“I’m finally here,” said Chef Mauro Colagreco as he addressed a small group of media. He looked weary, yet exhilarated, after a long journey from Menton, France. For the past three years, his intrepid team in Bangkok has been following his lead from afar, as COVID-19 kept him from Thailand, even when Côte by Mauro Colagreco opened in 2020. Until now.
The culinary world knows him as the first foreigner in France who took on an establishment and led Mirazur to three MICHELIN Stars consecutively from 2019 to 2022. However, this amazing achievement has not gone to his head, as he remained ever humble, with a sheepish grin that could not be suppressed as he finally met his team in Thailand.
The 46-year-old, Italian-Argentinian chef sat down with us at Côte by Mauro Colagreco (one MICHELIN Star, MICHELIN Guide Thailand 2022) to discuss the challenges of opening a new restaurant during an epidemic without tourists and his dreams for Côte by Mauro Colagreco.
“I want Côte to be the best western restaurant in Thailand,” he simply replied sans hesitation.
“For me and my restaurants, the priority is to learn.”
“It was a big decision to put one of my best chefs, Davide Garavaglia, here. Mirazur would lose a very talented chef, since he had been there for around seven years.” But he did turn to his accomplished 32-year-old Italian protege to help develop the team and the restaurant through the pandemic into one of best along the Chao Phraya River.
Thailand is new territory for you – why did you choose here?
“Thailand is new territory, yes, but it is also not because I’ve travelled many times to Bangkok. But it is different to come and open a restaurant. So yes, it’s a new market, new territory. As for why, I think Thailand has a great food culture. You love food, and you love eating out. Thais appreciate different kinds of food and flavours. And I believe people here are open to new experiences and new western flavours. That is really important. Also, the view here is much like the view at Mirazur. The river. All these things led us here.”
As an offspring of Mirazur, how is Côte similar or different?
“Mirazur was not born like this. We started with three people in the kitchen and two people in front of house. Now, we have around 45 people working to serve 40-45 diners a day. It took us four years to get a ‘plastic-free’ certification. So, it takes more than a snap of the fingers to get here. When you open a restaurant, you need time to evolve. If you have a son, he wasn’t born full-grown. It takes time.
“The important thing to me is to begin. Then make a little change here, finish something there. The path you choose in the beginning will lead to how you finish in a few years. That is really important. That’s also why I chose Davide, why I asked him to start working on going plastic-free here little by little.” He didn’t stop there. “Then we plan visits to local producers so we can learn from them, like visiting a coconut plantation to watch coconut oil being made. It’s a pity that I wasn’t here with Davide at the beginning. He has done so much, but he had to focus on the front line of the restaurant. He can’t do everything at once. Now, we can work together.
“It’s a shame that I cannot do more this trip, but I will be back in June when I hope to travel north and visit some farms there.”
As a chef and a father of two, he looks at his restaurant like raising children. “The restaurants may have the same philosophy, but they are not the same restaurant. Every son has his own personality and style, even while sharing the same blood. This is important to understand because I don’t believe in reproducing a copy/paste restaurant. I believe every restaurant needs to have its own life, its own style.
“Davide is one of my sons. I have a few sons. There are the sons of my blood and the sons in my kitchen. Davide is one of them. And he needs his own space. In the end, he needs to be in his own restaurant as well. It’s mine, but it’s his as well. I need to put my ego aside a little bit.”
As an example, he explains that a dish at Mirazur featured orange granita and pumpkin puree. As the recipe travelled to Bangkok, Davide transformed it with bananas and tonka beans for a fantastic result. “It is very important to understand the local ingredients and seasons. We need to little by little incorporate local ingredients, but without changing our style. ”
“I believe every restaurant needs to have its own life, its own style.”
Because of COVID, you had to let your team carry on without being there in person. What was the biggest lesson you learned from this?
“I learned that we all have the capacity to adapt. Even with the distance, I spoke with Davide every two or three days from the beginning of the pandemic. I wanted to support him because he was alone here, which was very challenging for him to be far from his family at the age of ‘19’ [laughs].
“Construction was delayed, and he came about one year before opening. Imagine a guy like Davide, whose life is the kitchen, being in Asia for the first time, but he doesn’t have the opportunity to cook. He really needed our support.”
It must have been hard for the whole team, especially Davide, to open a restaurant during COVID-19. How did you encourage them?
“I told them that this was a very exciting project that would be difficult at the same time. And he saw it as a great opportunity to take Mirazur’s little brother and lead the team to a MICHELIN Star. He grew up in the culinary world, so I hope it won’t take much more encouragement for him to stay. [laughs]”
You are the first non-French recipient of three MICHELIN Stars in France. What’s your secret?
“One of my secrets is to start my own style of restaurant in a place I’ve never been to before. It allowed me total freedom to envision and interpret how I wanted. We went with Mediterranean cuisine. It’s all about the products, but we chose different ways of working with them, differently than a French chef would, who may choose a more classic way. We approached things with our very own style, allowing us to surprise people while still being focused on quality. Now, we must be even better, even with three MICHELIN Stars. I think that’s the secret – to create your own style and to always think about how you can be better tomorrow.”
After all these years cooking and travelling, what changes have you noticed in fine-dining?
“I think the world has opened up more to fine dining over the years. In South America, the chef becomes part of the show, and the restaurant becomes something to experience, to enjoy, not just to dine.
“Since the pandemic, I think people are thinking more about the impact and challenges of food production. This is a challenge for everyone. I believe people around the world are thinking about the future, and that’s a good thing because we must do something. The pandemic has changed us, and we in fine dining understand this well. We have to change. We must reduce our impact. We cannot continue like we did ten years ago. I think this is the biggest change right for now.”
From that, we had to ask if this means we’ll see more local ingredients at Côte by Mauro Colagreco. “I told Davide that the goal this year is to find local producers. Perhaps not for everything, but I think for vegetables, we can find all we need here. Fish may be challenging, so we may still have to import. Then again, we may find high-quality fish locally we can use. We are always open, not closed, to new products. But of course, we are always focused on quality.”
“We have to change. We must reduce our impact. We cannot continue like we did ten years ago. I think this is the biggest change right for now.”
How did you feel when you learned that Côte by Mauro Colagreco received a MICHELIN Star?
“I felt very happy. It is our second restaurant with another MICHELIN Star. I was very proud of Davide and his team. Especially, because they opened the restaurant without me being here in person.”
The restaurant team told us earlier that as soon as Chef Colagreco arrived, he asked Davide to cook dinner for him and the team. “Yesterday, when I tried the pigeon, I said, ‘Oh my god, it’s the same pigeon that I had three thousand kilometres away!’ I was very proud of him. To achieve the MICHELIN Star, as fast as I did, I think it’s just the beginning because the level that they serve every day is very high.”
How often do you plan on coming to Thailand?
“My next trip should be in June, when I’ll have to go to Singapore as well. Then I’ll be back in September. I want to visit three to five times a year, but it depends on the situation. It won’t be less than three times a year.”
Do you have any favourite Thai dishes?
“I love green curry. I also love tom yam soup, and they make a really delicious one here at Capella. And there's street food that I love too, like moo ping (barbecued pork skewers).
“This trip I didn’t have much time, but when I come back in June, I’ll have more time to visit more places. Maybe we should do a tour with Davide. What about the North?” he asked us. “Many people told me to go to the North.
“I love to spend months travelling and learning. For me and my restaurants, the priority is to learn.”
He repeated how Thailand has much more to offer him. “It is more exciting to go around a place like Bangkok than other cities that don’t have a lot of local products. Here is a country where you can find everything. I’m very excited to discover the countryside as well.”
Before ending the interview, he had more to add. “Oh, another dish I like is the papaya salad. Spicy but delicious. And yesterday, as I waited for the PCR test results at the hotel, I ordered crab fried rice. It had a smoky taste I loved.” His eyes sparkled as he described the different dishes. Surely, he could have kept going on about the dishes, flavours, and ingredients endlessly.
Hero image: © Côte By Mauro Colagreco