A privateer in the kitchen

Text by Erwan Desplanques. Photographs by Anne-Claire Héraud

The village

A privateer in the kitchen

The village

A privateer in the kitchen

The creative and travelling spirit of chef-in-residence Coriolan Pons.

A privateer in the kitchen

BRETON-BORN CORIOLAN PONS has been the resident chef at Château Palmer since spring 2022. He uses his travels and love of the sea as inspiration for inventive, cultured cuisine, showcasing exciting medleys of fermented vegetables and dishes that tell a thousand stories.

ART IS OMNIPRESENT: In the veins of leaves; in the fermentation of a garden pea; in the clay; on the skin. The first thing you notice about Coriolan Pons, resident chef at Château Palmer, even before tasting his dishes, is the collection of tattoos running down his arms. A Japanese carp, a seahorse, and flowers around a lighthouse are just a few of the multicolored ink motifs engraving the story of his life and his travels – none of the tattoos were done in France – as if it were essential to have explored the ends of the earth to truly understand and master an exceptional French terroir.

He wears a beret, like a Montmartre painter or poulbot, reminiscent of a chef's hat, while at the same time sharpening his difference. Chef Pons knows he stands out in the French gastronomic landscape. With his Shakespearean first name - Coriolan is a Roman who opposed Caesar - he seemed predestined for every kind of audacity and counterpoint. At 36, he claims to belong to a generation of self-taught chefs who emerged spontaneously, and says he's uncomfortable with the old school where a chef would have to “suffer twenty years before being considered by his peers, thirty before eventually attaining a certain nobility".

INSTEAD OF LURKING IN THE BACK KITCHENS of Michelin-starred restaurants, he decided to set sail at an early age, traveling to Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania – and even crossing the Atlantic with three friends – to “explore unknown worlds.”

THE SEA REMAINS HIS GREATEST PASSION. He would stare out at it every day as a child from his window in Locquirec, Brittany (at the time, he saw himself more as Cousteau than Robuchon). As a teenager, he fished for sea bream using Laughing Cow cream cheese as bait, got to know red mullet, and raised traps of cuttlefish, starfish, and lobster. He worked as a fishmonger for three months as a young man, and could very well have become a fisherman. “The sea has always been my back garden,” says Coriolan, who knows the best surf spots in the Finistère region as well as the secret hideouts along the shore for picking borage, samphire, and sea pepper.

HE HAS ALSO ALWAYS BEEN FAMILIAR WITH COOKING. His paternal grandmother in the Gers département planted a fruit tree for each of her grandchildren. “Mine was a walnut tree, and I remember her gathering green walnuts on Saint John's day. She steeped them in Madiran and Armagnac to make walnut wine. She also made fig jams and verbena liqueur. I saw the whole thing as a marvelous operation, making the ephemeral timeless.

AT HOME, HE COLLECTED RECIPE CARDS from Marie-Claire magazine and pored over Escoffier’s Guide culinaire. But the real revelation was Olivier Roellinger’s Trois étoiles de mer, a gift from his mother for his 21st birthday. He couldn’t put it down, and the book forged his existential perspective: “I identified with him, his Breton roots, his taste for adventure, and how he talked about privateer cuisine and the spice routes." Before following in his role model’s footsteps and packing his bags, he spent three years studying geography in Brest. He then worked for double Michelin-star chef Patrick Jeffroy in Carantec and came third in a cooking competition sponsored by Olivier Roellinger himself, presenting a mackerel ceviche that paved the road to his destiny.

THE NEXT CHAPTER in his adventurous life saw him traveling in Asia and Oceania, racking up the miles and absorbing knowledge, as if fishing, surfing, and sailing were all essential steps before returning home to shine in the kitchen. “I needed to develop my personal library,” he says of his “twisted, convoluted” career. The reference to books comes as no surprise; Coriolan owes his magnificent name to his exceptionally well-read parents – his father is a journalist in Geneva, his mother a librarian and cultural studies teacher – who adore ancient Greece and named their two other sons Tarquin and Eyquem.

WHEN HE ARRIVED AT CHÂTEAU PALMER in 2022, his first instinct was to read Steiner and Goethe, check the lunar calendar which now hangs on the kitchen fridge, and bake a root vegetable using the estate’s soil. He then began experimenting with abandon, moving from one vineyard “island” to the next, picking spinach and calendula, and marveling at the estate’s first asparagus planted three years ago.

THE MAN WHO NEVER STOPS MOVING seems naturally at home in the château’s renovated kitchen, inventing dishes imbued with the salt of a multifaceted life to tell an infinite number of stories. Listening to him explain how he invented his “cannelé that thinks it’s a madeleine” and his “pigeon with black berries” inspired by the etymology of the word “merlot,” is an unforgettable experience. As is watching him carve a lamb, prepare a flowering artichoke barigoule, and blowtorch a tomato to warning diners about the dangers of heatwaves!

CORIOLAN IS A PEERLESS STORYTELLER, capable of offering inspired comments on the buttery aromas of the Blanc de Palmer 2010 before whisking you away on a journey to Auckland, where he learned the subtleties of maturation, infusion, and fermentation.His first discovered these techniques with his grandmother, which instilled within him an ambition to preserve the ephemeral. When she passed away last year, she left him all her jars. He brought them to Palmer to “ferment carrots and squash, to study the depths of time itself, and to bring together past and present – just like in wine.”

DAY AFTER DAY, he seeks to “encapsulate” moods, seasons, and ideas. He refines the complexity of his dishes, sketching out countless inventions from Jerusalem artichoke soufflé to smoked eel with stuffed chard and beets cooked in Palmer clay.

IN HIS (LITTLE) SPARE TIME, Coriolan also makes ceramics in Bordeaux, sculpting double-glazed plates and daydreaming of making containers and dishes from plant ashes. It is easy to picture him with a shovel at the foot of the château, gathering earth and crafting tomorrow’s tableware. This digging is how he continues to build his vast inner library.
When asked what he would have done if he had never become a chef, he replies: “graphic designer.” He loves creating logos and labels, rewriting codes, inventing objects and stories. With him, art is everywhere: on his skin, in dishes, in glasses, in words themselves. In the ingenious combination of what he creates with his hands and the ambition he pursues in his own life.