Mauro Colagreco was in the clutches of a personal crisis when he found himself working in the kitchen of a fine dining restaurant in Buenos Aires. He had just dropped out of the economics degree he despised, severing any chance of following in his father’s footsteps and taking over his accounting firm down the track. That had been the plan, until it wasn’t. And now he felt like a failure at 20, with no future and no direction.
While some people prefer to endure miserable lives pursuing careers they feel obliged to follow but secretly hate, Colagreco dramatically shifted the course of his life when he decided he couldn’t suffer through another class of finance or banking, international trade or economic policy. It hurt, but if he didn’t make the bold decision, he might be stuck punching numbers right now in Argentina.
Colagreco went from that restaurant to cooking school the following week with a flame burning inside him. By the time he finished his studies 12 months later, there was only one country Colagreco wanted to go to develop his skills. That’s what led him to a tiny village of just 3,000 people in eastern France in 2001.
Fast forward two decades and the Argentinian is still there. He is now the mastermind behind Mirazur in the Cote d’Azur and now one of the best chefs on the planet. The 43-year-old is the first chef based in France to be voted by the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list as the best restaurant in the world, and the country’s only non-French chef to earn three Michelin stars. For someone who was depressed and stressed about the future 20 years ago, the future has panned out pretty well.
“My journey in the kitchen came at a time of crisis for me. I wasn’t sure which direction to take in my life and I was at a crossroads, but sometimes that’s what leads to the best opportunities and decisions. I had a literary baccalaureate and had tried to follow in my father’s footsteps as an accountant, but I had no passion for it,” Colagreco told Man of Style this month.
“The family reminded me how much I loved to cook with my grandmother when I was a child. This memory helped me to discover my true passion for cooking, and now I can’t imagine myself being and doing anything else. When I finished my gastronomy studies in Buenos Aires, I wanted to have a culinary experience in France, whose gastronomic culture I admired, and to return to Argentina after my studies. But during my internship at Loiseau, his offer to stay and work with him made me change my plans.”
Mirazur is perched on a cliff overlooking the Riviera, less than 300 metres from the Italian border in the bottom right corner of France. But before Colagreco put Menton on the culinary map, he started his career interning under French legend Bernard Loiseau until his tragic suicide in 2003, before spending three years working under Alain Ducasse and Alain Passard in the capital.
Colagreco hasn’t been back to the restaurant where Loiseau earned three Michelin stars before taking his life due to speculation he was about to lose one of his highly prized stars. But the lessons he learned perfecting sauces and transforming classic dishes avant-garde still remain today. Ducasse taught Colagreco rigour and redefined attention to detail, while Passard introduced him to the delicate art of cooking vegetables. He learnt offence, defence and special teams under three of the very best, before the then 29-year-old decided he was ready to lead his own team in his own restaurant, about as far away as one can get from Paris while still remaining in France.
“I was lucky enough to be able to make a very rich and intense experience during the first years I lived in France. Indeed, from 2001 to 2006, the year I opened my own restaurant, I had already worked for some of the greatest names in French gastronomy. I have a feeling of deep gratitude towards them, each of them left a specific knowledge and trace both on a personal and professional level,” Colagreco said.
“At Loiseau I had an approach to the world of meat cooking like I had never known before. At Ducasse it was the perfection of techniques and service, with Alain Passard I was amazed by the exploration of the vegetable world.”
If you walk from the entrance of Mirazur down the road, you will reach the Italian border in only a few minutes, perhaps even quicker if you don’t gaze at the Mediterranean. Monaco is only 30 minutes down the road, Nice is a little further west and Cannes is just over an hour away almost every weekend except for when the Formula 1 circus comes to this neck of the woods every May.
Colagreco wasn’t actively looking for a site in this part of France when the opportunity fell in his lap. He wanted to get out of the capital after a whirlwind few years working crazy hours at l’Arpege and Hotel Plaza Athenee. When some friends told him about this 1930s building that was nestled down near Italy, he decided to fly to Nice and check it out. It hadn’t been open for three years and was in a place where people didn’t travel to, but that didn’t deter Colagreco, even if it meant finding ways to source more money for the project.
“The meeting with the Mirazur has this magic touch of all great adventures; a part of hazard; a part of destiny. The fact is that some friends told me about a restaurant closed for three years in a paradisiacal place on the French Riviera between France and Italy that I absolutely had to know. They even organized a meeting with the owner and I found myself travelling from Paris to Menton without even realizing that this meeting was going to change my life forever,” he recalls.
“It was a moment in my life when I was thinking of opening my own restaurant but I realised the great difficulties for someone who had neither money to invest nor a family history in the world of gastronomy. The Mirazur presented itself as an opportunity and even without any certainty, I took on the challenge of opening it.
“I arrived in Menton with a huge number of recipes that I had prepared in Paris especially for this event, but as soon as I set foot in this territory, I quickly understood that I had to work with the products of this wonderful place; I was on the Mediterranean coast, I had the mountains behind me, the gardens and the specific microclimate of Menton. I wanted to work with this, I wanted to go and meet the people who work with those wonderful products. Little by little I met the producers, the artisans, I visited the local markets in France and Italy and I started to discover the enormous richness of this region and its culture.”
Mirazur has been a winner since early in the piece, but its ascension on the world stage hasn’t happened overnight. The restaurant received its first Michelin star less than 12 months after it first opened in 2006. It took another six years to acquire a second star before finally completing the set in 2019. Since being named No. 11 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2014, Mirazur has clawed its way from No. 6 (2016) to No. 4 (2017) to No. 3 (2018) to finally No. 1 in 2019, where it still remains after last year’s list was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic that has threatened the entire hospitality world.
Just like Hisa Franko in Slovenia, Blue Hill at Stone Barns in America and Mugaritz and Asador Etxebarri in Spain, one of the secrets behind phenomenal Mirazur’s success is in its location. The restaurant has five different gardens on acres of space which produce more than a hundred varieties of fruit and vegetables, including 40 kinds of tomatoes and 30 different citrus trees. Almost every member of the team spend part of every chef inside the one of the gardens, where the close proximity to the mountains and the sea provide rich rewards from the ground.
Awards and recognition are more important for a restaurant located in a remote spot, far away from a major city, but stars, lists and television appearances don’t motivate Colagreco and his team, just like they did for some of his mentors. It helps business, of course, which is critical, especially amid a global pandemic, but the chef still maintains the same passion for cooking that inspired him to drop out of La Plata University and pursue cooking 23 years ago.
“I am very proud of all the recognition we have received because I am aware that there was a lot of teamwork that went into waiting for these awards; this is a great encouragement to all of us. But I have chosen not to work to achieve an award that is not in my goals, so even though I have my three stars and the position of first restaurant in the world for the 50 Best I continue to evolve with the same enthusiasm as when I started,” he said.
“One could say that we are the first to have held this position for two years because of the Covid,” he quips wryly. “Of course, we are happy even if the circumstances are so difficult for the gastronomy at the moment. We try to be as united as possible with our community and try to pass on a positive message by continuing to work and to develop ourself in the full respect of our planet.”
The phenomenal success of Mirazur has encouraged Colagreco to open three more restaurants in France and three in China. And he hasn’t stopped there. After two decades away from his homeland, Colagreco has opened up a chain of hamburger restaurants, Carne, in Argentina where he aims to provide high quality and healthy competition to the fast-food chains that dominate the globe.
He isn’t the only high profile chef who has pivoted away from fine dining during the past 12 months, with Noma’s Rene Redzepi opening POPL in Copenhagen and James Lowe from Lyle’s London launching ASAP Pizza during a brutal year in gastronomy where survival was – and still is in most parts of the world – the name of the game. Colagreco now has four versions of Carne in Argentina and a brand new outpost in Singapore, with more in the pipeline for 2021 and beyond.
“I wanted to create a concept that could transform the meaning of hamburgers linked to fast food and bad food and I wanted to do it in Argentina, in my hometown because the meat is something very appreciated and I wanted to take the challenge of working with local producers who had this awareness of respect for nature in a somewhat difficult context for this because of the power of the big monopolies,” he said.
“I dreamed of taking my kids out for a delicious and healthy hamburger; the concept was a success, we opened four branches in Argentina and when the opportunity to open a branch in Singapore arose I said yes without doubting.”
While accountants have rarely been more valuable than in the past 12 months, fine dining chefs have become superfluous to day-to-day needs. But despite all the doom and gloom created by the pandemic, the world is a much better place with Colagreco running the show at Mirazur instead of running the numbers on his calculator in Argentina.