« This profession was my calling. »
In Noirmoutier, Céline and Alexandre Couillon have created one of the most remarkable tables in the contemporary culinary scene. La Marine, their two-star restaurant, is well worth a pilgrimage to what feels like the edge of the world. Interview of its rather secretive hostess.
To fully understand Céline Couillon you have to travel back in time: “When I was a kid, I used to play in a make-believe restaurant. My mother cooked a lot and I always helped in my own way. It gave me a taste for the good things in life.” She for whom it’s always been “a great joy to have guests at home” turned a pleasure into her job.
In 1993 Céline joined the hotel school in Noirmoutier, where she met her future husband, Alexandre. Several years of training followed, some in England – a necessary step to perfect her English – and in the Landes region, at Pain Adour et Fantaisie. Alexandre was never far away, working at the time for Michel Guérard, some 15km from Pain Adour et Fantaisie. In 1999 the couple took up the Couillon parents’ offer to take over the family restaurant. Céline remembers how tough the early days were, but their determination and passion for their craft have since borne fruit. Indeed, twenty years later, their restaurant La Marine is the recipient of two Michelin stars.
This stellar trajectory is the result of a desire to take things one step at a time. “Looking back, from 1999 to today, there’s a huge difference of course, but there’s never been an abrupt change. We’ve evolved slowly, naturally. Of course, the job is hard, but with enough curiosity, passion and patience, you can truly blossom. You need to perfect your craft working all sorts of jobs.”
«Sometimes you want to go too fast, when in fact starting from the bottom is extremely important: it gives you a sense of pride, and comes with great knowledge.»
Céline Couillon’s path :
- 1993 : Joined the hotel school, Certificate of Professional Competence/Vocational Training Certificate in Catering. This is where she met Alexandre Couillon.
- 1995: Technical Baccalaureate (A Levels) in catering.
- 1997: Multi-skilling Advanced Technician’s Certificate with a focus on restaurant service. First love for customer contact.
- After her Advanced Technician’s Certificate, she worked as a waitress at Gravetye Manor, a Relais & Châteaux establishment in England, to perfect her English.
- Worked among the service staff at Pain Adour et Fantaisie, in the Landes, in France.
- February 5th, 1999: Takeover of La Marine.
- 2002: birth of her first daughter.
- 2005: birth of her second daughter Marie.
A philosophy she shares with her employees: every waiter has a well-defined role, but it is essential that everyone is able to do each other’s work to operate with total confidence. She is involved in all aspects of her restaurant’s day-to-day: set-up, waiting, recruitment, administrative work, etc. Céline is an essential component of La Marine.
« The kitchen is Alexandre’s playground, the restaurant is mine. This is what makes us strong. We have very specific roles that supplement each other, there is a great complementarity between the two of us. »
Beyond her versatility and energy, it is her humility that defines her best. When asked whether she prefers to be called a restaurateur, a co-owner or the chef’s wife, she replies that she doesn’t like labels: “I prefer to be called Céline”. Of course, she is indeed a restaurateur and a chef’s wife: “I am married to a chef!”. But all this wouldn’t be possible without teamwork. Not one to put herself forward, Céline Couillon did however accept the 2017 Chef’s Wife of the Year. The reason behind the decision? Véronique Abadie, who gave her name to the trophy. “She used to come to La Marine, shared advice and encouragement. I thought she was radiant, sincere. She was a strong and caring woman. Maybe in a way, I was projecting myself into her, I can’t really explain it… When I discovered her daughter was hosting this event and that her husband would be there, I didn’t hesitate.”
This benevolence radiates off of Céline, and throughout this interview, several words kept popping up: kindness, discretion and adjustments. In practice, at La Marine, this means paying close attention to maintaining a warm and family environment, for clients as for the team. Céline and Alexandre’s two daughters grew up in the restaurant.
«I had my children, but I had them with the restaurant, I flourished by combining the two.»
This obviously requires a lot of organisation (their apartment, located directly above the establishment played a key role), but motherhood all but confirmed the importance of human connections within the restaurant. “I am very maternal, I am close to my team; it is essential that I know everyone, even in the kitchen.” Is La Marine a second family she needs to care for? “Completely! People must feel comfortable when expressing their needs. We must be considerate and implement solutions so that everyone can enjoy school holidays or off days for instance.” In fact, Céline is delighted that family life has become a matter of men and women.
«The new generation is more open, attitudes are shifting. This is evidenced by the increasing number of girls joining training schools.»
Their restaurant is a perfect example of this trend, counting as many women as men in its ranks. A simple coincidence due to resumes received? We also like to think that La Marine’s owners are not the type of people who can tolerate discrimination. “If there is the slightest mistake, the slightest form of disrespect, you must handle the situation immediately, put the cards on the table, have a discussion or impose a sanction.” At La Marine, everyone is treated equally, male or female, chief’s daughter or not. This is best evidenced by Céline and Alexandre’s older daughter, who is following in her father’s footsteps. While the kitchen is effectively her home, she is well aware that there is no secret to success: you have to work hard and earn your wings. Céline, as a “worried mother”, admits to having had mixed feelings when faced with this difficult and time-consuming career choice. But the enthusiasm, the determination, “a name like ours necessarily builds character”, and the complicity shared between the chef and his daughter have washed away her angst.
After all, isn’t this act of passing down the true heartbeat of La Marine?
« Knowing where you come from to know where you’re going, drawing from history to keep moving forward, that’s our guiding principle. »
A principle that has shaped La Marine’s destiny for 20 years, as evidenced by the portrait of the former tenant hanged in the restaurant, but also by La Table d’Élise, the couple’s second establishment named after Céline’s maternal grandmother: “I wanted her to be part of this adventure”. A great family story, we tell you.