Five Tables and the Sea: The restorative simplicity of Anne Majourel

The one and the only hotplate in the entire kitchen at the restaurant // Photo by Mary Jo Hoffman

Anne’s career is to some extent a succession of such necessities, which she has, with doggedness and a mostly light heart, converted into virtues. Twenty-year-old chef with no kitchen experience? Okay, make regular phone calls to grandma (traditional Mediterranean home cook), mom (practitioner of la cuisine classique française), and dad (hunter, fisherman, open-fire aficionado). Receive your first Michelin star after 24 years in the Cévennes, and then have to sell the restaurant out of concern for your husband’s health? Okay, move to his hometown of Sète, open a new restaurant in an entirely different food universe, and re-earn your star. Lose your husband to illness two years later?

The first time our family visited La Coquerie was an October Sunday four years ago. We were sandblown, chilled, and underdressed from a day at the beach that had turned stormy. The kids had begun to pick at each other out of hunger and discomfort.

We went looking for a sushi restaurant on Mont Saint-Clair in Sète that turned out to have been closed for years, but had been replaced just months previously by something sleek and understated that advertised itself as La Coquerie, in small round letters on its glass front door.

Despite our air of slightly beggarly dishevelment, Jean-Luc Majourel opened the door, implored us to come in out of the rain, looked around the room of stylish French families, glanced at the chef in the kitchen, who nodded and returned to her work, held up two fingers asking us for deux minutes, and somehow created a table for two adults and two kids seemingly out of thin air.

He wore a bright yellow cashmere sweater, rolled elegantly up his forearms, and, with louche Dean Martin suavity, carried on four or five simultaneous conversations with everyone else in the room as he set our table, explained that there was one menu available take it or leave it, asked me if we preferred a wine rather more fruity or rather more mineral, and delivered us a bottle of local white made with a rare, rustic varietal called terret bourret, which to my delight and his astonishment, I had just picked with a harvest crew the week before.

The tiny, white, minimalist, five-table dining room, which faces the Mediterranean Sea // Photo by Mary Jo Hoffman

We sat at a white table in a room suffused with flat, overcast light, slowly warming, physically comfortable, with damp-haired kids doodling in journals, and took a first sip of that pale, beautiful, stony wine.

It’s what a restaurant can sometimes do: Amid the more reliable bodily satisfactions, a great restaurant can occasionally create a moment, on a particular and irreproducible day, of almost metaphysical soothing.

Anne Majourel’s restaurant, La Coquerie, has a Michelin star // Photo by Mary Jo Hoffman

La Coquerie would have been one of my favorite restaurants of all time, for that instant alone, never mind what happened to us over the next three hours in the hands of Jean-Luc and Anne Majourel.

The next time we returned to La Coquerie, two years later, Jean-Luc was gone, and Anne, with a fierce, tight, cutting-off gesture of her right hand that contradicted her professional smile, asked us not to talk about it, please.

The pinboned mackerel fillets are lined up on a wire rack, and Anne takes two steps from the prep station to the hot plate, firing off cheerful orders to her staff in exchange for smilingly insubordinate “Oui, Chefs.”

She litters a skillet sparsely with coarse salt and places it on the heat.

“When there is snow you scatter salt on the roads to make friction,” she explains. “I put salt in my pan to take away friction.”

The salt will act a little bit like ball bearings, creating a rolling surface to increase the nonstick properties of the pan, and take every last precaution to avoid tearing the spectacular skin of the mackerel. She adds her olive oil, and, launching into an answer about how she can possibly create a new menu every single day, she distractedly trails the tail end of a fillet in the oil several times until she hears the sizzle she wants.

She tends to systematize in threes. There are three influences on her cooking—mom, dad, grandma. Three phases of cookbooks in her life—home cooking, haute cuisine, and the writing of her own. Three eras of personal history—before, during, and after Jean-Luc. And a tripartite theme, open to infinite variations, to what she considers an “Anne Majourel Dish.”

“I start with a base, usually a sauce, always familiar,” she says. “So people are comforted. A reduction, a consommé, a velouté, a beurre blanc, a what-have-you.” The last phrase delivered cavalierly, as if an encyclopedic personal repertoire of sauces to choose from is a bit grammar-school to go into in much detail.

She lays four mackerel hissing in the oil, skin side down.

“Next comes my signature, fish or shellfish, lightly cooked.”

La Coquerie’s menu changes daily, depending on what’s fresh // Photo by Mary Jo Hoffman

As if to illustrate this, she lifts the mackerel back out of the oil after about a minute. In cross section, its skin is browned, its subcutaneous flesh is white, and there is a sashimi-raw strip of interior flesh that will remain so when it’s served to us an hour or so later.

“And there’s la fantaisie,” she concludes—still simple, but a surprise, a flight, a friendly wrong-footing, usually based on herbs and aromatics from her own garden. And here she gives herself full artistic license to decide that a particular taste, or texture, or product, or weather pattern, or volume on the plate, or kind of light reflecting off of the Mediterranean, should be expressed as part of that day’s menu.

It falls woefully short of explaining the precise, multivalent thrill of a mouthful of her food. But it does go some way toward making the process of daily invention seem attainable by a single, real human being.

Three batches of seared mackerel have been returned to their rack, and are whisked off by an assistant to prepare for their big moment, with the briefest final bit of seasoning in the smoker.

A handful of strips of squid are seared in the same pan, and seize into curlicues the shape of vine tendrils. The bisque is drained into another pot, filling the room with a mellow, marine-scented steam that makes my stomach contract with hunger and longing.

It’s time to say goodbye, for now. Morning guests in the kitchen are fine, but staff lunch waits for no one. Anne comes out from behind the counter to kiss us out the door, because that’s what she does, although we will be seeing her again in 45 minutes.

A fishing trawler trails a cloud of gulls toward port, as Mary Jo and I walk across the road and squint down at the sea. Behind us is the marine cemetery, where Paul Valéry is buried. Below us is the Plage de la Corniche, where Georges Brassens petitioned, in one of my favorite songs, to be buried. In 45 minutes, we’ll order a bottle of Jean-Luc’s white wine made with terret bourret, and we’ll eat mackerel caught within sight of here, among other nonnegotiable delights, while the sun floods all of it with January light, and we celebrate a favorite place, and a present moment, seasoned by the sweetness and bitterness of the past.

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