I’m walking around the market in Ventimiglia, Italy, with chef Mauro Colagreco of Mirazur. He strides purposefully from one stall to another, picking up produce, feeling, sniffing, tasting, pausing to hug a stallholder. The produce, almost all local, is gloriously abundant – glowing orange orbs of apricot, five different sizes of cherry, boxes of canary yellow zucchini flowers, green snake-like trombettes (a local variety of courgette), slender baby artichokes – it’s an utter feast for the senses.
It overwhelmed the young Colagreco when he first came to Menton. “I’d written the menu in Paris and one week after we opened I realised I’d got it totally wrong. The produce isn’t the same – the climate and weather are totally different. I chucked it all out and started again.”
So how did a young Argentinian end up running a restaurant that has just been voted number 1 in the world? It really is the stuff of dreams. Although Colagreco comes from a professional family of Italian descent – his father was an accountant, his mother a lawyer – he’d set his heart on being a chef and went to catering school. With the encouragement of his teacher, he headed to France to learn his trade, managing to wangle his way into the kitchen of some of the industry’s biggest names – Bernard Loiseau, Alain Passard and Alain Ducasse. How did he persuade them to take a young foreigner on? “I tried many, many times until they said yes! I spent a year with Loiseau peeling potatoes.”
After this tough apprenticeship he was casting around for his own place when a friend of a friend introduced him to the owner of what is now Mirazur, an art deco building a mere 30 metres from the Italian border. “I came from a rainy Paris and landed at 20°C in Nice and thought ‘this is a good sign’”. It had been closed for four years, but the young Colagreco made such an impression on the owner that he gave him the chance to take it on at a peppercorn rent. He opened in April 2006 at the age of 29. “I had no money and no experience of running own restaurant and Menton wasn’t even on the map. It was unbelievably tough. We only had five staff. Now we have 50.”
Colagreco’s food is a pure terroir-driven cuisine, deeply rooted in the area which has a particularly favoured microclimate – you can even grow bananas and avocados there. It made a huge impression on the young Argentinian. “I simply wasn’t aware of the richness of the area – the two huge food cultures we have to draw on – the sea, the mountains. Even now I am amazed by it.”
His warm reception in the market owes as much to his fame as a TV personality – he has appeared on Top Chef Italia – as his newfound status as the world’s best chef, but behind the beaming smile there’s a steely side. A committed environmentalist, he sternly admonishes any stallholders who try to put his purchases in a plastic bag. “When he blows, he blows!” laughs his assistant Valentina.
Like most chefs at his level, Colagreco has a burgeoning empire with restaurants in Paris (Grandcoeur), Courcheval and Cannes (BFire), Beijing (Azur in the Shangri-la hotel) and Shanghai (Colagreco), and a mini chain of burger joints called Carne in his native Argentina. Locally, there is the recently opened Komo in next door Monte Carlo, whose upmarket boutique sells 440 euro bottles of water, and a forthcoming pizzeria in Menton which looks set to become the Padstow of Provence.
His ambitions extend beyond the kitchen though. He already has five gardens in which the staff of the restaurant are all encouraged to work, which produces well over a hundred different varieties of fruit and vegetables, including 40 kinds of tomatoes and 30 different citrus trees. “Now we’re 35-45% self-sufficient – 60% in the summer,” he says proudly. “Growing in close proximity to the kitchen, you can taste a plant at all stages of its development. We experiment with growing things together that taste good together like strawberries and rhubarb and tomatoes, fennel and basil.”
“One of my wishes is that the garden should become more important than the restaurant,” he says simply. That would take some doing, but I wouldn’t put it beyond him.
The Mirazur experience
Mirazur’s food may have been voted the best in the world, but it would be hard to improve on the setting too. Sandwiched between the mountains and the Mediterranean, overlooking the cerulean sea, no three star restaurant I’ve been to has as stunning a view. They don’t call it the Cote d’Azur for nothing.
The largely vegetable-based menu draws heavily on the chef’s gardens and is marked much more by its bold combinations of flavours than showy techniques. There’s a welcome absence of foams, gels, smoke and the other weapons of the 21st century chef’s armoury. Tiny sweet peas picked hours before service are partnered imaginatively with kiwi, apricot with crab, and strawberries and cherries, sourced earlier that day in the market, with tiny black olives. It’s elegant, almost painterly, but it’s still a cuisine du marché – a tribute to the lightness of touch of his mentor, Alain Passard.
The wine pairings from sommelier Benoît Huguenin are equally bold: predominantly white except for a daiginjo sake and a 1996 Catena Cabernet Sauvignon from Colagreco’s homeland. Many come from older vintages. On our flight we were treated to a 2012 X-elis Sancerre from Domaine Gitton, a 2009 Riesling Grand Cru Schlossberg from Domaine Otter and a stellar 1976 Huet Vouvray Clos du Bourg. More respect is paid to flavour and texture than a conventional order of service. A delicate cooked and raw mushroom tart, served in the middle of the menu, is paired sublimely with Champagne (a 2016 R Pouillon Festigny Blanc).
Expect to pay around €400 a head with wine, not out of order for this level of cooking – if you can get in. Bookings are now closed for 2019 and open shortly for 2020. I’d get yourself on the mailing list pronto.
Mirazur is at 30, avenue Aristide Briand
Tel: +33 (0)4 92 41 86 86
Where Mauro eats
La Merenda, Nice
Cosy traditional restaurant in the back streets of Nice with typical Provencal favourites such as stuffed sardines, daube de boeuf and – Mauro’s favourite – the tarte de Menton, an unctuously sweet onion tart in a crumbly pastry shell – basically pissaladière but without the anchovies. Wash it down with a delicious Cassis rosé. No booking.
Two Michelin-starred restaurant run by brothers Gaël et Mickaël Tourteaux who spent their childhood in Guadeloupe. “Inventive and surprising food,” says Mauro.
La Vecchia Ostaia, San Biagio della Cima
Run by a son and his mother ‘Mamma Angela’ who make everything from scratch. The pasta is the highlight – “Mamma Angela’s raviolis are the best I have ever tasted”.
Il Genovese, Genoa
Authentic Ligurian restaurant dating back to 1912. The pesto which, according to the website can be made by hand on request, is the “best ever” according to Mauro. Tripe is also a speciality.
La Spiaggetta dei Balzi Rossi, Ventimiglia
This chic beachside restaurant (open May to September) just over the border from Mirazur enables you to combine lunch with a spot of sunbathing (loungers are for hire on the private beach). Go for the raw fish platter.