Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 February 2020

'It’s a menu that takes some confidence': Mauro Colagreco opens up about his Dubai debut

His three Michelin-starred restaurant Mirazur was named the world's best in 2019, now the chef is bringing his culinary magic to The One&Only Royal Mirage

Chef Mauro Colagreco has taken over three restaurants at The One&Only Royal Mirage. Matteo Carassale
Chef Mauro Colagreco has taken over three restaurants at The One&Only Royal Mirage. Matteo Carassale

As years go, they don’t get much better than 2019 for chef Mauro Colagreco. It started with a third Michelin star for Mirazur, his restaurant nestled in a far corner of southern France; then, that same restaurant took the title of best in the world; and Colagreco was named chef of the year – twice. “It’s a year we won’t forget in a while,” he says, his expression suggesting he is still trying to take it all in.

But there’s little time to bask. Colagreco is entering the new year by taking his first steps into the UAE dining scene. Perhaps steps is underselling it; he enters with more of a leap, as he takes on not one, but three restaurants at Dubai’s stalwart One&Only Royal Mirage in Al Sufouh.

“It’s a big challenge,” he says as we settle down in the lounge of Celebrities, the fine-dining restaurant he now helms. “Dubai is not an easy place for fine dining. I am so happy to be starting in a good place, with a good partner. The Royal Mirage is still at the top after 20 years, and I think that is very rare, not only in Dubai, but in any city.”

Celebrities by Mauro Colagreco, the fine dining restaurant at One&Only Royal Mirage 
Celebrities by Mauro Colagreco, the fine dining restaurant at One&Only Royal Mirage

If anyone can make it work, it’s Colagreco. Born in Argentina to a largely Italian family, good food is in his genes. He recalls his childhood as a permanent open table, with friends and neighbours forever in and out of his grandparents’ home, never leaving without being fed something delicious. “Food was always in our home. The best memories from my childhood were always centred around food,” he recalls.

But it was only after studying for a bachelor’s degree in literature and two years reading economics that he realised his love for food ran deeper than his grandmother’s cooking. “Something clicked,” he says. “I understood numbers were not my passion.”

It was then that he enrolled into culinary school in Buenos Aires, shortly before leaving for Europe at the age of 20. “Very quickly, I understood I needed to be in Europe to learn the basics. I left thinking I would come back to Argentina in three or four years – that was 20 years ago.”

He chose France as his European base, arriving with nothing more than his phone. His first years in the country were spent working with Bernard Loiseau in his three-Michelin-star Burgundy restaurant, before moving to Paris for a stint at Alain Passard’s famed L’Arpege, as well as spending time working with Guy Martin and Alain Ducasse. It was six years after arriving in France that Colagreco had the chance to open his own restaurant. Before Mirazur, the chef had never been to Menton, a Medieval town on the French Riviera. “I arrived in February and we opened in the April,” he says. “It was like starting on a blank page and I was able to build something very personal and very new. It’s very special.”

Menton, as it turns out, sits on the edge of the Italian border, bringing Colagreco right back to his roots. “We have the ocean, we have the mountains, all in the same place. In the middle of that, we have a chef who is Argentina-born with Italian roots, training in France, with a Brazilian wife – I really don’t believe in borders,” he says.

Instead, Colagreco takes his inspiration from the land around him, growing vegetables in the gardens of the restaurant and working with local producers to source the ingredients that have made Mirazur such a success. “I believe more in the emotions of the food; the origin, the country. You need to understand the land and understand the place. I keep all my origins out and start from there.”

Thanks to the rich and fertile Mediterranean coastline, this approach has been magic for Mirazur, something that was confirmed when, in June 2019, it took the top spot in World’s 50 Best Restaurants guide. “It was amazing to achieve something so incredible, it’s something we never dreamed of. I’m so proud of the team,” he says. “At the beginning, it was hard for us because we started our own restaurant in a place that was not home. It was tough and a lot of hard work. But to be at the top of the culinary game, it’s amazing.”

But Dubai is not the South of France. The desert landscape of the UAE is a different ball game for Colagreco, yet that hasn’t stopped his push for local ingredients. “It’s a challenge, of course. We work as much as possible with locals and with farmers, and that is something we plan to increase,” he says. “Just this week, we had a farmer in for dinner from Al Ain, who proposed we work with him. When you are determined, you can find solutions. With all this rain Dubai has been having, who knows what will start to grow.” As if on cue, heavy rain lashes against the restaurant’s window. “You see?” Colagreco gestures. “Anything is possible.”

With this, he tells me that the chefs at Celebrities have created a little garden of their own, inspired by the six weeks they spent training at Mirazur last summer. “They have flowers and the first plants of tomatoes growing,” he says. “It’s just the beginning, but I am so happy and they are so proud of them.”

Tiny garden aside, Celebrities will not be an extension of Mirazur. However, you will feel the famed restaurant’s soul in the menu, the chef reveals. It will follow the same format, in that it will offer diners the choice of two menus: one that they will be able to see and choose from, and one that is blind. “That’s something new for Dubai,” Colagreco explains. “It’s a menu that takes some confidence from both us and the guests, so it’s a good challenge. I think our approach is different to classic fine dining, which is so straight. We believe in a new approach. We want things to be more relaxed.”

While the menu at Celebrities will change regularly, it features all the hallmarks of Colagreco’s famous style. Think light flavours, fresh seafood and seasonal fruit and vegetables. “One of the plates I have made here is fat duck – foie gras with dates and citrus. We have started little by little to introduce Middle Eastern flavours in our fine-dining cuisine, which is new for me and something I am excited about,” he says. “The challenge is to try to understand what you can find here to make good food. Because Mirazur is not only me, it’s not only my team, but it’s the place, the producers, the product of the area that is so high and so fresh, and that makes all the difference. If we try to reproduce that here, it will be a bad copy.”

Sea Tartare, featuring scallops, carabineros, oysters, and sea urchin, is one of Mauro Colagreco's dishes for Celebrites.   
Sea Tartare, featuring scallops, carabineros, oysters and sea urchin, is one of Mauro Colagreco's dishes for Celebrities

As well as Celebrities, he has designed the menus for The One&Only Royal Mirage’s Beach Bar & Grill, for which he has turned to his South American roots for inspiration, and Esplanade pool bar, which focuses on simple yet tasty food, he says.

He might be a chef at the top of his game, but Colagreco knows all too well the challenges that the fine dining scene in Dubai can pose, and he enters the market with just the right mix of confidence and caution. “It’s a very competitive market,” he says. “Five years ago, it was all the casual restaurants that were doing well, but fine dining was difficult. I think the city is more ready right now. There have been a lot of openings and closures, but we believe the people here love food, they love to eat out and they love the experience. I really think it’s a good time for this kind of proposal.

“I don’t believe in starting out wanting to be on top; it took 14 years of work at Mirazur to get there. Here, it’s just the beginning,” Colagreco adds. “I think one of the best moments of the restaurant is the beginning. You have all the passion, the energy, and you believe in what you are doing. It’s the beginning of something good.”

Updated: February 11, 2020 06:34 PM

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