The chef and his secret garden: Mauro Colagreco of Mirazur
This is a story that began with a meal. The location was the improbable Côte d'Azur, the blue sky coast of Southern France. Think Malibu, only with more money and even thinner, tanner bodies. Needless to say it's not the land of great restaurants, despite the temperate climate, abundant produce - from just over the border in Northern Italy on one side and Provence on the other - not to mention the pristine seafood local fishermen bring in daily from the Mediterranean.
We heard of an ambitious young chef, fresh from the sublime l'Arpège in Paris, who had fallen in love with the region and opened a restaurant, Mirazur, in Menton, the last little town just before the Italian border. When we made our way there, we found a chef whose story was as unlikely as his locale.
Argentinean-born of Italian and Spanish descent, Mauro Colagreco found his love of gastronomy under the talented and lamented Bernard Loiseau, Le Côte d'Or in Saulieu, and perfected his craft under the exigent Alain Passard in Paris. He was awarded his Michelin star the first year Mirazur opened, and when he was named Chef of the Year in the French guide Gault Millau, he became the first non-French chef to have been given the title. To this day he remains the only one.
The first taste of his food, I understood why. Here's a chef who understands and celebrates quality ingredients, not with the indignant refusal to "do much to the food", but with exquisite skills and wild imagination - the Argentinean side of him I'm sure - that both surprise and delight. I still dream of the impossibly sweet red prawn, enrobed by ribbons of fresh young asparagus, borage and wild garlic blossoms and a drizzle of buttery Ligurian olive oil. Biting into it, I realized that one of the asparagus ribbons was sweeter and had a more delicate perfume than the rest. It was in fact a thin, long sliver baby green zucchini, just pretending. That little gesture changed the dynamics of the whole composition, and it'll make you beg for more. Asked where the superlative prawns came from, Mauro told us that he drove to Ventimiglia, a small market town just over the Italian border to his favorite fish monger to get them - Gamberi Rossi as they're called there - a couple times a week. Some of the vegetables came from the budding potager that he just started down the street.
In nearby Monaco, where great restaurants come gilded, white-gloved footmen carry caviar-adorn plates under Sterling Silver domes to table. Here at Mirazur, the star is the colorful food on the white plates. The resolutely unadorned, modern dining room embraces you, not with its grandeur, but with the 360° visage of the blue beauty of the Mediterranean by day, and twinkle stars and glimmering lights from nearby shores by night. My heart skips a beat every time I walk in to that room. The restaurant inhabits the surroundings just as perfectly as the food exhibits that elusive sense of place most chefs claim to have but never realize.
Mauro's approach to food so much resembles David's, needless to say they became fast friends. The following year, we returned again to the Côte d'Azur, and Mauro insisted that aside from our scheduled dinner, we came back the next day to see his garden and share a simple meal that we cook together from what we find there.
A short walk down the street, then a little way up the hill, we came upon a worn iron gate leading up to Mauro's secret garden. It's no ordinary farm, it's a potager on the grounds of a dilapidated mansion, a veritable palazzo built high on the hills above Menton. Occupying the terraces leading up to the main house are now Mauro's growing beds. There're old fruit trees, still producing delicious figs, peaches, and golden yellow and blood red plums. Hachiya persimmons that are all juicy pulp barely contained by the thinnest layer of skin. Tomatoes, grapes, lettuces, edible flowers, exotic citrus all flourishing under the bright sun and temperate climate of the coast. No wonder they taste so good, just look at the view they enjoy every day.
We picked some greens, a handful of young leeks, herbs, and whatever else I could grab along the way, and headed back to Mirazur for lunch. Mauro had picked up some local oysters and a small swordfish from his fishmonger earlier. He cooked a very simple lunch, swordfish with a sauce made from emulsion of citrus, olive oil, and mixed herbs from the garden. The leeks were sauteed until tender with butter. The oysters chucked and served with little beads of sharp, fragrant finger limes. The dessert was the figs served atop some crumbled up sweet biscuits leftover in the kitchen from dinner service. We ate in the airy lounge under the main dining room. The meal couldn't be simpler, or the settings more beautiful. What a delectable experience that day was.
Since then, Mauro and his darling wife Daniella have come visit us here on the California Coast. He even visited our very own (not so) secret garden, and did a wildly successful guest chef stint at Manresa.
Now, do you want to hear the good news? He's coming again in just two weeks. Mauro will be cooking with David at Manresa, two dinners on Saturday April 10 and Sunday April 11. Saturday night is pretty much sold out I was told, but there are still a few tables available on Sunday. That's why I can't resist telling you, my readers, about him. I'm going to be there as well, so if you're there, do come and say hello. You might also want to whisper to your server that you're a Chez Pim fan, who knows, you might get a little something special for that. Wink, wink.