The Chef At One Of The World's Top 10 Restaurants Talks Shop

Mauro Colagreco is the chef-owner of the two-Michelin-starred Mirazur in Menton, a small French town on the Côte d'Azur. The restaurant is situated on the border between France and Italy along the scenic Mediterranean shores. There is much ado in the press about Colagreco's Argentinean-Italian heritage, which seems to take precedence over his own identity as an uber-talented chef. Born and raised in Buenos Aires, Colagreco is now a bona fide French chef cooking in France. However, a recent appearance as a fluent Italian-speaking judge on Italian Iron Chef added to the ongoing debate. In this era of ratings and lists guiding diners on food voyages, it is no trifling matter that Mirazur rose to No. 6 on the World's 50 Best List for 2016, which puts Colagreco as the top chef in France, over his mentor and former boss Alain Passard of L'Arpège at No. 19. Mirazur is a member of the prestigious Relais & Châteaux community and has recently been added to the Les Grande Tables du Monde collection of fine restaurants.

Asked about this year's upcoming awards in Melbourne and what he hopes for, he shared: "I have arrived in the first 10 on the list, which is extraordinary. It is the team's reward for 10 years of efforts, passion, and evolution. This year I only hope to keep our place in the top 10, because I know there are many incredible restaurants in the world that have their place in the top 10."

Over the years, Colagreco's charisma and disarming honesty has drawn many chefs from all over the globe into his coterie of close friends. Last year Mirazur celebrated 10 years with 10 celebratory dinners, with some of the world's top chefs taking command of the kitchens. The formidable talents included Massimo Bottura, of Italy's Osteria Francescana; Rene Redzepi, of Denmark's Noma; Virgilio Martinez, of Peru's Central; Sébastian Bras, of France's Maison Bras; and David Kinch, of California's Manresa.

I was at Mirazur on a sunny morning as Kinch and Colagreco manned the barbecue, wine glasses by their sides, prepping for the first of the fabulous dinners, which would be followed two days later by Redzepi. In the ensuing six months, the dinner guests included many well-known chefs from France and other countries, who descended on Menton for these unique events.

Guests at Mirazur are greeted by stunning views over the Mediterranean and picturesque Menton, with visibility all the way to Monte Carlo in the distance. The terraced gardens on the 1930s property are a vision when in bloom, supplying the restaurant with a lot of its seasonal produce. The gardens are industriously maintained by the restaurant staff under the supervision of two gardeners and the chef himself. According to the residents of Menton, the enormous avocado tree on the property is one of the oldest in France; it is a sight to behold. The sunny Mediterranean climate makes it possible for Colagreco to source the freshest ingredients from around him, supplemented by daily forays to the Ventimiglia market a short hop away in Italy.

To say he is picky about his products is an understatement truly realized after accompanying him on these shopping trips. According to Colagreco, his cuisine is sans borders or frontiers, utilizing the best products of both the sea and land, dominated by bitter and acid tastes enhanced with herbs and flowers. Colagreco's inventive cuisine at Mirazur even makes it possible to fall in love with a pumpkin dessert! Full disclosure: I have come to know the chef as a friend over the years and that probably influences the way I perceive his cuisine, but as a well-versed diner, I have to say it is as spectacular as the views of the sparkling Mediterranean from the restaurant.

Colagreco has been busy outside of Mirazur as well. The Grand-Coeur brasserie in Paris followed Mirazur in 2015 as an ode to Colagreco's time spent in the city and his nostalgia for those days. He also ventured into China — first in Shanghai, and more recently with the Azur restaurant at Beijing's Shangri-La Hotel. There are indications of a burgeoning hamburger empire after last year's opening of Carne in La Plata near Buenos Aires. In March, Mirazur will pop up at the Kulm Hotel in St. Moritz, Switzerland, for the jet-setting ski crowd. A new project at Courchevel Resort in the French Alps is also currently underway. Like most well-known chefs these days, he is constantly on the go, traveling to food events (one of his favorites is Gelinaz), for chef collaborations, or to his overseas operations.

The food industry has begun to focus on the stresses and hardships of life in restaurant kitchens and the challenges of running chef-owned restaurants. It is now acceptable for chef-owners to walk away within the first few months or years of opening as opposed to sticking it out. Most restaurants these days are backed by investors, some just dabbling in gastronomy as a hobby, while chefs are often not financially invested in the restaurant. In this context Colagreco's story is an exception.

Mirazur was powered solely by a young chef with €25,000 in his pocket, a chef who bet on his own talent. Colagreco's story is an inspiring example of struggle, survival, and success, sprinkled with two Michelin stars along the way. That an ode to bread by Pablo Neruda shows up at the table with the warm, crusty bread (accompanied by house-infused olive oils) points to the romantic in the chef, while the beautiful plates that follow reveal the soul of this culinary artist.

Colagreco — who spent five years at L'Arpège in Paris under the tutelage of chef Alain Passard, worked with Alain Ducasse at Plaza Athénée, and a year at Guy Martin's Grand Véfour — tells the story of his beginnings.

The Daily Meal: Did you always want a place of your own? Where did you want to open?

Mauro Colagreco: I always wanted a place near the ocean, but it always seemed like a farfetched dream. I didn't have any family or other support in France, and the banks would not extend me any credit. One day I was at lunch with some friends at Akkelare in San Sebastián, Spain, and they invited another couple to join us. As we ate we started talking and they were curious about my background, especially coming from Latin America and cooking French food in France. As we spoke about my desire to have my own restaurant, they said they knew of a fantastic place that had been closed for a few years near where they lived on the Côte d'Azur.

I was still working in Paris, so they offered to organize a meeting with the owner. Some time passed and I forgot about it, and was taken aback when three months later I got a call to ask if I could come to Menton. So I came to visit at the beginning of November, leaving a cold, rainy Paris to land in Nice on a beautiful, sunny day. The sun shone on the water, people were dining outdoors, and I was hooked.

When I visited the property and looked at the state, I immediately thought it was amazing but too much for me and my pocket. I met the owner at his hotel in Menton, a very dapper gentleman with a Panama hat and an air of affluence. I had prepared a dossier with my background and all my experience, which I presented to him but he asked me to put it away and to just tell him about myself and my aspirations. He understood during our conversation that I didn't have the money to invest, but it was a special property for him where he had unsuccessfully tried to open on his own [restaurant]. When he saw my passion, he made a proposal to me offering to rent the property for a year or two to see if I could make it work.


So it was a low rent?

Very low rent, and he also offered to talk about the rest once I decided to take on the property. I decided on the spot to go for it. It was very hard because it was closed for such a long time and without much money or any investors, it was a challenge. As you know it's not even in the center of the city but on the outskirts, and on top of it in a region with very famous restaurants close by Monte Carlo.


How long did it take before you could establish yourself?

It was very hard, especially for the first two years. Now it seems like a nice history, but I was constantly on the verge of closing down in that period. I had a lot of doubts and got proposals along the way to take up an executive chef's position in a palace (fine dining grand restaurant).

I was even offered a job in Marrakesh at the King's Palace with huge salary and benefits, and it was tempting. It would have given me house, car, school for my kids, and every other perk, and life would be very comfortable.


When was this?

It was 2009, the year when I was chosen as the Chef of The Year by the Gault & Millau guide, and this practically at the moment I had decided to give up. I thought that is a sign that I need to continue. At this time, I spoke with the owner, who decided to become my partner for four years and then later I bought him out. I am forever grateful to him as he has always helped me, and I couldn't have done it without this man, who has become like a father to me. If he hadn't taken a chance on me and given me this opportunity, I couldn't have done it. He didn't need the money but just wanted to promote my talent and encourage me.


Why did you open GrandCoeur in Paris?

When we were facing tough times at Mirazur during the first four years, we always thought of moving to Paris. We thought if we open a place there, it will be easier to make a go of it — unlike Mirazur where we were in the countryside. The quality of life is definitely much better in Menton than in Paris and that held us back every time.

Another coincidence occurred when the journalist who wrote the first story about Mirazur came to visit and said he had now gone into the restaurant business in Paris. He had five restaurants and offered to open a casual one with me since he said my food was great and should be in Paris.

I agreed to open a brasserie and not a fine dining restaurant because I still want to live here in Menton. It took two years before we found the perfect spot, in the heart of Paris, near a historic theater and a dance academy. The outdoor terrace is perfect to relax, and there is always music in the air, making for a great atmosphere.


What were your most difficult months after opening GrandCoeur?

It was November, December, and January, though now that is changing. We had started off very well in the end of May 2016, and in June, Le Figaro, the oldest and most prestigious daily newspaper in France, released a 50 Best [ranking] of terrasse restaurants in Paris and put us at number one. This was just three weeks after we opened and that was very encouraging and gave us a big push. We were very busy every day until the terrorist attacks occurred.


How much has that affected business?

Now we are at 80 percent compared to 100 percent. Like everyone else in France, we hope these don't occur anymore but who knows.


When you planned GrandCoeur, who did you envision as your guests? Who is at the helm there? Any female chefs?

We expected the people who lived and worked in the neighborhood as regulars. Since it is the picturesque Marais of Paris, we expected to have tourists as well. Rafael, my Brazilian head chef, had worked at Mirazur for three years with me, and my sous chef at GrandCouer is from Italy and was also at Mirazur for two years. They made it possible for me to start with a strong kitchen. Speaking of female chefs, my previous sous chef at Mirazur for seven years was from Japan, and now she has opened a very good restaurant in Paris.


What is your concept of brasserie fare at GrandCoeur?

I want to reinterpret the brasserie in ambiance and food but as a seasonal brasserie. These days it is difficult to find a good one as many serve frozen food instead of the classic fare. It's simple food with good products and a Mediterranean sensibility. The average price for a meal with wine is around €60. We take walk-ins, and at busy times people line up outside to get a spot. We open from Tuesday through Sunday lunch for a la carte meals. We are established in the neighborhood and have a lot of regulars now. We make our own charcuterie and boudin noir [blood sausage], and the menu is changing constantly.


Your staff at Mirazur is from all over the world. Is it the same in Paris?

Yes. Brazilian, Sri Lankan, Italian, Argentinean, French — so it's a similar international spirit like Mirazur.


What do you love about Paris?

Paris is a place like no other, and I love to visit the Musée d'Orsay, the St. Martin neighborhood with the canals, which is very Parisian. The Marais, of course, is one of the oldest and [most] historic parts of Paris, and one of my favorites is the Place de Vosges, where Victor Hugo lived. Paris, of course, has the chicest flea markets. The Jewish quarter is very bohemian and very romantic, and I love to visit it.


You were a judge on the Italian Iron Chef show, so how did that come about?

You know Italians love Paris, and they probably visited GrandCoeur and then offered me the opportunity. Mirazur is near the Italian border, and the impact of this show has obviously resulted in more business for us. I speak Italian fluently because of my own Italian heritage, and the Italian culture is close to my own culture.

How have you with fared with your overseas projects in China?

Shangri-La opened in 2016 in Beijing, and being in Shanghai for four years prior gave me experience with Chinese products. It is not easy to have a business in China and acquire products. For the first two years it was a Chinese mission to find good staff and good products. Shanghai is very cosmopolitan, like NYC, and guests come from all over the world, with 50 percent international and the other 50 percent well-traveled Chinese. In Beijing, it's a more closed society so it is a little challenging. The political scene is changing in China, and so wine sales are not that great anymore. We procure the meat from Australia and try to source other products locally. One of my chefs has lived in China for 13 years so he has great contacts with suppliers, which is a bonus for us.


What do you think of the concept of presenting a chef's dishes cooked by someone else across the world, like your Forest dish at In Situ in San Francisco?

I have no problem with people cooking my dishes across the world. In fact, I feel proud and honored that they appreciate my food and asked to cook some of our dishes.


How is it different from copying or following a recipe? What is the benefit of such projects?

I think when you copy you just appropriate something that is not yours, and when you follow a recipe you should admit that it is not yours.

For me it is a pleasure to know people will taste our food and that we can also help some association. I feel that by such little things, we can contribute towards helping make a positive change in this complicated big world.

It is sincerely not for business or exposure. I have never had a client who came to Mirazur and said they have tasted one of my dishes in another place and come to discover Mirazur. Obviously, we don't earn anything from it. My sous chefs went to San Francisco to work on it, but I have yet to visit and taste it myself. Next time!