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Argentinian chef cooks 'out of the box'
By Gao Ceng

CA va? Is everything fine, my fish?"

Chef Mauro Colagreco, the first Argentinian with two Michelin stars, often starts his job in the kitchen by greeting his ingredients.

He believes that there should be a "dialogue" between produce and chef, food and nature, creating a distinctive tasting experience.

Colagreco, 34, is chef patron of Mirazur, a Michelin two-star restaurant in Menton on the Cote D'Azur on the French Riviera, famous for using both fresh French and Italian ingredients.

Recently, he opened his second restaurant, Unico & Colagreco, at Three on the Bund. Unico is a casual bar with signature cocktails and Argentinian tapas and Colagreco is a Mediterranean-influenced fine dining restaurant.

He first visited Shanghai in 2010 for the World Expo. "I was deeply impressed by the city embracing both the cosmopolitan and the nostalgic, which is quite similar to my hometown Buenos Aires," chef Colagreco tells Shanghai Daily in an interview.

"I chose Shanghai mainly because it has now become the food center of Asia, both in culture and business. It has more potential than Hong Kong."

Although the chef first achieved his success in France and now develops his business in China, a strong connection with Argentina is expressed through his food and restaurant.

The restaurant name Mirazur is French for "facing south."

"South, for me, refers to South America," the chef explains.

Argentinian links

In his new restaurant Unico & Colagreco, there's a glassed-in corner called "Amazon Jungle" filled with jungle plants. The cocktail menu plays on the theme of compass coordinates and Latin American contrasts.

He uses plenty of Argentinian beef and produce, such as quinoa, potatoes and mate, an Argentinian herbal tea.

Meat is cooked the Argentinian way, with precised heat control and slow, six-hour cooking.

"However, Colagreco is not an Argentinian restaurant, nor a French restaurant but has an out-of-the-box concept expressing my strong personality," the chef says.

His personal style is a distinctive food interpretation of the close relationship between man and nature, leading diners into a different natural landscape when they see and smell the dish at the first time.

For his signature dish "Forest," he uses yellow quinoa, white Parmesan cream, wild mushrooms and a spinach-colored savory sponge cake, making the plate really look and smell like a forest.

"It's inspired by the autumn forest in the morning, quiet and colorful, where people can experience a special humidity and rich smell of wild mushrooms," says the chef.

Seafood tartare, a popular appetizer with six different textures of raw seafood illustrates his food philosophy from another aspect, flavor sensation.

"It's inspired by Mediterranean coastal scenery. Seaweed is added to bring diners a sensation of sea water in their mouth," chef explains.

His culinary style can be traced back to his childhood when he stayed with his grandparents during holidays at their country house in La Bamba.

"My grandmother always spent a whole day preparing for a big family dinner. For me, nice flavor is always associated with a happy family moment," Colagreco says.

He found that being a chef is probably the best way to extend happiness. For him, food expresses a sense of warmth, like the warmth of a family.

Family recipes and inherited family flavors are important to him. When he visited Tokyo he was impressed by how the old technique of cooking dashi (Japanese sea stock) was passed down through 14 generations.

'Big culture'

Chef Colagreco began his kitchen career at the age of 20, quite late compared with the careers of many other chefs. He previously studied literature in college and he enjoys reading history, which, he says, gives him a distinctive understanding of cooking.

"I think a chef should have a big culture (background), not just limited to understanding of sugar and meat," he says.

A good chef also must have a deep understanding of produce, not only its flavor and texture, but also its terroir (geography, geology, climate, genetics), as well as local culture and history. Food is an expression of flavor, history and culture, the chef believes.

That's what a chef with big culture should be.

Hoping to learn more about the big culture of France, he went to Paris in 2001, when he was 23 years old, changing from a passionate chef to a professional one.

In Paris, he worked for Alain Ducasse, the only chef overseeing three Michelin three-star restaurants, and Alain Passard, a celebrity French chef with three Michelin stars.

The two are quite different, nearly opposites, each influencing him in different ways.

With Ducasse, Colagreco worked in a big kitchen with 40 cooks serving 40 customers.

"He's so rigorous, going for perfection," Colagreco says. If the kitchen runs out of tomatoes, Ducasse does not substitute or change the recipe, he says.

"However, chef Passard is more like an artist, being flexible in terms of the recipe. He will change the recipe according to the ingredients being available that day.

"I learned from both two, being rigorous in terms of the produce, being flexible when creating the recipe."

Organic garden

To ensure quality and freshness of produce, he built his own organic garden in Shanghai's Nanhui District where his favorite herbs, carrots, tomatoes, radishes and other vegetables are planted seasonally.

His restaurant is one of the first in Shanghai with its own garden for ingredients.

"Customers in my restaurant have the right to trace where the food on their plate comes from. Having my own garden ensures the ingredients are not polluted by pesticides and chemicals," he says.

At this time, 80 percent of the ingredients are from Colagreco's garden, but the chef promises that in the future it will be 100 percent.

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