Steve Hoffman, our Minnesota Spoon columnist, has spent the last five months in the Languedoc region of southern France, and submitted this tribute to his favorite restaurant in the world for our Travel Issue.
What if a restaurant existed on a steep hill just outside a French fishing port? And what if this restaurant featured a glass wall looking out over the Mediterranean Sea to the south, so that on sunny afternoons, the sun always cast a winking path of light on the water? And what if the chef invented a new menu every day, based entirely on the selection at the local fish market that morning?
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What if she were both chef and note-perfect hostess, in a tiny wide-open kitchen adjacent to a tiny, white, minimalist, five-table dining room? And what if she wore a rakish take on a boater’s hat and red-framed glasses and kissed most of her guests and had a smile that lit all of her face and most of the rest of the room? And what if, impossibly, she had a Michelin star? And served at each meal—chef’s choice, no substitutions, please don’t tell me about your diet—seven courses of playful, idiosyncratic, lightly cooked, shimmeringly fresh Mediterranean seafood?
That restaurant exists.
It’s in Sète, on the Languedoc coast of southern France, and it’s called La Coquerie.
And that chef?
Her name is Anne Majourel, and she’s standing across from me in a blue apron with white pinstripes.
She’s talking fast, because we only have one hour before she serves lunch, first to her staff, and then to 11 diners, mostly local, all French, except for a two-member American delegation made up of myself and my wife, Mary Jo.
She is also, without applying the hint of a brake to her runaway monologue, filleting one mackerel after another, using a whip-thin stainless fillet knife with the profile of a rapier.
Where to begin about the mackerel? Mediterranean mackerel are always sort of do-you-know-who-I am beautiful. Bright, silver missiles with arc-welder blue backs, and dramatic camouflage markings like black lightning bolts. They know just exactly how beautiful they are. But these mackerel on the cutting board, I notice, have something else—a wash of rose along their silver flanks that flickers kaleidoscopically in the light from the window. It’s something usually only seen on live fish. That’s how fresh they are.
“And I drew the short straw,” says Anne, which she means literally, not figuratively. She’s telling the story of how, two Michelin stars ago (one at her first restaurant, one here at her second), as a newly married 20-year-old gym teacher with no cooking experience, she ended up in the kitchen of the restaurant-inn she had just bought with her husband.
“Yes. Jean-Luc and I both wanted the job of mingling in the dining room with the guests. But somebody had to cook. So we drew straws. No, I’m not kidding.”
And I notice that she can say his name now.
Anne’s knife slips gently up under the armpit of the next mackerel’s pectoral fin, then turns and digs in, and is so practiced and flexible, that it simply clicks its way lightly across the ribcage and down along the lower spine to the tail in one lazy stroke, and the fillet lifts off the skeleton like a peeled potato skin.
Side one. Flip. Flash of silver, blue, and iridescent rose. Side two. Head and bones in a bucket for fumet. Two fillets delivered to the station next door, where Adrien—server, sommelier, utility player—stands almost shoulder to shoulder with her at the white Corian counter, pulling pin bones with a stainless tweezers.
Behind them, two assistants bustle, and a pot of shellfish bisque murmurs on the—pay attention now—on the one hotplate in the entire kitchen. One electric hotplate. One oven.
“That’s my signature,” she says, in answer to an incredulous observation to this effect. “Fish and seafood, lightly cooked.”
And then she bursts out with a wry “Hah!” And there is that smile again, because it is a “signature” born not of the artistic posturing of a starred chef, but of the restrictions of this tiny kitchen, with a single hotplate, and little ventilation, and diners sharing the same air.
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