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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.