Publié le 18/01/2021

Coutanceau, the seaside spirit

In the coastal city of La Rochelle, located in the Southwest of France, Coutanceau is a household name. This chef, born and raised in this beautiful city, has regarded the seaside as a playground since childhood. He recently opened an 11-room hotel, La Villa Grand Voile.

Coutanceau, the seaside spirit

In the coastal city of La Rochelle, located in the Southwest of France, Coutanceau is a household name. This chef, born and raised in this beautiful city, has regarded the seaside as a playground since childhood. He recently opened an 11-room hotel, La Villa Grand Voile.

“I’ve been coming here since I was three years old,” mentioned Chef Christopher Coutanceau as we arrived at la criee, or fish auction house. His grandfather had been a fisherman who would take him here to source seafood for the family restaurant in the early morning before school. “These guys are seventh-generation fishmongers!” He did a walk-through, examining the morning’s catch: lobster, mackerel, squid, prawns, clams. “It’s the end of Dublin bay prawn season,” the chef explained, “so we’ll be changing the menu next week.” We loaded up the truck for his two restaurants –the bistro La Yole de Chris and the three Michelin star-rated gastronomic restaurant that bears his name – and headed out.

Mackerel, squid, clams... morning fishing at La Rochelle fish market.
Christopher Coutanceau used to come to the fish auction as a child with his grandfather, a fisherman.

After school, his grandfather would take Coutanceau fishing, and they’d bring their catch of the day back for his grandmother to prepare. His parents, Richard and Maryse Coutanceau, ran a gastronomic restaurant on the Plage de la Concurrence, where he would help out seasonally. Despite his background, Coutanceau didn’t grow up thinking he would follow in his family’s footsteps. In fact, he wanted to be a footballer. But eventually his passion for the kitchen led him to enroll in hotel management school, and to follow up with internships at ElBulli, Grand Véfour and Restaurant Laurent in Paris.

After his training, he came back to La Rochelle and opened his own restaurant. Years later, in 2001, he came to work with his father at the family restaurant. When his father retired in 2007, Coutanceau struck up a partnership with his sommelier Nicolas Brossard to purchase the restaurant. Together, they now run not only La Yole de Chris and the gastronomic restaurant Coutanceau, but also the newly-opened La Villa Grand Voile. 

The hotel Villa Grand Voile completes the Coutanceau experience in La Rochelle since summer 2020.
The old residence has been renovated to create to a comforting decor, evoking the seascape.

La Villa Grand Voile is a former ship-owner’s residence dating back to 1715. In addition to the dining spaces, it has eleven bespoke rooms and suites, each elegantly designed to evoke the seascape. I arrived in the early afternoon to enjoy the comforts of the space. The heated swimming pool in the courtyard looked enticing.

Since it was my first time at La Rochelle, I opted for a stroll through the iconic Vieux-Port under the pleasant sun of October. The sea breeze felt invigorating on my Parisian skin. I walked along the port to La Plage de la Concurrence, where the bistro La Yole de Chris features the same high-quality ingredients as the gastronomic restaurant, but in a more casual setting.

A walk in the streets of La Rochelle's old town
The emblematic old port of La Rochelle

The marine-themed interior has long, communal wooden tables and a large patio overlooking the sea. I cozied up to a bowl of clams in butter and dill, followed by a wood-fire seared red tuna steak.

La Yole de Chris is the marine bistro adjoining the gourmet restaurant on the Concurrence beach. In 2020, the Michelin guide awarded it with a "Michelin Plate", as well as the green macaroon highlighting a "Commitment to sustainable gastronomy".
Seafood, always in the spotlight in Chef Coutanceau's restaurants.

With a passion for the sea passed down by his grandfather, Coutanceau considers himself as much a fisherman as a chef. He’s well-respected not only for his work in the kitchen, but for his dedication to marine life sustainability. He remembers how abundant the sea used to be when he would go fishing with his grandfather, and so he is keenly aware of how quickly overfishing is destroying marine life. He advocates seasonal fishing, spearheading the combat to end harmful practices such as electric fishing with the help of associations such as Ré Nature Environnement and Bloom. “As soon as you start using these destructive techniques, you are literally emptying the sea.” Coutanceau’s cuisine takes a zero-waste approach based on a head-to-tail principle.

Christopher Coutanceau, who defines himself as a "cook-fisherman", is a fervent advocate of marine biodiversity and respectful fishing practices.

The dining room of restaurant Coutanceau offers a panoramic view of the ocean. Local architect Bertrand Pourrier completely redesigned it in 2017 on a watery theme in 2017 with an ocean-blue carpet and a wavy ceiling and walls. Everything was custom-built down to the finest details. These include the lighting, which automatically adjusts to the daylight, and specially designed chairs that remain comfortable for guests during the entire dining experience.

The room of the  Christopher Coutanceau restaurant offers a panoramic view of the ocean.
The chef and his associate, sommelier Nicolas Brossard, called on local architect Bertrand Pourrier to decorate the gourmet restaurant.

I received a warm welcome from Nicolas Brossard and toured the cellar, home to no fewer than 20,000 bottles. We made our way through the kitchen, and as the team finished their final preparations, finished at the prestigious Chef’s Table. Thus began the well-orchestrated six-course tasting menu…

First came a three-bite appetizer: tartlet of shrimp marinated in lime with crispy cervelle, creamy squid with sweet scorched onions and roasted hazelnuts, and seaweed salad with pollock. A burst of the ocean to prepare for what was to come...

An autumn-inspired amuse-bouche of caramelized sea bream with butternut in ginger-infused lobster bisque.
The homemade breads included seaweed brioche, served with seaweed butter.
The first course of the tasting menu was crab shell jelly and foam with vegetables, topped with Kaviari’s Kristal caviar. This dish is reminiscent of Coutanceau’s childhood trips to the neighboring Île de Ré, when he would catch crabs with his family during summer vacations.

Already a phenomenal start, the delight continued with a raw Dublin Bay prawn tartare in claw jelly, served with a Dublin Bay prawn tail chip.

Then came the main dishes:
Bluefin tuna seared over a wood fire and served with piquillo-flavored tomatoes, tarragon duck juice and Bouteville vinegar. In a frozen glass, a variation of tomatoes: tomato jelly, lightly spiced tomato sorbet, and water from tomato.

Braised eel and smoked hen's egg yolk, marinated in a distillation of helichrysum – a plant that grows on the Ile de Ré –served with tangy beetroot in lightly emulsified eel cooking juices and topped with fresh herbs and raw beetroot shavings.

And to finish the meal…
Estran, tarragon with candied lemon and a lemon-and-seaweed emulsion. Estran is French for the foreshore that is uncovered at low tide, and where shellfish, crustaceans and seaweed are collected.

Jonchee Charentaise: domes of cheese with sweet almond milk. Jonchee is a fresh cheese made from cow's milk and matured in woven rushes, which impart a slightly bitter, herbaceous taste to the cheese.

Through the journey of the tasting menu, Coutanceau declares his love for the sea. Each dish is presented with elegant flair as a showcase for the quality of the ingredients. The chef rises to the challenge of educating us about the seasonality and sustainability of marine life. I left the table not only inspired by this extraordinary dining experience, but by his dedication to protect these precious resources.

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