Chef Mauro Colagreco was driving home after service one night when he called me to do this interview. Having never been to Menton, France, where his restaurant Mirazur is located, I pictured him cruising along that city's culturally rich coastline, whizzing past palm trees and watching waves crash as he reluctantly chatted with a New York blogger.
In truth, Colagreco was extremely affable, speaking to me in an elegant though thick Argentinean Spanish that shows no hints of years spent cooking in France's greatest kitchens — a list that now includes his own restaurant. But those years were the focus of this conversation, as was Le Fooding's Exquisite Corpse event in New York, for which Colagreco will be preparing an intriguing early morning meal.
How did you go from Argentina to owning a picturesque restaurant in Menton, France?
In Argentina, I studied economics for a couple of years. But I left that when I realized it wasn't what I wanted to do. I then decided to go to culinary school; it was at a time when the cooking schools there were beginning to have some renown. The first time I walked into one of those kitchens I realized that it was what I wanted to do — if not forever, then for a very long time.
Describe that feeling.
I was going through what you could call the conflicts of adolescence. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do, and it was a time of serious uncertainty and searching. So all I can say is that it was very comforting and exhilarating to discover what made me happy. The feeling itself is indescribable. It's a combination of happiness, adrenaline, and a desire to advance yourself and start a new phase of your life.
What happened after that?
After cooking school in Argentina I worked at a couple of restaurants there. But then it was time to go to Europe and stage. I didn't even try for places like Paul Bocuse and Le Cordon Bleu, since I couldn't afford them, so I applied to various public schools all over France. One of them, in La Rochelle, wrote me back and said that my application was particularly compelling but that they suggested I reapply the following year based on my poor level of French. I wrote them back and explained that I still planned on going to France, and that if they would at some point let me in, I would go for it. So in February of 2000, I went to Bordeaux. Several months passed, and in June I wrote them and arranged for an interview. The director decided to let me in based on my motivation, I think, since it definitely wasn't my French.
How was that experience?
It was different. In Argentina, I was used to doing ten hours of cooking school a week. In France, it was ten a day. But I didn't last too long there, because one of the requirements of that year was to work four months in a restaurant. I sent my resumé to Bernard Loiseau several times, and they finally accepted me. You know what happened with Bernard Loiseau?
He committed suicide.
Yes, I was there before he passed away. I worked the four months, and at the end, they offered me a position. Seeing as it was a three-star Michelin, I thought that it would be a greater learning opportunity than the school. I decided to stay. So I worked there until the day Loiseau died. After, I went to Paris and worked at L'Arpège, Le Grand Vefour, and Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athenée. Then, in 2006, I felt like I was ready to open my own place and that's how Mirazur came to be.
L'Arpège was your big gig, right?
Yes, I worked there with Alain Passard for two and a half years and became sous chef.
What did you learn there?
That was the best of my stages. Why? Because I discovered a kind of cooking that was completely different from what I had been familiar with until that point — an engagement with vegetables that was insanely interesting. We were smack in the middle of Paris, and twice a week we'd get produce shipments from Passard's farm. I learned so much. It was a three-star Michelin restaurant with a strong human dimension. There was a small kitchen, and everyone participated in the creative process and the physical act of making the dishes. That was the place where I was able to develop both my creativity and my technical ability.
Can you talk a bit more about Passard? What strikes me about him, and I don't know if you'll agree, is that he doesn't have the worldwide fame of a Ducasse, even though he probably should.
In France, and in Europe, he's a big name. But I think what you're describing has to do with his low profile. He's deliberately chosen to be that way. He's never opened a second restaurant, he's never written a book — or rather, the books he has done are very particular bandes dessinées or children's books. His goal isn't to be a global, media-engaging chef like Ducasse or Robuchon. He's a genius, a man with an innate talent and an ability to transmit his ideas and teach his disciples, like me, David Toutain, and many, many others that are part of what we could say is the "young French cuisine."
What would you say that jeune cuisine is about?
I should say that it's more the contemporary cuisine of the world, not necessarily only France. France just has a culinary tradition and a devotion to products that might be deeper than what exists in other places. But if you look at New York, London, or Tokyo, they're all at a high level. The new tendency across the globe is to eschew what was so imitated and abused in the era of Ferran Adrià and to carry on what was useful and good. At the same time, it's also very much about an emphasis on the quality of the product. The designation of a "new wave" doesn't really work for me, I should say, since I could argue that Passard has been and continues to be part of the young cuisine [laughs].
That brings me to the question of the "new naturals." You're often thrown into that group.
There are so many ways to talk about a cuisine, a style of cooking. But yes, I would say that in general there is that emphasis on the natural, on the local, and on taking care of the planet. We chefs play a major role in the food chain — just think about the number of restaurants in the world — and chefs have such a high place in the media right now that people look to us. At the same time, I often abstain from giving opinions that should come from philosophers and the people that know, instead of the cooks that we really are at the end of the day.
How does Argentina fit into your life and into your cooking these days?
When I first got here, I rejected Argentina and South America. There was this strong sense of exclusion in the French kitchens where it felt like if you weren't French you weren't respected. So I aimed to be the best I possibly could at French cooking, without referencing my roots.
But as I've enjoyed more and more success, I've thrown taboos aside. I incorporate ingredients like maté, dulce de leche, quinoa, amaranth, and different types of corn into my cooking. But it's very measured, since the emphasis at Mirazur is on using the products we have att our reach — the products from our garden. This is the school of Alain Passard, after all.
So I would say that my main engagement with Argentina right now isn't through Mirazur. It's more direct. I'm in contact with many Argentinean chefs and I do consulting for a hotel company. We recently opened a restaurant there that aims to develop a new Argentinean cuisine based on revisiting and rediscovering products that haven't been used in a long time. Unlike Peru and other South American countries, Argentina experienced a great period of cultural loss.
You're going to be cooking at Le Fooding's Exquisite Corpse event. What do you find compelling about the idea, and what do you have planned?
They discovered me at the very beginning of my career. I've been involved with many of their events in Europe, but this is the first time I'm going to do something in the States. I love doing these things, since it's an opportunity for dialogue and to have fun with colleagues from around the world — even if we're here for work.
What I like about it is that the concept is different, and as usual, that what they're doing is contemporary and innovative. Who thinks of running a 48-hour pop up? I'm cooking from 8AM to 12 PM!
Are you making breakfast?
No. We've written the menu, and it starts with oysters. So it'll be breakfast with oysters, I guess [laughs].
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