There are some people you instantly gravitate towards. Not because of charm, good looks or influence – though those attributes might be present and daresay contribute to a person’s likeability. No, some people just have luminous energy, an innate curiosity in the world around them that draws others in.
Chef Mauro Colagreco arrives sporting a broad smile amongst the grandeur of the Kulm Hotel bar with his Chef’s jacket on; we are mere hours from tonight’s service. I’ve been warned his assistants will carefully vet our conversation, sitting closely for the precious time we have to talk. It’s understandable. Colagreco is one of the world’s global culinary superstars. He holds three Michelin stars for his Cote D’Azur restaurant Mirazur, and one star at his restaurant here at the Kulm Hotel in St. Moritz. His peers voted him the best Chef in the world in the annual Le Chef list, and in 2019 Mirazur was ranked the number one restaurant in the world’s 50 Best Restaurant list.
With a hectic travel schedule and the impending opening of a new venture on the other side of the globe, one would imagine that any chef’s patience might be short. However, Mauro quickly sends his minders on their way and asks where I would feel most comfortable sitting for our chat. His eyes sparkle, and there are few moments when his smile departs his face. I’d like to imagine this might be the effect of living a biodynamic lifestyle in tune with the lunar cycle, but I’m confident that Chef Mauro has lived his whole life with this level of connection with the world around him.
I’ve a list of questions, but squeezing them in is hard as Mauro gets in first. It’s possible throughout our chat that I answered as many questions as I asked. “Where are you from?” he asks. “Oh, beautiful. I love Margaret River. I was there in 2016. Amazing produce, amazing wine. I always say to my wife, if we leave Menton, one of the places I would love to live is Margaret River”. It’s clear that Mauro is a fan of Australia; his upcoming trip to launch the Mirazur pop-up at The Gantry at Dawes Point will be his ninth trip to the continent.
We pause for a moment while he takes a call from his son; Mauro’s family life takes as much priority as his professional life, often travelling with him.
Turning towards the pop-up cum restaurant at Kulm Hotel, we see what might be imagined at his Australian pop-up. Inspiration from locally sourced produce and a deep sense of place is at the core of the menu. “Here at Kulm, for example, we only use the fish from the lakes. The dairy products are amazing; the butter is so good. We have wild boar and pheasant. All the mushrooms are amazing, as are the wild herbs. The best season is Autumn. There’s not a lot of snow, but it’s the best period for the produce.”
It’s not just the ingredients that drive the concept. The history of the hotel and the ambience are also influential, with an increased level of table service and heavier sauces than at his Mediterranean restaurant. Colagreco adds, “it’s the place that directs the food, not just the weather and the moon times. It’s how you feel here. I think the hotel guests didn’t expect something very modern.”
The shift in focus on provenance has significantly impacted the hotel too. “I feel bad when you see watermelon at breakfast in winter. People still do it constantly, so we are trying to change that. It is difficult, but the guests have started taking it on board. Since collaborating, things have changed throughout the hotel as the Executive Chef is very concerned too. In Australia, it’s great because all the people are really already very focused in that direction.”
The above vision makes sense for a 19th-century Swiss hotel in the mountains, but what can we expect in Australia? Mirazur’s kitchen and garden team have been researching produce on the ground for the past month. “You have a lot of farms near Sydney and a lot that practice permaculture. Australia is a leader in that regard. We have five hectares of market garden in Menton and it’s important that our garden team visits to see and learn how things are done elsewhere.” Produce the team are excited about includes lemon myrtle, Sydney rock oysters and wallaby. The menu will only feature Australian wines. “I have plenty of ingredients that I need to taste when I arrive next week. It will be a totally unique menu for Australia.”
A unique menu for Australia, but still a time-limited one as this is, after all, a pop-up. What is the difference between a restaurant and a pop-up for Chef Mauro? “It’s more of a laboratory than a permanent restaurant. The pop-up is, I think, a kind of holiday for us as well. The cook’s holidays. We have all the team together, and we discover a new culture, new ingredients. We bring innovation to the project as well; it’s a lab where we plant the seeds to grow.” I note that Colagreco uses the term cook, not Chef. While his culinary approach is high art, it’s reflective of the man, not the Chef, that he uses the term “cook” to describe himself and his team.
The experience at his restaurant that evening is like being welcomed into the living room of a dear friend. A warm ambience is delivered via staff and soft furnishings. Bread is paired with poetry and dishes are introduced via narrative. And, of course, each one is immaculate in presentation, culinary skill and creativity. I’ve never experienced quite so much flavour in a beetroot. But then again, there’s nowhere else in the world where the beetroot is dried, replanted, grown to a gigantic size, baked in a salt crust, and paired with caviar.
The menu for his Sydney pop-up reflects the biodynamic menu that is a permanent fixture in Melon. “Our menu in Mirazur is biodynamic because we changed totally after the first lockdown. I decided to follow the work we do in the garden, which is biodynamic. For me, it has a lot of energy. It was born from very sad beginnings, as in 2019, we were awarded three Michelin stars. Seven months later, Covid hit. It was not an easy moment, but the idea to totally reimagine the menu with biodynamics brought us plenty of energy. The food now depends on the day you book; we have a menu for root, leaf, flower and fruit days. We need a big team for the daily biodynamic menus. We only have half the team in Australia, so it’s a weekly, not daily biodynamic menu.”
He adds there is a sense of lightness in creating a pop-up. “You’re not under the same pressure. You go to the people; it’s not that the people come to you. It’s a different relationship, and it’s amazing how important it is for a team. For me, that is the difference between a restaurant and a pop-up. A restaurant takes its roots from the place, and the pop-up is about the ambience and the relationship with the guests.”
Colagreco also sees a change in the food when he and the team arrive back in France.” What is nice in the restaurant, is that when you travel you are like a sponge. I try to put the influence into play immediately. As a chef, you always bring something back in your baggage.”
And is there any chance of this pop-up morphing into a permanent fixture on the Sydney dining scene? “Maybe not, but I love Australia. We started in St. Moritz as a pop-up, and we took the first Michelin Star for a pop-up. So it was extremely fast. And then, when we finished the hotel asked us to stay.”
While Mauro’s base in France is a little too far to run a permanent Australian restaurant, perhaps one day it will be Mirazur in Margaret River.