Mauro Colagreco’s career has been a fateful one. You could almost think that his story is too good to be true. The Argentinian with Italian roots sets off for France to become a chef. He works his way to the top as a trainee, studying under one culinary genius after the next— Loiseau, Passard, Ducasse. And while making a life for himself in the homeland of fine cuisine, the ultra-talented Argentinian starts exploring his Italian heritage as well… and ultimately opens his first restaurant (where else?) at the French-Italian border. And what a restaurant! Mirazur—number three on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Many people consider it the best restaurant in France, a gourmet temple where Colagreco holds culinary Mass and converts ordinary diners into true believers.
Well, destiny or no destiny, Mauro Colagreco definitely worked hard to make it all happen. In his youth, playing rugby for the Argentinian club La Plata, he learned that the road to success isn’t easy— if you really want something, you’ve got to fight for it. He started business school, but quit before finishing his second year. The plan was for him to take over his father’s accounting firm, but it just wasn’t going to happen. He simply couldn’t ignore his passion for cooking any longer— a passion he developed thanks to his Italian grandmother. “Every time we went to visit her, the first thing she did was put bread out on the table, so that her eleven starving grandkids had something to munch on while she finished cooking,” Colagreco recalls with a smile. Today, he uses his grandma’s bread recipe as the basis for Mirazur’s signature rolls. That bread, in fact, was what first inspired Colagreco to serve his rolls with aromatic olive oils. More on that later, though.
So the Argentinian dropped out of business school and enrolled at Gato Duma’s culinary school in Buenos Aires, which he attended from 1998 to 2000. One of his teachers there told him that “If you want to learn from the best, you have to go to France.” Not long after that, the 23-year-old moved to La Rochelle, a small town on the Atlantic coast. There, he enrolled at a hotel academy for one year before starting a practicum at the legendary La Côte d’Or in Saulieu, to learn from three-Michelin-starred expert chef Bernard Loiseau. And wouldn’t you know it? That first, crucial station on Colagreco’s illustrious career path was located on Rue d’Argentine—Argentinian Street. Well, one thing’s for sure: Loiseau’s culinary artistry was like a religious awakening for Colagreco—especially his sauces, perfectly accentuated with vegetable purees, which planted the seeds in Colagreco’s mind for subtle innovations of his own. On the last day of his practicum, just before lunch, Loiseau offered him a position as demi-chef de partie. Colagreco accepted without hesitating, and remained at the restaurant until Loiseau’s tragic suicide in 2003. What he learned in Saulieu went well beyond just culinary technique.
“For example, I learned that you can’t always win in life, even if you’re constantly being showered with awards. Fame is a fragile thing.” For ten years after Loiseau’s death, Colagreco was so filled with grief that he couldn’t even set foot in Saulieu, but he remained as determined as ever to pursue his culinary dreams. He went to Paris.
Among the greats
Specifically, to Alain Passard at L’Arpège. Just as Passard was beginning an extensive vegetable-based menu. There, Colagreco learned the philosophy that likely shaped his culinary artistry more than any other: product purism. “Passard cooked vegetables as though they were meat or fish,” he recalls of his time with the God of Vegetables. As the chef de partie, Colagreco shared the kitchen with just five other chefs—a fraction of what he has now. The small team gave Colagreco the opportunity to handle a variety of tasks and make the most of the opportunity. It’s hard to overstate just how much of an influence those two years with Passard had on Colagreco. You might say Passard’s vegetable garden planted a seed in the Argentinian chef’s mind: he started thinking about how he’d enjoy having his own products that close at hand one day….and of course, he’d need a restaurant of his own to go with that garden.
But before Colagreco could take the plunge into entrepreneurship, he wanted to spend time at one of the restaurants listed on the “Palace de France” rankings. So he tried his luck at Alain Ducasse’s restaurant at Hotel Plaza Athénée—and landed a temporary position. Since Colagreco was a former Arpège chef, Ducasse started him as garde manger chef de partie… which didn’t exactly endear him to the other chefs, who had been working under Ducasse for five years and longing for a position like that. “I worked unbelievably hard to earn the respect of the others,” Colagreco says. “I worked from six in the morning until two in the morning.” Everything else about Ducasse’s restaurant was different from Passard’s, too. With 20 chefs in the kitchen, everything had to be strictly regulated—right down to where sauces were plated. More than anything, his time at Plaza Athénée helped Colagreco develop a new understanding of Mediterranean cuisine. He’d never really focused much of his professional energy on learning how to cook Mediterranean food—what he knew of it, he’d primarily learned from his parents and grandmother. “I also learned how important perfectionism can be,” the Argentinian adds. After six months, though, he’d had enough. The pressure of having to prove himself to the Plaza Athénée team again and again, day after day, was just too exhausting. Colagreco wanted to leave Paris. And once again, it was like Destiny was already planning its next rendezvous with the Argentinian.
From the Mediterranean Sea out into the world
He was 29 now, and he’d fulfilled his dream of becoming a chef, but now another dream had taken hold in his mind: Colagreco wanted to open his own restaurant. He searched all over the country, but without investors or business partners, he had no way of securing a suitable location—French real estate prices made it impossible. Suddenly, Colagreco heard from a friend of a friend who owned some property near the French-Italian border.
“I grew up near the ocean, the view is breathtaking, and the owner and I got along immediately,” Colagreco says. And then there was the location… or rather, the terroir. The area has a diversity that seems perfectly tailored to Colagreco. The sea provides the Mediterranean climate, of course, but being close to the Alps gives Colagreco access to products and influences that aren’t normally associated with Mediterranean culture. The enormous “stone wall”, as Colagreco calls the mountain behind Menton, stores the warmth of the sun, so he can even harvest vegetables in the winter.
In fact, Menton is the only place in France where bananas can grow, and lemons are practically a symbol of the town. Plus, Italy is just 300 meters from Mirazur, so Colagreco goes to the Ventimiglia market once a week, for example to buy types of zucchini that aren’t available in Menton. From the very beginning, Colagreco made the most of his new place. He earned his first Michelin star after less than a year, and Gault Millau named him “Discovery of the Year”.
Nowadays, Colagreco also grows a lot of Mirazur’s fruits and vegetables in the gardens near the restaurant. He’s got three now, and five employees tending them. One of the three is directly beside Mirazur, and features a hundred and fifty kinds of herbs. He also grows 39 different varieties of his favorite vegetable, tomatoes. He uses Menton’s famous lemons (which he grows as well) to flavor the olive oil he serves alongside his grandmother’s bread.
Though Colagreco’s cuisine draws heavily on local products, he’s not afraid to incorporate other cultural influences, either. Mauro Colagreco is sharp and curious, an experimenter and tinkerer who travels the world searching for new ideas. His sous chef, Luca Mattioli, recalls that an Air France pilot once came out to welcome Colagreco in person: the pilot had checked his database and discovered to his astonishment that the Argentinian had been on more flights that year than the pilot had. “Just imagine,” Colagreco says, looking amused. “That was only counting the Air France flights!” Colagreco may do a lot of traveling, but he definitely feels at home in Menton. Mirazur is where his career really came to fruition. If Destiny does end up bringing Colagreco somewhere else, though, we think it’s safe to say that it knows what it’s doing.