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Garden to Plate: Backing Local Produce

Special issue : n°170 : Freedom of Movement in a Zero-Carbon World

Politique InternationaleSustainable cuisine is a concept that is growing in importance and its meaning is clear. What was the process that led a chef like yourself to adopt this approach?

Alexandre Couillon — Everyone is talking about sustainable cuisine but everyone is talking about it so much that one can legitimately ask if this is a real trend or just a fad. In fact, if we reflect properly, what is surprising is that we can still ask if a cuisine is sustainable or not. On this question, there should not be any debate because cuisine by definition must be sustainable. I remember my grandfather; to take the term used in Noirmoutier, he was a “potato sailor”. That is to say that for some months of the year, from February until May, he grew potatoes. Then, after the harvest, he devoted himself to his other trade, that of a fisherman. In short, his work followed the cycle of seasons and products, that is to say local food circuits before they were called that but which were all the more essential because my grandfather had no other choice: at that time, there were no means of transport capable of transporting the quantities of foodstuffs that there are today. And even fewer means of financing to go with them. For my part, I am not a potato sailor but one day my wife Céline and I decided to make the activity of a chef correspond better with nature’s rhythms.

P. I. What was the spark that set off the desire to change your way of working? Is one born a sustainable chef or does one become one?

A. C. — More than a sudden change, it was the fruit of a long process. We have been here – at one of the tips of the island of Noirmoutier – for the past 20 years. In the early years, I can hardly pride myself on having practised a differentiated cooking style in the sense of aiming for a specific harmony with the environment. Let’s just say I was doing much like everyone else, that is to say seafood and mussels in cream. Things changed around 1999-2000: we bought a small plot of land to grow vegetables. Shortly before that, I had a real shock on a trip to Japan. There, I was staggered by how fresh the fish was! I was also impressed by the Japanese taste for little market cooking with a direct link to garden produce, picked to be rapidly consumed. On my return, I started mugging up: I immersed myself in books on all the phases of the Moon and the market gardener’s calendar. The phases of the moon are very important. You feel that they exert an influence on human behaviour so why should it be different for vegetables and plants?

P. I. A small plot for vegetables, you say, but there is still a difference between cultivating a patch of land and only working with the vegetables from one’s garden …

A. C. — There were some stages in between. After this first plot of 1,400 square metres, we decided to move up a gear. That is to a plot of 4,000 square metres supervised by Estelle, a key member of our team. In this kitchen garden, we grow 95 per cent of the vegetables served in our plates. I shall not draw up an exhaustive list: carrots, turnips, marrows, peas … We also produce a wide variety of seeds. Not forgetting a dozen beehives. Recycling is equally essential: the near totality of our waste goes into making compost which is then reinjected into the soil to increase its fertility. We live with the climate. I insist on this notion because it is a source of humility: very early in the morning, when we work in the garden, we can experience a great pleasure before this wealth of produce. But the tears can come very quickly: it takes just a bit of wind during the night or another twist of the weather for the plants to go up in smoke. We realise that the hand of man is frail. It is the same for the sea: in Noirmoutier we  have two hubs, one vegetable, the other marine. When the seas are unleashed, it is difficult to foresee what the fishermen will bring. We have to adapt.

P. I. Living according to the rhythms of nature, consuming seasonal produce or disturbing animals or the soil … We can understand these few ingredients, among others, of responsible nutrition, but what about the consumer? Today, in developed economies, people are accustomed to eating whatever they want at any time of the year. In short, we are at the opposite extreme of ecological conduct …

A. C. — That is why chefs, too, have an educational role. But we must do even more. The traceability of produce is anything but abstract. When I cook a whiting with young cabbage and almond juice, I will sometimes go and see the customer and show him the boat that, that same morning, brought in his fish. I am not saying that he will savour his dish differently, but that his approach to the environment will perhaps be enriched. At La Marine, we have outlawed the freezer. In the same vein, bananas, avocados or exotic fruit are not to be found on the table. We are obviously not the only ones working like this. Sustainable gastronomy is spreading more and more and, with it, those many ecological initiatives that speak to the consumer. In current food fashion, we assume that people have a natural taste for complexity, but nothing is better than simplicity because that is what people really like deep down. I have customers who go into raptures over a carrot: the product is perhaps very simple but if it is good and well prepared, what more can you ask? We must not forget either that we are working on a register of emotions that hark back as well to something very simple. On the subject, since I am talking about my cuisine, and by way of an anecdote, one day, a woman customer burst into sobs after eating lobster served with peas and raspberries. Céline went to see what the problem was: had something suddenly saddened her? Not at all, the raspberries had brought back a memory of her childhood when she used to pick them with her grandfather …

P. I. — You have settled in Noirmoutier in the Vendée department, right on the Atlantic Ocean. But when you live at several hundred kilometres from the coast, is it possible, as you can, to prepare a responsible cuisine?

A. C. — I perfectly understand this point. For all that, living right next to the sea or to one’s vegetable plot is not just an advantage. More precisely, it requires a good deal of work. Very often, when I wake up in the morning, I do not really know what I am going to cook a few hours later. That depends on inspiration but it also depends, as I have already said, on the fishing catch: often it is good, sometimes it is less good. Being in direct touch with the elements and realising that produce is not always immediately available at the snap of the fingers help forge the character. You have to learn to function differently. Geography is an important element but it is not the alpha and omega: a cuisine that respects the environment can be perfectly mastered far from the sea or the mountains. As a pointer, menus today are much shorter than before. Think back: when you went to a restaurant 20 years ago, you had the choice between 20 or so starters and as many dishes. That was perfectly irresponsible. Since then, most chefs have come to realise that a shorter menu is a greater mark of quality than a long litany of courses. And now there are too, right in the centre of cities, chefs who pool their resources. Of course, they are competitors but coming together to buy a greater quantity of produce is an eminently responsible approach. In Denmark, in any case, this attitude has become a way of life for restaurant owners. To conclude on geography, the cities are less and less distant from centres of farm production. In the manner of those big market gardeners who are now based at the gates of the Paris region.

P. I. Listening to you, sustainable cuisine is not a luxury. It remains true, however, that pushing open the door of your place means all the same  something of an investment …

A. C. — Most of the produce that I work with is not luxury produce. Among fish, sardines, gurnard, wrasse or saurel are not the most prized species, far from it. Incidentally, my fishermen friends are constantly surprised, reminding me, for example, that saurel is suitable only for cats! Well, not if it is prepared in the right way. What is a luxury, on the other hand, is a certain way of working. My plot of 4,000 square metres is not there to sell vegetables at the market. It only allows production in small quantities for the exclusive purpose of ending up on plates in the restaurant. In addition, you need material of a certain quality to work in good conditions. Placed end to end, all these elements represent some expense. And it is not a pleasure that people can afford every day. I know modest people who save a little day by day every month to be able to come to Noirmoutier. Let us just talk of pleasure: a responsible approach must not be experienced as an exercise in coercion; my team and I are there to provide a moment of happiness. This must never be forgotten.

P. I. In your speciality, is the professional that you are conscious of the fragility of the planet?

A. C. — Let me tell you of this experience: one day I was on a Noirmoutier beach with my daughter Emma, who was then a child. She was playing in the sand when suddenly, digging a little, she came across a pellet of oil.  At the time, it was a few years after the catastrophe of the Erika (1). Noirmoutier was not the zone worst hit by this accident but the fact that it was hit at all demonstrated the extent of the damage. Imagine for one instant that the Erika should be wrecked today, well, the restaurateur that I am would simply no longer be able to practise. As all my cuisine is of marine inspiration – with work with many fish – I would be totally helpless. But in the circumstances, it is not I who matter, but the 30 people who work alongside me (2) every day to serve the customers. In short, from one day to the next, an ecological disaster can ruin a business and discourage a whole small group of men and women. The protection of the planet is not just a matter of great words or great principles. It is a way of behaving. On that Noirmoutier beach, seeing my daughter grasp a ball of hydrocarbons, I measured at one and the same time our fragility and the urgency to arm ourselves against attacks on the environment.

P. I. When we speak of cuisine, we cannot neglect the guides and their determining role that is not without its own controversy. Are these judges of the peace – or not – sensitive to ecology? In addition, what are you still lacking to earn a third star in the Michelin Guide? Is this search compatible with upholding a sustainable approach ?

A. C. — Yes, the guides have become receptive to sustainable cuisine. I give as evidence the fact that the Michelin Guide created a specific category to recognise this approach. This distinction is a new one but it will be widely accepted in a few years. So, obviously, the third star … I say “obviously” because it is part of the game to ask questions about the next move when one starts to earn distinctions. But I am not obsessed by rewards; I do not wonder every day what aspects I need to improve to go higher. Being a committed chef, present in his kitchen and attached to his local produce, suffice it to say that I feel I have ticked these three boxes, which are a good working basis to have my skills recognised. Last year, La Marine’s dining room was refurbished, almost exclusively with biosourced materials like the walls in recycled cardboard. This was not a redecoration to attempt to pull off a third star, but above all to give a little boost of dynamism to the surrounding setting, always with this idea of going forward ethically.  

P. I. Cuisine often has echoes of something very Franco-French. Isn’t this slightly narrow prism something of an inconvenience at a time when the preservation of the planet is prevalent?

A. C. — I believe that each of us develops through personal experiences. In my case, I lived in Africa for 15 years. My mother was an industrial dressmaker and my father was a fisherman. He had the opportunity to go on a mission off the shores of Senegal. My mother joined him there and they set up home in Dakar where I was born. Recently, I had the opportunity to go back to Africa. Apart from the poverty, I was surprised by the use of plastic. In Dakar, whatever you buy, a small object or a food product, it is immediately wrapped in plastic. These bags and packets do not go far. They are to be found in their thousands on beaches where they are destined to pollute the soil for generations. This sight incited me even more to respect ecological gestures like those that we reserve for our customers in Noirmoutier: the fewest possible plastic wrappings and, if we have to use them, these wrappings must be made from responsible materials. This is to say that there is no specifically national or specifically international vision of the preservation of the planet. All these aspects intersect. Sometimes I wonder what I should like to do if I had to leave my kitchen one day. Africa would be a good destination, to install a hospitality school. Not that such places do not exist, but this one would be resolutely aimed at responsible training, a respectful use of products and the will to maintain great natural balances. And, finally, Noirmoutier is not so far from Dakar …

P. I. — What would the mobility of goods and services resemble in a zero-carbon world?

A. C. — This mobility has still to be imagined. The road ahead is still long but that doesn’t mean we can’t envisage it. If we begin with goods, short networks are a path to develop to the maximum. Using local products is part of this approach. In the sector which may be mine but which also touches a whole lot of people, the choice of seasonal fruit and vegetables as well as the recourse to sustainable fishing are important pointers. For people, mobility  in a zero-carbon world implies less reliance on one’s own car. Do people realise that carsharing can also have its full place for short distances? In a general way, the use of public transport should be privileged, with a better use of buses and trains in the current system. The development of cycle tracks is also a necessity. Without forgetting the promotion of walking in city centres and small villages which has, as a corollary, the redynamisation of neighbourhood shops.

P. I. What impact will these developments have on the freedom of movement?

A. C. — All these ecological approaches bring a change in lifestyle. We think therefore that our liberty will be affected by them. Of course, there are constraints on the horizon. But in the end, these obstacles are not as severe as we imagined at the beginning. For example, the access to public transport – made easier in a zero-carbon world – will no longer oblige us to be so dependent on our cars. To go on holiday or to move to another place, we shall take the bus or the train. All this is a question of perspective.

This interview was conducted in November 2020.

(1) The Erika is a supertanker shipwrecked off Brittany in 1999.

(2) Alexandre and Céline Couillon’s business comprises a gastronomic restaurant, a bistro and a hotel.