Lisa Abend - October 2013
Strands of Mauro Colagreco’s personal and professional lives span the globe. So does his growing reputation at his locally focused Michelin two-star restaurant Mirazur on the Côte d’Azur.
Outside Ventimiglia’s market, the rain was coming down in sheets, but Mauro Colagreco hardly noticed. It was his second market of the morning. At the first, located just a few kilometers away on the French side of the border, the cheesemonger had welcomed him warmly with spoonfuls of a milky brebis for him to try. But somehow, here on the Italian side, he seemed ever so slightly more at home. As he picked through baskets of peas, selecting pods one by one, the elderly owner looked on bemusedly. With his sack halfway full, he glanced over at her. “What did I tell you?” she asked with a rakish smile. “That they’re all good,” he answered sheepishly. And with that, he began shoving fistfuls into his bag.
Colagreco has made a career out of straddling worlds. Born in Argentina to a family of Italian and Basque descent, he left Buenos Aires at age 23 to begin training in France. Four years later, he opened Mirazur, on the easternmost end of the Côte d’Azur, and promptly won his first Michelin star within the restaurant’s first 10 months (Mirazur now holds two). The cooking he does at his restaurant in Menton—deeply grounded in place, but delicately laced with innovation—has many convinced he is the future of French cuisine. But just as many see him as the Lionel Messi of the food world: a tremendous success in Europe still yearning to be loved at home. “My food is French,” Colagreco says.
We have escaped the rain by ducking into a cafe across from the market that, the 36 year old chef swears, makes the best cappuccino in the world. I ask him to repeat himself to make sure I’ve heard him correctly over the clang of the espresso machine and the clattering of cups and saucers. Because the truth is that between his wide-set brown eyes and the easy way that he chats with the barista, I’ve started to think of Colagreco as more Italian than anything—and this despite the fact that we’re speaking in Spanish. For one thing, he’s already told me that it was his Italian grandmother who inspired him to cook in the first place. But he confirms it: “Yep, definitely French.” And then, having polished off his coffee in three gulps, he sets out for the fish market, where he is soon entranced by baby eels, caught the night before.
Perhaps the reason that Colagreco can answer that question without hesitation has to do with his training. He has cooked, after all, in the kitchens of some of the greatest chefs in France—four of them, in fact. After a brief stint in La Rochelle, he spent 18 months in Bernard Loiseau’s Côte d’Or (now Relais Bernard Loiseau), and was working there when the Burgundian chef tragically killed himself in 2003. He also spent time at Alain Ducasse’s restaurant in the Plaza Athénée hotel and Guy Martin’s Le Grand Véfour, both in Paris. But it was that great master of the naturalist slight of hand, the Parisian chef Alain Passard, who had the greatest impact on him.
“He has a different way of observing cuisine,” Colagreco recalls. “French cuisine has very strict rules about what you can and cannot do, but Passard didn’t care. He would go into the walk-in, pick up an onion, stare at it for a while, and then make a dish from it—from one onion!” The younger chef shakes his head at the memory. “Passard gave me freedom, yes, but he also taught me that people come to a restaurant for love, for emotion, and not because the thing you’re making is technically perfect. They come for an onion.”
Colagreco admits that when he first opened Mirazur, his cooking mimicked Passard’s a little too closely. But Menton is far from Paris, and gradually he let himself be shaped by his new environment. That environment was hard to ignore: the expansive windows of Mirazur’s dining room overlook the Mediterranean. And so, the Italo-Argentine chef trained in France began to reflect less on where he had come from and more on where he was.
Obviously, he’s not alone in this approach. Locavorism, terroir-based cuisine—call it what you will—is the default setting for restaurants with even the slightest of gastronomic aspirations (to say nothing as the raison d’être for vast swaths of foodies stretching from Brooklyn to the Portlands). And Colagreco, like his friends René Redzepi, Ben Shewry, and Daniel Patterson, shares its tenets. Although his staff doesn’t let him go shopping alone very often (“I buy too much,” he shrugs), he takes pains to highlight what he calls “the incredible products from our incredible markets.” In fact, the only non-local product he serves are oysters—those come from Brittany. He started a garden, where, among other fruits and vegetables, he grows between 25 and 30 different varieties of tomatoes each year. He works closely with local farmers, convincing them to restore once-common products—like fantastically rich goose eggs—that are now in danger of disappearing from the culinary landscape. And he does it all in the hopes of provoking emotion, even joy, from his diners. “People will come to me after a meal and say, ‘That was a real tomato. That egg reminded me of my childhood,’” he says. “We want to ensure that they don’t forget these flavors exist.”
When Colagreco says “these flavors,” he really means the ones directly around him. One of the most notable characteristics of Colagreco’s cooking is a sweetness that frequently derives from one of the Mediterranean coast’s most typical products: fruit. “At first, I think it was unconscious, because I happen to like a balance of sweet and sour flavors. I serve an oyster with pears because I think that mix of sweetness and iodine is interesting,” he says. “But now it’s more intentional because we have a lot of fruit here, thanks to the microclimate.” He pauses to consider what he’s said. “And maybe it’s contrary to all that fermentation.”
In other words, although Colagreco embraces the same philosophy as, say Redzepi, and may indeed share many presentational elements, his food tastes radically different: sunny to Redzepi’s stormy; sweet to the Dane’s briny. It’s a delicious lesson in what terroir cooking really means, yet it’s only one of the ways that Colagreco forges his unique style. He also applies the techniques he learned in all those three-star restaurants to gently surprising ends. A hefty slab of what looks to be foie gras turns out to be monkfish liver—one that the chef has taken three days to prepare: first draining the blood, then salting it and letting it rest, and finally cooking it first sous-vide at 65ºC (149˚F), and then searing it on the plancha. As is the style these days, it’s served on one of those rough slabs of slate, with a wild grilled leek draped around it, and a few pristine borage flowers artfully dotted at the edges. But then, shimmering underneath, that rarest of things for an avant-garde kitchen: sauce. Made from leeks, it is verdant but sweetly rich, and complements the creamy, briny liver perfectly.
“Yeah, I like sauces.” Colagreco blushes as if he’s just confessed a guilty secret. “If they’re done well, they bring a lot to the plate.” They show up a lot in his dishes: a brothy one flavored with peas and fresh oregano under a nicely crisped bit of kid sweetbread; another—thicker, richer, and made from red cabbage—swaddles an excruciatingly delicious red prawn. These are, in their foundations at least, traditional sauces, made without hydrocolloids and with stock as the base. That stock starts conventionally enough—for his fish stock Colagreco uses monkfish heads and reduces the liquid slowly, over the course of two days. But instead of using protein to clarify it, he employs liquid nitrogen, freezing the stock immediately, and then, as it melts, filtering it. “I learned that trick from Claude Bosi and Sat Bains,” he readily admits. “And they learned it from Heston Blumenthal.”
It’s a minor but telling adjustment. For all his French training, Colagreco isn’t afraid to innovate, or to look outside of France. “French cuisine has to open up to the world,” he says. “Otherwise it will just ossify.” If Colagreco is particularly passionate about that idea, it may be because he has experienced its opposite firsthand: his French colleagues haven’t always been welcoming to this outsider from half a world away. “It’s true, that when Gault Millaut named me best chef of the year in 2009, it was like a finger in the eye to some [he was the first, and to this day only, non-French chef to win the award]. I went to a meeting of important chefs, and three quarters of them wouldn’t look at me.”
So he looks for fulfillment in other ways. An eponymous restaurant in Shanghai he opened in 2012 allows him to experiment with ingredients and, especially, textures that he doesn’t get to use on the Côte d’Azur. He has found a group of like-minded chefs and friends in that globe-trotting gathering known as Cook It Raw, bringing his oyster-and-pear combination to the Japan edition, and devising a venison tartare, which he named Bambi in the Forest, for Poland. And at Gelinaz!, an avant-garde dinner that brought 23 chefs to Belgium in June to interpret a classic 19th century recipe for chicken timbale in aspic, he gave free rein to his more artistic side. Using only the heads and feet of the birds—parts routinely discarded—he then had two topless dancers (one of whom was his sister Laura) accompany the presentation of the dish with a frenetic Butoh dance conducted using mostly plastic wrap. While the dancers writhed their way past diners, images of factory poultry farm production flashed on video screens; this was the chef’s way of raising questions about industrial agriculture.
Even while Colagreco gains acclaim in his adopted country and among the global dining elite, Argentines wonder why he isn’t doing the same for them. “They’re proud of me, yes. But I think there are some who ask why I had to go away to cook.”
The answer lay with Argentina’s economic instability and its lack, at that time, of acceptance for creative fine dining. Yet as things change in his home country, he finds himself thinking more and more of its possibilities. “I’d love to open a restaurant in Patagonia,” he says. “They have such incredible products—berries you’ve never heard of, this intense kind of wild sorrel—and no one works with them.”
In the meantime, Colagreco keeps cooking his mongrelized, delicious version of French cuisine. A few hours after we went to the market, I sat down to lunch in Mirazur. One of the first dishes that came out was the baby eels he had bought that morning. He had placed them end to end, the tiny eyes of each translucent body perfectly aligned, until they formed a spiral. They were raw, drizzled only with olive oil and a bit of orange peel and herbs, and were frankly exquisite.
Was the dish French? Italian? Spanish?
Did it matter?