Christopher Coutanceau, the chef-fisherman from La Rochelle and new friend of fine watchmaker Blancpain, takes a moment to talk about his relationship with time. From the lunchtime rush to the future of the oceans, he lives a life of dedication and urgency.
With his latest book, Les Saisons de l’Océan (“Seasons of the Ocean”), having just been published by Lizay, the three-star chef from La Rochelle remains highly committed to marine conservation and responsible fishing, as an active supporter of Ré Nature Environnement (fighting the slaughter of dolphins caught in fishing nets) and Bloom (fighting electric-pulse fishing). This year, he takes on a new role that further dovetails his artisanal skills with preservation of the ocean: Chef Coutanceau joins the circle of friends of celebrated fine watchmaker Blancpain. All the more reason to ask him about his relationship with time: this is the tempo of his life.
How does time influence your cooking? Is your cuisine spontaneous, simmered or slow-paced?
I think of it more in terms of the day. The day’s work is determined by the fish auction around 6:30am. Then the clock starts ticking: gathering all the ingredients needed, cleaning the fish, lunching with the staff at 11:30am. By 11:55am, it’s all-hands-on-deck for the pace determined by the service and customers’ cooking preferences: whether it’s spit-roasted, low-temperature, frothy butter or seared. In fact, a chef is constantly moving from one time frame to another – from burner cooking to maturation or fermentation – always with the objective of placing a dish, under its cloche, on the table before a customer precisely when it’s cooked to perfection, no more, no less. And that moment lasts only three to four minutes.
How do you relate to time in the kitchen? Do you have to pace yourself, crack the whip, or work at your own speed?
You have to adapt to many different time frames and always be prepared to crack the whip. There will be business workers who want seven dishes for lunch, but still need to leave by 2:15pm. Other people come to enjoy the moment, gaze at the ocean and savor every bite. They have time. You need to respect their relaxed mindset, know how to space out the courses, with 20-25 minutes between each one. This means, at each meal, we have to manage 40-45 covers in their respective time frames with about ten serving sequences.
What do you do when you have time to spare?
That’s easy: I go fishing, I spend time with my family. I don’t do old-fashioned, bobbing-cork fishing where you just sit and think. Time has an essential role here, too – I fish for meagre and bass with lures. The time of day is critical: a particular spot may be best fished in the first two hours of rising tide, so you have to keep an eye on the clock. The same goes for fishing with a soft jig head lure, you have to calculate: one meter per second… you look at your watch and know just when it’s getting close to the bottom.
Would you like to go back in time, or get ahead of it?
Go back! I’d definitely want to rediscover the ‘70s and ‘80s – back then, there was still time to save the things I care about. That’s how I got to know the fish market with my grandfather. We went there in a Méhari, like a mini Jeep. I was astounded by the vast quantities of fish. We’ve never seen abundance like that since then, when the older folks would return from the market with containers filled with fish to give away to the neighborhood! Now I’m fighting to make things right again, like stopping the slaughter of dolphins. Ten thousand are exterminated each year, 130,000 accidentally caught in fishing nets over the past 30 years. Fortunately, the younger generations fish differently – they do it for fun and throw the fish back, alive, when they’re supposed to.
Are you always on time or do you feel there’s nothing wrong with being late?
Actually, I’m always a bit early – it comes with the profession. It’s just about respect, even though people here tend to slide into the “quart d’heure Charentais” – a local cultural phenomenon of 10-15 minutes’ leeway on punctuality. But you can’t do that when you cook. Nothing matters more than cooking time – if you have to wait and it’s overcooked, you’re finished!
How did you feel when Blancpain invited you to join the brand’s circle of friends? What does the brand mean to you? What values do you share?
To put it simply, our respective commitments are aligned: protecting the oceans, precision, and time. I see the craftsmanship of a watch like the Fifty Fathoms as a perfect reflection of my work. Every little component is important in its own way. And they’re pampered too, polished with gentian after hours of meticulous work. It’s about consistency in quality and reliability. There’s also the human dimension to consider, strong ties with people like Arnaud Blandin, the Brand Manager for Blancpain France. Our working together makes sense and has meaning, as both companies, Blancpain and Coutanceau, share these values.
Are you able to stop time?
I wish I could! Even when I’m fishing, I’m always rushing. I want to do better, I do things fast, I’m constantly on the run: I just think I’m programmed that way.