It’s a pleasure to see Mauro and Julia Colegreco together with their young son as any other normal family. I recently saw a very personable side of this young chef who has matured as a person and a chef since we first met many years ago. I saw a more humble and happy side of this charming man who has the ability to connect very naturally with people around him. We met again San Sebastián and then few weeks later in Wolfsburg, Bensburg and Cologne in Germany where we also shared some extensive dining experiences. I will be posting another report on my visit to Mirazur and the gardens shortly.
Mauro Colagreco, A Cuisine Sans Borders, Mirazur, France
by Geeta Bansal
Colagreco is referred in culinary circles as the two Michelin-starred Argentinian chef cooking in France at his Mirazur restaurant in Menton, south of Monaco, a short sprint to the Italian border. Colagreco rightfully refers to his cuisine as one sans borders and frontiers, utilizing the best products of both the sea and land and dominated by bitter and acid tastes enhanced with herbs and flowers. I set out to discover how he looks at his evolution and transformation in the last fifteen years in the kitchen and in life. I had visited Mirazur, part of the Relais & Châteaux group, previously and then met him later in San Sebastian two years ago just as he was making a splash on the international scene. In the interim he met his beautiful Brazilian wife Julia and settled down to raise a family and put down permanent roots. I saw him recently in San Sebastian and then a few weeks later in Wolfsburg with his wife and adorable son Valentine in tow and we subsequently spent time together in Cologne where he was a presenter at Chef Sache, a gathering of pioneering and modernist chefs from around the world. He was the perfect picture of a charming family man pushing a stroller and tending to his young son and wife, looking happy and self-assured. In our earlier conversations it was a very intense Mauro, focused on proving his mettle as an outsider in the somewhat closed French culinary community but now he seemed very peaceful and content with life. The two Michelin stars and the 11th spot on the World’s 50 Best list no doubt contributes to that self-assurance of having arrived. He has spread his wings to Shanghai where he opened Unico, a Latin tapas bar adjacent to his Argentinian restaurant Colagreco in 2012 to much critical acclaim and being the only starred Argentinian chef he also serves in an advisory capacity to the kitchens of Alvear Palace in Buenos Aires, his hometown in Argentina. Colagreco finally seems comfortable with his Argentinian roots and identity and while being one of the most respected young chefs in France.
Colagreco has trained under Alain Passard and Alain Ducasse both formidable names in the domain of gastronomy. Originally an economics student who switched to culinary school and after a few cooking jobs left Argentina for Europe to pursue his culinary ambitions. After cooking school in Bordeaux and a job in the kitchens of Bernard Loiseau who tragically took his life when faced with the prospect of losing his Michelin status, Colagreco moved to Paris. His big break came after working at Plaza Athenee and Le Grand Vefour when he was hired at L’Arpege by Alain Passard, eventually attaining sous chef status in two and a half years. He credits Passard for installing the love of vegetables and the ability to express himself in his cuisine. In 2006 he opened Mirazur in the serene town of Menton and the rest is history. The terraced gardens at Mirazur which also boast of being home to the oldest avocado tree in France have over the last few years become a major part of the culinary acclaim of Mirazur. A meal at Mirazur with views of the beautiful Côte d’Azur coastline and the fresh picked produce from the gardens of the restaurant add up to provide a memorable experience.
Admirably his cuisine is his own with no references to his Latin/Italian heritage or the styles of the chefs he has worked with and watching him demonstrate his creations on stage whether at the Gastronomika or Chef Sache his focus and creativity are very apparent. He is a team player and often cooks with his peers at events around the world and in his own kitchens at Mirazur. Since we have both traveled to work and set up our base in another part of the world our conversation centered on that aspect of transformation, besides gardening as he is very involved in growing fruits, vegetables and herbs in the terraced gardens at Mirazur.
My Conversation with Chef Colagreco:
Your personal and professional life has changed in the last few years, now you are a father and two starred chef. Has that changed you as a person?
Yes of course because your life and how you use time changes with all of it and I think it has all changed for better. It feels that life is the most beautiful thing when you see this little being (his son) that you are responsible for and each second with him is amazing. I am really happy and content now with myself and my cuisine. Now I try to balance my time between family and work.
What has changed in your cuisine over time?
I opened my kitchen eight years ago when I was only 29 and since then I feel my cuisine has evolved with the passage of each year. In the last four or five years I have really found myself and my own way and it was not an easy process. I feel good now about myself and my cuisine because in the beginning I tried to be very forward in my work and to do something new each time. Now we are still always creating in our kitchen but in a very different manner. Every time I travel I bring back new ideas and inspiration to my kitchen.
Have you simplified your cuisine in that process?
Yes and now since the last few years I try to use very few elements in each dish and concentrate on bringing out the flavor. We are situated in the most fortunate area for products being just 30 meters from the Italian border, the ocean on one side and the mountains on the other. We have the best of French products with a very favorable climate. I am now known as the Argentinian guy at Mirazur who does not cook Argentinian food and who, despite having trained in France, does not cook only French cuisine. I am a little Italian by heritage so I enjoy the freedom to create on the French/Italian border. In the beginning it was very difficult for me and took time to understand and define myself.
Do you feel having achieved success the pressure to prove yourself is gone?
You are right and the pressure is not only to prove yourself to others but to yourself. For me being Argentinian in France it was harder to prove myself. I have now shown myself by my work and not by my origins and am defined by my own cuisine.
You work in a region with many formidable talented chefs so is it a struggle to maintain your own identity amongst them?
I don’t think a lot about that and about being around the ‘big guys’ of cuisine. It was always my dream to be able to work amongst them and when life put me on stage with these people I just went with it. There is still the wow factor but also the desire to keep advancing.
You were in Bernard Loiseau’s kitchen when he took a drastic step out of fear of losing his stars, so do the two Michelin stars and being #11 on the 50 Best Restaurants lists create stress about keeping your place?
I first started to cook in his kitchen and so I know the limits of pressure. In my career whenever I get an accolade or recognition which for me happened very quickly after opening I don’t focus too much on these things. All I wanted was to have guests in my restaurant and as long as they keep coming I don’t think about the other stuff. After I got my first star I started to think about my second star and waited for it. The moment I stopped thinking about it I felt free and the second star arrived. The same with the 50 Best this year as with a new baby and taking care of business I wasn’t thinking about my place on the list. To take on pressure of these lists is not good for a chef though in France the place of French cuisine in the world is a result of 100 years of the Michelin guide being around. They have helped to elevate the level of French cuisine and for that it is of interest. For individual chefs to focus on it is not healthy.
Have these accolades helped in filling up your reservation lists?
Of course it is very good for business and this year after the 50 Best placed us at #11 on 28th April during that night itself till the morning of the 29th we had 120 bookings. Especially for a restaurant in Provence that is outside a big city Michelin and the other lists makes for great publicity.
Do the expenses of maintaining the level of excellence and service increase with each subsequent star or place on the lists?
They do go up but that is a choice the chef or the restaurant make by themselves. Restaurants in hotels can do that but it is more complicated for other restaurants. These kinds of pressures make you more innovative and at times it leads to more good things happening for you. I remember opening Mirazur with an investment of just €25,000 by me and my associates. I started with three people beside myself in the kitchen and two in the dining room. Of course it was very hard and came at the cost of many sacrifices and now I cannot think of starting out that way again. It took a lot of energy in those years but I am glad to have lived this experience. I have a sense of independence and pride about it.
The 50 Best list has become somewhat controversial in France and has created two camps between the old guard and the younger chefs. What is your opinion about this?
It is a pity and it does take away the focus from cuisine. I don’t like it when we are asked to define our philosophy and such things because we are just cooks and that is our job. Sadly this does create a separation between the two generations of chefs and we will lose the opportunity to learn a lot of things the older generation has mastered and some of this knowledge will be lost. There is no plot to displace anyone and it is a little bit of paranoia according to me. One thing is true that though we have a lot of good restaurants in France only about ten of them are on the 50 Best Restaurants list. The problem perhaps is with the division of votes as though Spain, Italy or Belgium have very high level restaurants they don’t have as many restaurants as us and we have the same number of votes as them. So the votes are spread out and not concentrated. We don’t have regions like you have in the three in the US for San Pellegrino (50 Best Restaurants List). If in France we make separate regions then we can find a solution to this problem.
Where is home for you now?
It’s in Menton, France. There was a time when it was between Argentina and France and that is something that has changed within me now. Once that awareness comes or you make that decision, which takes time, and I have been in France for fourteen years I know now this is my home. Now when people ask me where I am from I say I am born in Argentina and spent 23 years there but my home is in France.
You are from Argentina, your wife from Brazil, you live in France close to Italy, and cook a cuisine that has some parts of all these places. Do you think we are moving towards a global cuisine?
For food, people and producers it is important to keep the traditions and culture of their own region. I feel that we in the process of evolution move ahead but not away from tradition. Tradition is not stationary and our life is about understanding this evolution. I actually found my own cuisine after I understood the products of my area and why food in the area is made a certain way, why certain herbs are used. Perhaps my perception of tradition is more open since I came from another culture but I came ready to learn the traditions of this area. My different approach to tradition shows in my food.
Your gardens at Mirazur have really developed over the last few years, so how many people take care of them and who decides what to grow?
Two people and some of our cooks. I along with the gardener plan what to grow based on what we will need in the coming season. For example now we prepare for our opening in February after the break. We started planting and planning in September and prepared the ground. We planted artichokes in May and we left them in the ground for spring, also planted potatoes, onions, carrots, cabbage, cauliflower and lot of fruits
I hear you are growing aji’s (chilies) too?
Yes we did in summer along with fava beans and green beans. In summer we will plant 32-35 types of tomatoes, 12 kinds of corn, and 8 kinds of potatoes, one of which is amazingly very acidic!
In Argentina we have a major problem with monoculture and depletion of soil so I try to talk about the importance of maintaining bio diversity and bio dynamic produce.
Do chefs need to focus on these issues?
I feel very strongly that we chefs need to talk about these issues. In the last five years the chefs have become more involved and a lot has changed. We all talk a lot but now it’s time for action and get real about these issues. In the last two years we have actually gone beyond the talk and started working for change and practicing what we preach. We take responsibility by talking on television or in articles to make publicity but we have to do our part in reality.
Now is this gardening and foraging by chefs become a gimmick for publicity? I visit real gardens like yours but also the 20 pots on a roof top that look so different in reality from the pictures in the media.
Sadly it’s sometimes true and even with all that we grow my garden only provides 40% of what we need in the kitchen. So statements like everything is from our own garden are misleading.
You like to use fruits in your kitchen?
I love to use fruits, especially with my fish dishes as they add acidity, freshness. They are healthy too and as we have a lot of pomegranates so each morning I make juice for my son Valentine. I had a health issue recently and by incorporating different things in my diet I changed the outcome surprising my doctor.
How important is service in making the diners experience enjoyable?
It is very important. It took time to build stability in the dining room and we made big changes recently. I used to think that 80% was food but now I have realized that service is equally important and this year during our closing I am making a lot of changes. In the kitchen we have me, so outside it has to be a strong team.
Are all these international events we all travel to promoting or changing our industry by bringing people together?
They are but now it’s getting too much though we do get a chance to see chefs and spend time with people we would not normally see or learn about new techniques. I go to two or three maximum in a year but if you are willing to go there is one each week in a different part of the world. And we are cooks who need to be in our kitchen and this year I have traveled more but essentially everything has to be in equilibrium. The difficult part is that since the whole world votes on lists like 50 Best chefs have to raise their profile and exposure and so this travel is part of the business. I promised my wife that won’t travel so much next year! Pascal Barbot made the choice to close three days and only travel to such events when his restaurant is closed.
What will you be doing ten years from now?
I joke with my wife that I will close and go to Brazil and fish all day and cook it right there.
You really think you can leave this profession?
( Laughing) No! I love this job and if I ever have to consider leaving this it will impossible. I love to paint and it’s my other true passion.
On my next visit will see your art work in Mirazur!
I have one in my office but many in my home. The day when I change over to fishing maybe I will be painting more. I was born and raised in the city but my grandparents lived in the country. My earliest memories are of my father fishing there and family gatherings where grandmother was always cooking with a smile and with love for us all.
Do you cook from the heart?
Always! I cook from my heart and the day I lose that emotion it will be time to move on.