The Most Decorated Chef You Probably Haven't Heard Of.
Fantastic jams. An old menu. And a recipe suggestion.
Mauro Collagreco doesn’t cook; he dreams food onto the plate, creating images that stay with you long after the flavors have vanished. His remarkable food is unlike that of anyone else, which would be reason enough to visit his beautiful restaurant, Mirazur, on the cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean.
Mauro is the only chef in France who has three Michelin stars and is not French. In 2019 Mirazur was voted the best restaurant in the world on the World’s 50 Best Restaurant List. He has restaurants in China, Paris, Bangkok, Macao and Argentina. And yet each time I mention this remarkable man to an American the inevitable response is “Who?”
You will be hearing more about him. Because Mauro is one of those inspirational chefs whose goals transcend merely serving great food; he is out to change the world.
In 2003. when he left his native Argentina he had less lofty goals; he went to France to cook with Bernard L’Oiseau. “I was there when he died,” he says simply. “I made a promise to never work the way he did. If you work well, and if you love your work, maybe the stars will come.” (L’Oiseau took his own life, and there has been much speculation that it was because he was afraid of losing his third star.) Mauro went on to work with Alain Passard at Arpege and Alain Ducasse at The Plaza Athenee before moving on to Le Grand Vefour. But he longed for a place of his own.
“In 2006 a friend told me about a little restaurant that had been closed for three years down near the Italian border. I go to meet the owner, and he walks in wearing a white linen suit and a panama hat - a perfect English gentleman. We talk for a while and finally he says, ‘So how are you going to pay for my restaurant?’”
I groaned when he told me this story; I knew where it was going. But I was wrong. “He’s been the most perfect partner,” says Mauro, “he’s like my father, my family. He’s helped me all along the way.”
I’m not surprised; everybody seems to wish Mauro well. Soon he was surrounding the restaurant with biodynamic gardens and buying everything else from local people. Six months later Gault Millau dubbed him “a revelation,” and before the year was out Michelin had awarded him a star.
It was just the beginning. Not content with growing fruits and lemons, 150 herbs and 35 different kinds of tomatoes Mauro bought land up in the mountains where an entirely different microclimate allows him to raise cold-weather crops as well. As time passed he became increasingly invested in biodynamics: the restaurant composts everything that isn’t used.
Then a few years ago there was another change: he and his wife Julia took their kids to Mexico. “We were driving to Tulum,” he says, “and there, in that beautiful place, the entire coastline was heaped with garbage. Forty miles of junk - mostly plastic. I began to ask myself how much I had contributed to that.”
Back in Menton, Mauro started calculating how plastic they used at the restaurant. It was shocking. Mirazur was going through10,000 kilometers of plastic wrap every year. (If you were driving that would take you from France to Russia and back again - twice.) It took three years to change that, but in 2020 Mirazur was the first restaurant in the world to be certified plastic-free.
“It wasn’t easy to persuade our suppliers to change their ways,” he says. That may be true, but in Menton, Mauro has a lot of sway. He seems to buy just about all the fish caught by local fishermen (the fish sold in the market on the day I was there were all what the French call etrangers - they came from somewhere else). When the owner of the local bakery (its wood-burning oven was built in 1906), wanted to retire he talked Mauro into taking it over. Mitron bakes biodynamic bread and pastries, using local wheat, emmer, spelt and kamut: everything I tried was fantastic.
And while wealthy tourists come to eat at Mirazur, locals go to Mauro’s family-friendly grill, Casa Fuego, or his pizzeria. And just down the road, in Roquebrune-sur-Mer there is Mauro’s newest adventure, Ceto, in the sleek Maybourne Riviera hotel overlooking Monte Carlo.
The menu is all about fish. Right up front there’s an aging room, a chilled chamber with walls made of pink salt.
I hadn’t intended to write so much about Mauro, but he’s such a talented, inspirational and lovely man that after the tenth serious food person told me they’d never heard of him I just couldn’t help myself. People like Mauro Collagreco give me hope for the future. After all, how can you help loving a man who serves a salad like this?
Or has a smile like this?
For more photographs of the gardens in Menton, the market, the bakery and all the food I ate while I was there, check out my Instagram feed.
Last week, at the Great Barrington Farmer’s Market, I walked past the Les Collines stand and overheard a couple telling the proprietress they had driven all the way from Philadelphia to buy her jams.
So of course I had to buy some too. They are remarkable: barely sweet they taste like preserved fruits rather than sugar. I’ve devoured the entire jar of peach preserves, and now I’m starting on the Strawberry with Lapsang Souchang,, which is extremely appealing. And I have never found a better partner for peanut butter than this Concord grape preserve.
These jams are packed with fruit and they’re expensive. They are also, in my opinion, worth the money. And as the proprietress told the Philadelphia couple, “You didn’t have to drive here. I’m happy to ship.”
Brett Anderson wrote a lovely piece about restaurants in Oregon’s Rogue Valley in the New York Times this week. The local chefs he interviewed credit Vernon and Charlene Rollins as the inspiration for much of what has taken place there. I wrote about their New Boonville Hotel here. And here’s an even earlier menu, one that Vernon made for Alice Waters on her birthday in 1978.
Not exactly a recipe, but a friend just reminded me of an interview I did with Jean-Georges Vongerichten a few years ago. “There is no better sauce,” he told me, “than soy sauce and butter.”
I think of that every time I struggle with a recipe that needs a bit more oomph.