To celebrate World Oceans Day, Relais & Châteaux is organising Exquisite Fish, a lunch overlooking the ocean to be held on 4 June. Chef Christopher Coutanceau and fish merchant Cédric Gonzales share with us their passion for the ocean as well as the actions they take to promote sustainable fishing.
Sophie Cornibert : What is your relationship with the ocean?
Christopher Coutanceau : I come from a family of restaurant owners. I met my fish merchants, the Gonzales family, when I was three years old, and their son is a close friend of mine. We’ve never chosen anything else other than their fish and shellfish, which come from Île d'Oléron and Île de Ré. I remember when I was young, I used to go to their warehouse with my father very early in the morning, and I had to walk over the trays, there were so many of them. As for myself, I fish whenever I have free time, and it’s an opportunity for me to let go. I catch sea bass, meagre, gilt-head bream and whiting, and when I get home, I simply throw them all on the grill. And then there's also shore fishing, surfing and swimming that I like to do. I can't live without the ocean. Look at where we are; you can't take your eyes off it.
SC : What are your favorite fish and how do you prepare them?
CC : It goes without saying that I only use fish that aren't endangered and have reached adult size — above all I follow the seasons. For example, a 50 cm sea bass is the perfect size. Sea bass stop feeding in November when they begin their mating season. May is the ideal time to eat them. I love them pure and raw, as carpaccio for example. There is also brill, line-caught pollock, and scallops.
R&C : Tell us about your relationship with your fish merchants.
CC : The Gonzales family has known me since I was a baby. Our relationship is built on trust. We speak the same language. They know my cooking and save me the plumpest fish or langoustines that are so fresh they're still squirming inside their crates. It's really a special time for me seeing them every morning and choosing fish with them.
SC : Do your fish merchants advise you on which fish to cook for the restaurant?
CC : Well, I only use varieties of fish that are available that day... sea bream, young meagre, young hake. Whatever I like or inspires me, I serve as appetizers in the restaurant. There are also varets, tiny scallops native to La Rochelle.
SC : What is your favorite part of the fish to cook?
CC : I truly love fish, so I don't really have a favorite. Whether it's the fleshy tongue of a hake or its cheeks, flounder bards, a wonderful filet of sea bass or simply its crispy skin, or even taking its bones to make a delicate sauce, you can use every part of a fish.
SC : Do you have any tricks of the trade to share?
CC : When you're at the fishmonger's, try to go with line-caught fish. Then make sure it’s stiff as a board, that the eyes are shiny and the gills are nice and red. The fresher the fish, the more its flesh will have a pearly sheen. Sometimes it even looks like a rainbow. With sea bass, for example, ask the fishmonger to fillet it but with the skin on. And only grilling it on the skin-side brings out the taste and maintains the flavor of the ocean.
Cédric Gonzales, Fish Merchant, La Rochelle
SC : Racontez-nous votre métier.
Cédric Gonzales : It's against the law for fishermen to sell directly to consumers, so fish merchants are the go-betweens for fishermen and restaurant owners. We buy the fish at auction, making our selections based on the boats and avoiding deep-sea trawlers. Our job is to select seasonal fish that, as often as possible, are caught as adults, so they've had time to reproduce.
I've been a fish merchant since the age of 14. It's what I've always done and I love it. I can't wait to get to the auction every day at 2:00 in the morning, even on Sundays. But with all of the health regulations now, it’s a lot harder to manage. For example, we have to pack everything in ice. But if we put live langoustines in ice, they die. Yet we're required to do it. Luckily, we have a great relationship with restaurant owners. It's rewarding trying to find them the best fish and seeing the amazing things they do with them in their restaurants.
SC : What does it mean to be an ethically responsible fish merchant?
CG : It's a fish merchant who does everything he can to sell the best — meaning, fish that is seasonal and line-caught. Sometimes we need to educate our customers and explain why we only sell mussels from July to October, never earlier. Or that we're happy to wait for winter to eat scallops, when it's such a pleasure! I don't understand why there are appellations for wine but not for fish. It would make so much more sense.
SC : Do you have a favorite fish or recipe?
CG : I absolutely love all fish. I eat them avidly. Like scallops when they're barely open, I bake them with a little olive oil and the moment when they get pearly white, they're ready.