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Cooking with Christopher Coutanceau

Cooking with Christopher Coutanceau

At the renowned Richard and Christopher restaurant in La Rochelle you'll be treated to the gastronomic talents of chef Christopher Coutanceau and sommelier Nicolas Brossard.

 Christopher CoutanceauChristopher Coutanceau can’t remember a time when he wasn’t passionate about cooking. "It began as soon as I arrived on this Earth!" says the chef, as he reflects back fondly on the smells of home-cooked meals coming up from the kitchen to his bedroom as a child. "My parents got me to try all different foods – even oysters – and so my palette developed."

While Christopher was training his taste buds, chef sommelier Nicolas Brossard was working on his service skills. "When my parents invited friends over, I would want to serve them, and I'd remain standing!" Nicolas says, laughing. "I just enjoyed having guests round and making people happy. My parents tell me that as a kid I even made plans for restaurants and how I would run them."

After careers that took them around France’s finest restaurants, the pair came together three and a half years ago at the head of Richard et Christopher Coutanceau in La Rochelle, a two-Michelin-starred restaurant and one of the rare few in Poitou-Charentes to be awarded the prestigious Relais & Châteaux mark for gastronomic restaurants. In one of the town’s most coveted spots, the restaurant looks out onto the ocean, the Minimes and the Vieux Port. On clear days, the outline of the Ile d’Oléron peaks into view. Inside, strong, noble colours are contrasted with chandeliers and simple, delicately laid tables.

Before the pair took it over, Christopher’s father Richard ran the kitchen and his mother Maryse looked after the dining room. Christopher worked by his father’s side for six years and Nicolas joined the team in 2003. Young, but experienced, 32-year-old Nicolas and 28-year-old Christopher had a wealth of experience behind them.At just 15, Christopher had set off for Miramar in Biarritz as an apprentice. "Being a chef is like being a rugby player, you go off and you learn from a young age, and that’s how you get good at what you do," Christopher says. From Bardet to Ferran to Adria to his father Richard, Christopher learned from top chefs as he went.

Meanwhile, Nicolas made his way up from teenage apprentice to 2nd sommelier at Lucas Carton, a three-Michelin-starred restaurant in Paris, before moving to the Côte d’Azur to work at the Réserve de Beaulieu. "[Alain] Ducasse rang me at home to ask me to be the first sommelier for Louis XV in Monaco," Nicolas says. "It was incredible." In 2003, Nicolas, originally from the Loire-et-Cher, headed to La Rochelle to be chef sommelier. "I knew of the restaurant – restaurants of this level are their own little world and so you know them, even if only by name," Nicolas says. "It’s even part of your training in this job – you’re expected to know the field in which you work."

RestaurantWhen Richard Coutanceau felt he was coming to the end of his 43-year career, it was a natural step for his son to take over. "He had given the restaurant 100 percent, and with him it is all or nothing," says Christopher. But these were big shoes to fill. Richard Coutanceau earned the restaurant its first star in 1980, its second in 1986, and the prestigious Relais and Château stamp of approval a year later.

Today, the pair is keen to keep the high standards, while still putting their own mark on the restaurant. "A new generation has arrived," Nicolas says. "We began with new creations and changes to the room, adding a coffee menu, for example. What I’ve found is that it’s the hundred little attentions to detail that make the difference, and that’s how you create the atmosphere."

On the menu, à la carte dishes include starters of lobster salad with a dish of sea spider and asparagus fritters and battered frogs legs; main courses of Kamchatka king crab or Castilian lamb with sautéed garlic; followed by desserts of passion fruit soufflé and cocoa-filled pancakes flambéed with chocolate liqueur. The restaurant also has two set menus – the Menu Saveur and the Menu Dégustation – more accessible to a younger clientele, with choices of oysters and roast scampi, stewed mussels, sea bass and duck, or lobster, foie gras and lamb.

"We add 100 new recipes a year," Christopher says. "We work with the seasons. It was the season for scallops, and now it’s the season for live langoustines." Christopher also changes the restaurant’s menu so that the customers get to try new creations. "As a chef, you always have to be on top and learn new techniques, or else you’re left by the wayside," Christopher says.

As well as his role as head wine waiter, looking after the 18,000 bottles of wine (including 9000 vintage wines) in the restaurant’s cellar, Nicolas manages the restaurant with Christopher. "When I’m in the dining room, I’m in the dining room," Nicolas says. "But for the rest of the day, there is everything from managing reservations to meeting champagne houses who want you to taste a new variety." While Nicolas’ day begins with preparations at 9am, Christopher’s day begins a few hours before. At 7am, he can be found looking for the best produce at La Rochelle fish market. "A chef is only as good as the produce he works with," Christopher says. "A chef’s job is to promote good produce. As I say to my team: 'exceptional produce makes for exceptional food'. I would say that 90 percent of the produce I use is local to the Charentes, whether it be from the land or the sea."

For the pair, the restaurant has meant childhood dreams fulfilled. "I’m lucky to have got where I am, to this level of knowledge, at a young age," Nicolas says. "And I wouldn’t change it for the world."

And while Christopher’s father Richard now just pops in to eat, the line could continue with the young chef’s three-year-old daughter, Athena, already an oyster connoisseur. "Your palette develops from the age of four to six months, so that’s when you begin to learn and get the taste and passion for food – and that’s where mine comes from," Christopher says. "My parents taught me and I am now teaching Athena."

Relais & Châteaux

Richard & Christopher COUTANCEAU

Plage de la Concurrence 17000 La Rochelle

Tél. 05 46 41 48 19

Fax. 05 46 41 99 45

www.coutanceaularochelle.com

 

A selection of recipes from Christopher Coutanceau

 

Roast shrimp with oyster sauce and olive oil sorbet

Serves 10

 

For the olive oil sorbet:Shrimp

25ml water

10ml inverted sugar syrup

100g sugar

15g milk powder

75ml olive oil

 

1. Heat the water, sugar, inverted sugar syrup and milk powder in a saucepan. When it comes to the boil, take the pan off the heat and leave to cool.

2. Stir in the olive oil.

 

For the oyster sauce:

6 Papin oysters (grade 2 – approx. weight 80-100g)

5g chives, finely cut

3g parsley, finely cut

5g shallots, chopped

3ml fresh lemon juice

Salt, Espelette chilli pepper, olive oil to taste

 

1. Dice the oysters and add the rest of the ingredients.

 

For the shrimps:

1. Take 3 shrimps for each person and fry them in a pan.

2. Once cooked, take them out and deglaze them with Bouteville vinegar, then swirl in chunks of butter, whisking until melted.

3. Pour onto the shrimps.

 

Skate terrine with tomato confit and mixed salad

Serves 12

 

For the tomato confit:

8 tomatoesTerrine

1 garlic clove

100ml olive oil

1 sprig of thyme, 1 bay leaf

Salt and ground pepper

 

1. Prepare the tomatoes by dipping them in a pan of boiling water for 10 seconds. Cool them off in iced water. Take off their skins, cut them in two and take out the pips.

2. Put a sheet on an oven tray and brush with olive oil. Spread out the tomatoes, season them, then add a few bay leaves, sprigs of thyme and garlic.

3. Put in the oven at 80°C for three hours.

 

For the skate:

100g onions, thinly sliced

100g carrots, thinly sliced

1 bunch of herbs

Salt and pepper

4 litres water

3 gelatine sheets

250ml white wine

2.5kg skate

 

1. Put the water, white wine, salt, pepper, herbs, onions and carrots in a saucepan.

2. Bring to the boil then put the skate in to cook for 30 minutes at 80°C.

3. Take out the skate and clean it, removing the flesh from the bone. Leave to cool at room temperature.

4. Add in the gelatine sheets (put in cold water beforehand) to the juice the skate was cooked in.

 

For the terrine:

20g parsley, finely cut

20g tarragon, finely cut

 

1. To create the terrine, add a first layer of skate, then a layer of tomato confit, then skate, then a layer of mixed herbs, then the skate, a layer of tomato confit and then finish with a layer of skate.

2. Add the cooking juice until it has all been absorbed. Leave to set in the fridge.

 

For the sauce:

 

100g mayonnaise

10g Xérès vinegar

100g whipped cream

Salt and pepper

 

1. Mix the mayonnaise and vinegar, then gently add the cream. Season to taste.

2. Serve with mixed salad and vinaigrette, and serve the sauce in a sauceboat.

 

Chocolate and After Eight crèpes

Serves 8

 

For the mint accompaniment:Chocolate

1 litre water

1 stick lemongrass

180g sugar

60g ginger

1 bunch of mint

 

1. Boil the water and the sugar and then pour over the herbs. Leave to infuse for 10 minutes.

2. Take out the herbs and freeze. Once they are icy, scrape with a fork (to create the crystal effect).

 

 For the white chocolate accompaniment:

240g white chocolate

180g egg whites

6g gelatine

240g single cream

 

1. Boil the cream.

2. Pour it onto the white chocolate and add the gelatine (soaked in cold water beforehand).

3. Once the mixture is cold, add the egg whites. Mix together smoothly – use a siphon if you have one. Store in the fridge.

 

 For the cocoa jelly:

500ml water

100g cocoa

120g sugar

50g milk powder

10g gelatine

 

1. Boil all of the ingredients and add the gelatine (soaked in cold water beforehand).

 

For the cocoa butter:

150g butter

20g cocoa powder

15g sugar

 

1. Melt the butter.

2. Add the sugar and cocoa powder. Mix well and put in the fridge.

 

For the chocolate crèpes:

1 litre milk

400g flour

100g butter

Chocolate liqueur to taste

8 eggs

50g sugar

1. Combine the ingredients and make crèpes with the usual method.

2. Serve the crèpes with the different accompaniments.

Published in Living Poitou-Charentes 2011  © All Rights Reserved