“I wasn’t like one of those kids who knew at the age of five what they wanted to be, but the first time I walked into a professional kitchen, it was like the first time I met Julia: love at first sight.”
It is just a little after 9am when I hop in the car with Mauro and his charming wife Julia. We are off to Ventimiglia market, just a 10-minute drive from their restaurant, Mirazur, in the French town of Menton, over the border and into Italy. Mauro speaks fluent Italian and no sooner have we parked the car, than he is excitedly negotiating a crate of broad beans and exchanging recipes with another customer. It seems that Mauro has time for everybody and in return he is met with open arms.
I hate to stereotype, but these Italians are genuinely gesticulatory, they seem to effervesce and if you’ll allow me to continue down this road of analogy, Mauro is like a fizzy fish in water. “Taste this,” he says and passes me a chunk of lemon. “You can eat the skin, it’s what makes them so special,” I bite into a citrus fruit that appears to have been candied by nature.
After the market, we stop for a cappuccino and discuss organic farming, homoeopathy and the best pasta restaurant in Ventimiglia (la Vecchia Ostaia) and it becomes clear to me that Mauro is not only passionate about eating well, but about eating right; as in ethically and naturally, which makes sense, given our location. With so much good produce and good will, it is no wonder the food is so, well, good.
We leave the market and make our way to Mauro’s garden. As we take in the sea breeze, Mauro tells me how his culinary epiphany came late, “particularly by French standards.” He was 21 and studying economics in his native Argentina when he decided to change tracks. “I wasn’t like one of those kids who knew at the age of five what they wanted to be, but the first time I walked into a professional kitchen, it was like the first time I met Julia: love at first sight.”
His first year of training in France included a four month work placement and Mauro was determined to do his with the great Bernard Loiseau. “I sent something like 10,000 letters. My college in La Rochelle didn’t want me to go there because they said that I would only get to peel potatoes. I said: ‘Maybe, but I’ll peel them so well by the end!’ I called and asked to speak with the chef and he eventually gave in because I was so insistent!”
One week before the end of his placement, Bernard Loiseau himself asked Mauro if he would like to stay. “I didn’t have to think twice before saying yes, so I quit my course. It was really Bernard who opened my eyes to Michelin star cuisine and the training he gave me is worth so much more than I might have gained at any school...” And then Mauro stops, as if to catch his breath as he recalls hearing of Loiseau’s death. “It was a total and utter shock to me. Truly. Working for Bernard later proved to be a golden ticket.” Indeed, from there he went on to work with Alain Passard and Alain Ducasse.
In the early days of his career Mauro admits that he longed to be considered a ‘French chef’ and deliberately sought to conceal his Argentine background. “I didn’t want to be ‘catalogued’. The French are very quick to categorise, except when you’ve become successful, then you’re allowed to reclaim your roots! I didn’t want to be the Argentine chef who did Argentine cuisine. If for no other reason than the fact that I had learned from great French chefs. I even refused to work with Latin American ingredients back then, but now I’m starting to bring in a few. Look what a I brought back from Peru,” he says, before digging up a striking purple-blue potato.
I genuinely get the impression that when Mauro plants a seed in his garden, it grows in his mind, too. “When I go into my gardens, I see what is going to be ripe by next week and I start to think about how am I going to shape it, I start researching and testing. At other times, I have an idea in my head and I wonder how to get my message across in my dish. I like to surprise my clients, particularly through nature but also through the presentation of my food. When I travel, I bring back different stones to use as plates. So sometimes that can be my inspiration and I think ‘OK, what would look good presented on this particular stone?’”
With such attention to detail at every level it was only right that Mirazur be awarded its second Michelin star in 2012, making Mauro the only Argentine to achieve this accolade. I ask him why he thinks this is so? “I’m not sure if I am the only one, but if there is a another one, we shall attempt to kill him,” he laughs, and then goes on: “In Argentina, we love our food. We are all about the fundamentals: family, love, sharing. For example, the most classical Argentine dish is Asado. We take a big joint of meat and more importantly, we take a long time cooking it. We sit by the fire and drink wine. It is an event, a feast.
“For me, Argentine cuisine is a rough diamond. However, there are European influences brought by the immigrants after the two World Wars, so when we look deeper, when we start to polish the diamond, as it were, there is something beautiful inside. In Peru and Brazil, gastronomic cuisine has made a lot of progress, but I don’t think Argentina has shown it’s full potential yet. For now, we don’t have a transport system that enables our produce to travel over long distances and arrive in good condition. It’s so sad. Whenever I go to Buenos Aires we always find great quality fish that has been frozen. We need to nurture local producers because now we have transgenic soya production where before we cultivated many types of grain. It is such a shame. And yet, I recently learned that we are the second largest producer of organic products in the world! I guess that is the paradox of Argentina.”
And here ends our interview, but I can’t feel sad because I am kindly invited to stay for lunch and, mamma mia, what a lunch! I dive into the deep blue, am flown to the top of the tallest tree and land in a vegetable patch with a view! From oysters to veal, rutabaga to pear, rich herby sauce to light coriander sorbet. In one dish I have a parsnip and pistachio cream with a hint of coffee oil. Did you know it takes one tonne of beans to obtain just one litre of oil? This is another example of Mauro’s ingenuity when it comes to surprising his customers.
The culinary experience at Mirazur is one to savour. It is the result of a very long and special preparation: plant Italian roots on Argentine soil for two generations and when the time is right, finely craft à la française. The result is vibrant, sincere and elegant. A recipe for success.
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Images © Anders Jorgensen