Martin Klein meets Alexandre Couillon

A big fish in a small pond

The water in the small harbour of Noirmoutier ripples lazily in the morning sun. Directly across lies the La Marine restaurant. It’s just before 9 am, and I meet Alexandre Couillon in his kitchen: sauces are simmering, fish are being filleted, the sweet smell of bread drifts from the oven – the chef and his small crew have been busy behind the stove for hours. It’s the Easter holidays and all five tables of the small gourmet restaurant are reserved. But it goes without saying that every single detail for each guest is prepared with the same fresh ingredients and meticulous attention to detail as on quiet days. In the summer season, one or two extra chefs will be brought on board. But hiring another chef in the spring just to help out during the odd busy week?

Not here. Noirmoutier isn’t Paris. The menu – not to mention the accompanying wines – are very reasonably priced for a two-star restaurant. When Alexandre and his wife Céline first took over his parents’ restaurant in 1999, they had a hard time keeping the business afloat. By 2006, they were ready to throw in the towel and move to the city. But then came the first Michelin star. The couple stayed on the small island and things began to improve. By the time Alexandre was awarded his second star, he was already famous for his marine cuisine. These days, guests travel from afar to visit the restaurant, including an unusual number of other chefs who have become fans of his food. They all appreciate the extremely fresh preparation and the outstanding quality of his produce. Even in my privileged role as Executive Chef at Restaurant Ikarus, I had never seen a live halibut in the kitchen. Alexandre persuaded a fisherman to catch this wonderful flatfish by pole and line and put it straight into a saltwater tank on the boat. The chef therefore receives a large, live halibut every couple of days. Alexandre kills the fish very quickly and humanely using the Japanese Ikejime technique. This makes it taste incredibly fresh and pure. At Restaurant Ikarus, we’ll make the dish with char from the province of Salzburg, a good alternative. We’ll serve it with broccoli sprouts, a goat’s milk espuma, sweet-and-sour pickled blueberries and mustard blossoms – it’s not minimalistic, but it isn’t unnecessarily complicated either. The food arrives at the table piping hot – unlike many modern plate arrangements that can only be served warm, since the many little touches wouldn’t allow for anything else.

We go to visit Raymond Kadem together, who is breeding oysters for Alexandre just a few kilometres from the restaurant. The size two oysters are the chef’s favourites. They’re large, but not too big or fat. And they’re crunchy with just the right level of saltiness and a strong iodine aroma. Alexandre uses them to prepare a very intense dish: black oysters with lardo. He takes the mussel out of the shell and poaches it with a sauce from the squid ragout. The squid is left to simmer in its ink beforehand, creating a wonderfully concentrated jus. He combines the oysters with black Tapioca pearls that look like caviar. The dish is topped off with lardo balls and a pickled ginger powder. You can’t see the ginger, but it gives the oysters an essential hint of spiciness. Alexandre may be known for his oysters, but he isn’t keen on the modern term “Plat de Signature”. He creates the black oyster to remind people of the oil spill in 1999. In the same year that he opened the restaurant with his wife Céline, the cheap tanker Erika fell apart off the coast of Brittany, causing a major catastrophe. It was a tough year for everyone in the area. The oyster is a “Plat d'histoire”, a dish with history. 

“La Bonnotte de Noirmoutier” also has a wonderful history. This local, slightly sweet potato species tastes just like chestnuts. On the island of Noirmoutier, seaweed is used as the fertiliser, which enhances the potato’s unique flavour. At the start of the 1990s, this species was on the brink of extinction but was revived with the help of INRA, the French National Institute for Agricultural Research. The native islanders cleverly auctioned off the first of their rediscovered potatoes to raise funds for a French aid organisation. They eventually sold for 3000 francs per kilo – a world record that was widely covered on the Internet, making the island and its potato farmers famous. In normal stores, however, these valuable roots are not quite as expensive. Alexandre uses them as an amuse-bouche consisting of potato chip, potato foam and potato sorbet in a potato croissant – quite simple, but crispy, creamy, refreshing and perfectly made. The potatoes may soon come from Alexandre’s own back yard: a good friend – our guest chef and enthusiastic gardener Sang-Hoon Degeimbre – has inspired him to create his own large vegetable garden. The very busy chef already spends a bit of time each day attending to his vegetable plots. Alexandre calls it relaxation.

Recorded by Hans Gerlach

"LA MARINE"

5 Rue Marie Lemonnier
85330 Noirmoutier en ile
France

Tel.: +33-251-392309

Web: www.alexandrecouillon.com

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