for him whenever we get it.
SC : Do you have any go-to recipes or tricks of the trade to share?
L&M : I just catch the fish, I don’t cook them! I leave that up to Manuela, who can definitely hold her own. We like very pure fish, raw, just marinated or baked with a drizzle of olive oil. When it's this fresh, it doesn't need anything else. Manuela also cooks foie du merlu (hake liver). She dusts them with some flour and just sautés them in a pan. They are wonderful served with a green salad.
SC : What is your relationship with the ocean?
MC : The ocean has always been a source of inspiration for humans. We see it as an impenetrable world, have barely explored it and know very little about it. That is probably why we have been exploiting its resources and mistreating it. The situation has become alarming, but we need to take action and figure out ways we can coexist. Ancient populations were extremely attuned to their surroundings and they knew how to do this. We can still tap into that collective memory somehow. We have to relearn how to respect the ocean and understand it.
SC : What fish do you like working with the most?
MC : Obviously, I only work with fish from the Mediterranean. I like mullet, mackerel, horse mackerel, etc. There was a time when tuna was not endangered and every year we would buy a whole tuna that could weigh up to 160 kg (350 lbs). It would make us happy, nothing more to it. Now we're patiently waiting until tuna repopulates the ocean and reaches adulthood.
Oh, and then there are funny things like the sea cucumber. It looks like a slimy cucumber wiggling around with the same texture as a cuttlefish. It's very expensive in China. They dry the outside of it, then rehydrate it and eat it like that. In Spain, they only eat the inside and the French see it as offal. But I definitely don't. As soon as Lionel catches some in his net, he saves them for me and I just grill them “a la plancha.”
SC : What is your relationship with your fisherman Lionel?
MC : When I first moved to Menton, I didn’t know anyone on the coast and wasn't in contact with producers. I had to start from scratch. I was looking for fish and walking along the harbor when I saw Lionel’s boat. I started ordering from him eight or nine years ago. When Lionel and Manuela saw how I showed the same respect for the vegetables in my garden as for meat, spices and any other product I use in my restaurant, they came to trust me. And I, in turn, trusted them when I saw their products. Our relationship really gets a little deeper each year.
SC : What is your favorite part of the fish to cook?
MC : I love the jawbones of large fish. Whenever I cook a whole fish, I’m the one who always eats the jaw! I really think it's the best part. The flavors are very concentrated and all the collagen mixes with the soft bits. I cook hake jaw in the oven at 180°C (350°F). I splash on a little olive oil and rub it with fresh garden herbs, and leave it in the oven until the outside is nice and burned. The flesh has to be cooked well so the collagen loosens up.
SC : Do you have any tricks of the trade to share?
MC : When making filets, sprinkle them with some fine sea salt an hour before cooking. It removes any excess water and makes the flesh easier to work with.