Like many of the best Chef’s Table episodes, this chapter highlights the work of a chef, Alexandre Couillon, who developed a distinct culinary style after moving back home and immersing himself in the local terroir. In Couillon’s case, his home is Noirmoutier, a tiny island off the Atlantic Coast of France where many of the restaurants are only open during the summertime to cater to tourists. It’s not an easy place to be an aspiring chef, but by sticking to his guns and constantly tweaking his menu, Couillon managed to turn a humble seafood restaurant into an international dining destination.
Who is Alexandre Couillon?
Alexandre Couillon is the chef/proprietor of La Marine, a fish-centric restaurant on Noirmoutier that’s open year round. He runs the restaurant with his wife, Celine. For several years running, the restaurant has received a two-star rating from the Michelin Guide, a feat that’s all the more surprising considering its remote location.
What was his journey through the culinary world like?
When Couillon was six years old, his parents bought a small cafe on Noirmoutier called La Marine. Alexandre had little interest in the food his mother served tourists who visited the island. He spent his days daydreaming in school, or exploring the island “like Tom Sawyer.” It wasn’t until he saw Brittany chef Michel Fornareso cook on a TV show that he decided to pursue a career in the kitchen. He knocked on Fornareso’s door and got hired after making the chef his mother’s apple pie recipe. “This is the life I want,” he remembers thinking to himself after starting to cook in Fornareso’s kitchen. “All because of an apple pie.”
Couillon later got a job working for Michelin-decorated chef Michel Guerard. Much to his surprise, Alexandre got a call one day from his dad, who wanted to quit running the restaurant, and offered his son the opportunity to take it over. After some hesitation, Alexandre and his wife, Celine, agreed to move back home and take over the ailing restaurant.
Business was rough at first, but Alexandre and Celine made good on their promise to keep the restaurant running for seven years, even during the slow seasons. “It’s what we had to do to impose a respect for our work,” the chef says. Toward the end of this trial period, a visiting journalist came and told Alexandre that he enjoyed his meal and hoped that the couple would keep the restaurant up and running. Several months later, much to their surprise, Alexandre and Celine found out that La Marine had been recognized with its first Michelin star.
What was his “aha” moment?
After the Michelin attention, Couillon and his team decided to start experimenting with new dishes, in the hopes of courting a second star. “When you get a star, you question everything,” he explains. The menu was going through something of an identity crisis during this period. But one day, when an intern messed up a squid bouillon, Alexandre got the idea to create a dish inspired by a notorious oil spill in the ocean a few years back. He applied the sauce to a fresh oyster, and arranged it on a big white plate, so that it looked like an oil blob floating in the sea. The success of this dish encouraged Couillon to lean into this new style of cooking, where simple compositions could reflect life on Noirmoutier. This new direction proved to be a hit with diners, and also the Michelin inspectors, who decided to give the restaurant its second star in 2013.
What are some of Couillon’s notable quotes?
On the importance of using local ingredients: “It’s important to promote our products to show that they exist. We don’t work with products that come from far away. And that’s why our artisans are so important. These artisans can easily sell their products. But the really passionate ones they do what we do, they always try to improve.”
On his restless spirit in the kitchen: “I don’t think I’m a perfectionist. I just want to show the world we exist.”
On coming up with new dish ideas: “When my staff ask me how to create a dish I say, ‘It’s simple. You go sit on a rock, look around, and think.’”
On focusing on his ingredients and his surroundings: “Simplicity is what gives us so much emotion. The goal was to imagine that there is no separation between the sea and the kitchen. That’s what I was missing. That is the path of the future.”