Chef Christopher Coutanceau has always had the sea as his horizon. Today, in La Rochelle, the new three-Michelin-starred chef is an activist for traditional, seasonal fishing. Stolen moments from a culinary artist with a fisherman’s heart who refuses to resign himself to seeing fish disappear.
The sea took hold of you very early in life, didn’t it?
From the moment I drew my first breath. I was born in a clinic facing the sea. That was the first sign. We lived in La Rochelle and we also had a house at Les Portes-en-Ré, at the tip of the Île de Ré. My grandfather was a fisherman and, in the evening, after I got home from school, we went out to sea. When we got back, my grandmother cooked our trophies. Back then, there were still fish. We’d come back from outings with twenty fish – sole, eel, bass. With him, I caught my first meagre, it weighed six kilos (13 pounds), I must have been about seven. My childhood was Ré and the surroundings and my playground was the sea. Surfing, body boarding, underwater fishing – I was always by or in the water.
A few years ago, trawlers came back to port with full holds. Is the sea is less generous today?
Yes, all this has happened in a relatively short time, thirty years. I clearly remember my grandfather going to the auction in the morning for my parents’ restaurant. He often took me with him before dropping me off at school. The fishmongers had bins overflowing with fish. We even walked on fish. It was incredible. Today, finding a 4.5-kilo turbo or really nice bass is a full-time job.
I’m on the water every weekend and some areas, where there used to plenty of fish, are now completely deserted. As soon as you start fishing with these destructive techniques, you empty the sea. In five to ten years, there will be no more bass in France.
What’s the first common-sense measure to take to improve the situation?
We must first educate people about the seasons. That’s essential. Langoustine, to give an example I really care about, should be eaten only in summertime, from mid-June to early October. And after that, you have to leave it alone.
We have to shout this message to the rooftops. The sea is a legacy, a heritage, a terroir. There are seasons for fishing. We respect the seasons for hunting. And it’s the chefs’ responsibility to set the rule that we don’t serve langoustines out of season. Or, to take things to a real extreme, we’re talking about Scottish langoustine powdered on the boat with antioxidants to keep it from darkening and not smell too much like ammonia. Personally, I don’t cook that way.
Alongside Olivier Roellinger in Cancale, Gérald Passédat in Marseille (Le Petit Nice), and the Relais & Châteaux Association, you’re leading the fight to preserve marine resources in association with the NGO Ethic Ocean.
Yes, and the Bloom association, too, that combats electric fishing and through a platform that more than 300 chefs in 21 countries have signed to block the practice of electric fishing. Not only are there are fewer and fewer fish, but the techniques are becoming increasingly criminal and the fish don’t stand a chance. After these boats pass over, you have to wait 70 years before an alga grows back. Artisanal, local fishing doesn’t do things like that – that’s really the work of the industry lobby. They don’t advertise their technique much, so I can understand how people fall off their chairs when they’re told that electric-fishing ropes burn the sea bottoms. This goes against the most basic common sense. It’s simply criminal. It’s worse than dynamite fishing.
What has riled you most recently?
We have a big bass spawning ground (the place where the fish lay their eggs) in the Atlantic that’s on the Plateau de Rochebonne and, in three months, they exterminated 10,000 dolphins. Dolphins are caught alive in pelagic nets, mid-water trawling nets moving through open water between the surface and the bottom without touching the bottom. To save time, they cut their fins and then break their rostrom (nose) before throwing them back into the water, dying in agony. Out at sea, you know, people do more or less what they want, there aren’t necessarily control mechanisms in place. If we keep going like this, we’ll be eating farmed fish.
... Label Rouge farmed fish?
I know all about it, thank you. I haven’t eaten farmed salmon for fifteen years. I prefer the in-season salmon from Adour, but I do indeed get annoyed hearing the poor housewife say, “I’ll pay the higher price because it says Label Rouge and it will be healthier for my kids.” I’m sad to say that there are so many salmon in cages at sea that, to kill the salmon lice on them, they’re literally hosed down with pesticide. I’m sad that there are catalogs for choosing the salmon color you want, like painting your bathroom.
What gives you hope in this fight?
Some days, not much. I fish every Sunday, every Monday in a semi-rigid inflatable dinghy. I often take my daughter, Athéna, who’s starting to fish pretty well. She’s the first to tell me, “Daddy, throw it back, that one’s too small” or “That’s enough, Daddy, we’ve caught too many.” Surely that’s where the hope lies.