Chef Colagreco has an inspiring story to share of a talented chef who realized his dreams against all odds . This down to earth young chef knows how to win over people not just with his food but also his warm smile. He exemplifies that hospitality and generosity in cuisine both come from the heart. Last year I was lucky to be at three of the ten guest chef dinners to celebrate ten years of his two Michelin starred Mirazur restaurant. David Kinch who is Colagreco’s long-time friend was first, followed by Rene Redzepi who, being a real trooper despite being under the weather, flew in with his team and cooked a fabulous dinner having barely recovered from a health situation. In October I was at Mirazur for a another memorable dinner by guest chef Sebastián Bras from the Aubrac plateau. The icing on the cake was the Bras families signature dish Gargouillou and the unforgettable Aligot served at Mirazur without another adventurous trip to his Bras Restaurant.
Mauro’s 40th birthday in a vineyard in Italy with all his family and friends was an amazing and fun-filled celebration for my young friend and took me to the the familiar town of Menton again. I have seen him in my own restaurant kitchen in California when he came to cook with me for the 30th anniversary of my restaurant. He won over the whole team with his humility and anything-goes attitude. Watching him chasing his rambunctious young son Valentine on the beach in California or showering Massimo Bottura and Alain Ducasse with champagne at the out of hand after party at last years 50 Best awards in New York the mischievous and light hearted side of his personality emerges. Mauro and Julia Colagreco are both exceptional people and very special and warm human beings.
Chef Mauro Colagreco of Mirazur Shares His Story
by Geeta Bansal
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 at the border where France and Italy meet along the scenic Mediterranean shores. There is much ado in the press about his Argentinean Italian heritage that 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 recent appearance as a fluent Italian-speaking judge on Italian Iron Chef added to the ongoing debate. In this era of ratings and lists that guide diners on food voyages it is no trifling matter that in the World’s 50 Best List for 2016 Mirazur rose to #6 in the prized top ten ranks. According to this list Colagreco is currently the top chef in France rising up in ranks over his mentor and former boss Alain Passard at #19. The restaurant is a member of the prestigious Relais and Chateau community and has recently been added to the Les Grande Tables du Mondes collection of fine restaurants.
Asked about the upcoming 50 Best Restaurant awards in Melbourne this year and what he hopes for he shared, “I have arrived in the first ten on the list which is extraordinary. It is the team’s reward for ten years of efforts, passion and evolution. This year I only hope to keep our place in the top ten because I know there are many incredible restaurants in the world that have their place in the top ten.”
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 ten celebratory dinners inviting some of the world’s top chefs to take command of the kitchens. The ten formidable talents included the likes of Massimo Bottura, Rene Redzepi, Virgilio Martinez, Sebastián Bras, and David Kinch to say the least. I was at Mirazur on a sunny morning as David Kinch and Mauro were manning a barbecue, wine glasses by their side prepping for the first of the fabulous dinners followed two days later with Rene Redzepi of Noma. 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 sweeping over the Mediterranean and picturesque Menton all the way to Monte Carlo in the distance. The terraced gardens on the 1930’s built 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 and 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 many times on these shopping trips. According to Colagreco his cuisine is sans borders and frontiers, utilizing the best products of both the sea and land, dominated by bitter and acid tastes enhanced with herbs and flowers. The uniqueness of 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 Mauro as a friend over the years and that probably taints the way I perceive his cuisine but as a well-versed diner I have to say it’s spectacular as are the views of the sparkling Mediterranean from the restaurant.
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 has also ventured into China in Shanghai first and more recently with the Azur restaurant at the Shangri La hotel into Beijing. There are indications as well of a burgeoning hamburger empire after the opening of Carne in La Platta outside Buenos Aires in Argentina last year. In March Mirazur will pop up at St Moritz, France at the Kulm hotel for the jet setting ski crowd. A new project at Courcheval is also currently underway in the French Alps. Like other well-known chefs these days he is constantly on the go, traveling to food events, one of his favorites the Gelinaz, chef collaborations or his overseas operations.
The food industry has lately begun to focus on the stresses and hardships of life in restaurant kitchens and the challenges of running chef owned restaurants. It is now quite acceptable when chef owners walk away within months or the first few 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 of his beginnings is an exception.
Mirazur, the now world renowned restaurant was powered solely by a young chef’s passion with €25,000 euros 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. The Pablo Neruda (Nobel laureate and Chilean poet) ode to bread that shows up with the warm crusty bread at the table accompanied by house infused olive oils points to the romantic in him while the beautiful plates that follow, the soul of this culinary artist.
Colagreco spent five years at L’Arpege in Paris under the tutelage of chef Alain Passard, with Alain Ducasse at Plaza Athenee and a year at Guy Martin’s Grand Vefour tells the story of his beginnings.
Did you always want a place of your own and where did you want to open?
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 which had been closed for 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 I 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 which he had unsuccessfully tried to open on his own. 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 in close by Monte Carlo.
How long did it take before you could establish yourself?
It was very hard especially for the first two years and 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, schooling 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 a 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 Grand Coeur 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 theatre 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 you the most difficult months after opening?
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 classement 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% compared to 100%. Like everyone else in France we hope these don’t occur anymore but who knows.
When you planned the Grand Coeur, 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 Grand Couer 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 Grand Coeur?
I want to reinterpret the brasserie in ambiance and food but 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, 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 Musee Orsay, the St Martin neighborhood with the canals which is very Parisienne. The Marais of course is one of the oldest and historic parts of Paris and one of my favorites is the Place de Vosges where Victor Hugo lived and 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 Grand Coeur 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 and 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 fifty percent international and the other fifty 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 thirteen 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 am not sure about that part but 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!