Inside how the world’s best restaurant on the French Riviera reimagined fine dining after it was forced to close

Mauro Colagreco standing in front of a tree: Mirazur's head chef Mauro Colagreco in the restaurant's garden. Matteo Carassale

© Provided by Business Insider
Mirazur’s head chef Mauro Colagreco in the restaurant’s garden. Matteo Carassale

  • Mirazur is a three Michelin-starred restaurant located in the town of Menton, France, that was ranked as the World’s Best Restaurant in 2019.
  • After the restaurant was forced to close in March for the country’s 55-day lockdown due to the pandemic, head chef Mauro Colagreco spent time in the restaurant’s gardens to develop a new reopening menu, says head sommelier Benoît Huguenin.
  • Chef Colagreco designed a new menu called Universe Mirazur, featuring meals that focus on four different themes (roots, fruits, flowers, and leaves) and is served to align with the lunar cycle.
  • The nine-course menu starts at 320, or USD$375, and rotates every three days at most, as does the biodynamic wine list.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

In June 2019 at the age of 24, Benoît Huguenin became the head sommelier at Mirazur, crowned the World’s Best Restaurant of 2019. He was by Argentinian chef Mauro Colagreco’s side as Mirazur received the title in a glitzy ceremony in Singapore.

It topped off an incredible year for the restaurant located footsteps from the Italian border in Menton on the French Riviera: Five months earlier it had been awarded its third Michelin star. With it, Colagreco became the first non-French chef in France to receive such an honor.

a man standing next to a building: Mirazur chef Mauro Colagreco (left) and head sommelier Benoît Huguenin (right). Mauro Colagreco/Matteo Carassale/Business Insider

© Mauro Colagreco/Matteo Carassale/Business Insider
Mirazur chef Mauro Colagreco (left) and head sommelier Benoît Huguenin (right). Mauro Colagreco/Matteo Carassale/Business Insider

Fast forward to spring 2020 and the whirlwind four-day trip from the Côte d’Azur to Singapore and back again last summer seemed more like a lifetime ago.

With Mirazur shuttered to the public during France’s 55-day COVID-19 lockdown, Huguenin’s sole professional responsibility was in its kitchen, one of a team of six who had volunteered to prepare meals for local hospital workers three times a week. 

Chef Colagreco spent much of the confinement tending to his gardens that supply produce to the restaurant.

The time allowed the celebrated chef to slow down, reflect, and reconnect with nature, according to Huguenin. In late April, as the country prepared for the easing of lockdown measures, Colagreco gathered his team to discuss plans for reopening the restaurant. He also shared his observations of the last two months. 

“The chef explained that, depending on the moon’s cycle, some days the roots are different, as are the flowers, the leaves, and the fruits,” Huguenin told Business Insider. “We spoke about this for three or so hours. He joked that maybe we should create a special menu around this.”

a group of stuffed animals hanging from a tree: Mirazur's Chef Mauro Colagreco in the restaurant garden. Matteo Carassale

© Matteo Carassale
Mirazur’s Chef Mauro Colagreco in the restaurant garden. Matteo Carassale

Two days later, Colagreco made it official: Mirazur would be opening with a new menu divided into four themes: roots, fruits, flowers, and leaves. Each day’s theme would align with the lunar cycle. The intention was to bring the biodynamic principles practiced in the restaurant’s gardens into the kitchen, allowing guests to experience what nature intended, when it intended it, as in at a specific point of the lunar cycle. Colagreco calls this concept “Universe Mirazur.”

“We worked all day every day for two weeks to imagine and prepare it,” Huguenin said. He says the wine list, the (alcoholic and non-alcoholic) cocktails, the mignardises (bite-sized desserts served at the end of the meal), and every detail down to the table decoration were all reimagined.

a close up of a flower: On flower days, dishes like this Rosace de gamberoni de San Remo (rosace of San Remo prawns) may be on the menu. Matteo Carassale

© Matteo Carassale
On flower days, dishes like this Rosace de gamberoni de San Remo (rosace of San Remo prawns) may be on the menu. Matteo Carassale

“We even changed up the olive oils that accompany the sharing breads, to keep on the same theme. On roots day, for example, we may serve ginger-infused oil. On fruit days, the oil may be infused with mandarin,” he continued.

Despite being in the role since 2015, Huguenin feels like he’s working in a completely different restaurant. 

Huguenin grew up near Châteauneuf-du-Pape, one of France’s most famed wine regions in the southeast of the country, where his appreciation for the fine wines made on his doorstep was nurtured by his father. Having decided to pursue a career as a sommelier, a move to the Côte d’Azur and another of the region’s decorated restaurants, the now-defunct Paloma in Mougins, followed. He joined Colagreco’s then two-Michelin-star establishment when he was 19.

“It’s now more complex,” Huguenin acknowledged. “For not only us but for the clients, even for the people who work in the gardens.”

The nine-course Universe Mirazur menu starts at $320 euros, or USD$375, and is changed every three days at most. With it, the wine list also changes. 

a bowl of food: Carrots from Mirazur's garden serve as inspiration for root days. Matteo Carassale

© Matteo Carassale
Carrots from Mirazur’s garden serve as inspiration for root days. Matteo Carassale

Traditionally, guests have been able to also request a tour of the two gardens closest to the restaurant. (A further two are located two and seven miles away respectively). But, as Colagreco and his team worked to reimagine fine dining in the era of COVID-19, a decision was made to incorporate this alfresco setting into the dining experience. 

“When clients arrive now, they are handed a mask and directed into the garden where they are served the aperitif,” Huguenin explained. Beautifully plated and presented inside a picnic basket, it is designed to be enjoyed on a blanket carefully laid out at social distanced intervals. 

“COVID has put a lot of pressure on everyone,” Huguenin said. “We wanted to create this stress-free bubble where our clients can take off their mask and see the water, the beach, and the gardens.”

a bowl of oranges on a table: A tomato-based fish dish on fruit days. Matteo Carassale

© Matteo Carassale
A tomato-based fish dish on fruit days. Matteo Carassale

Once the aperitif is finished, guests are guided back inside the restaurant where tables have been redistributed between the living room and bar to ensure appropriate distancing while maintaining its 45 covers.

Floor staff wearing Mirazur and Michelin-liveried facemasks greet them (the kitchen team wear masks decorated with smiles — “for a bit of fun,” Huguenin said). Having made a commitment to go plastic-free at the start of 2020, paper menus have also been swapped for QR codes and iPads.

Even hand sanitizing hasn’t been spared an artistic touch. Colagreco enlisted Stéphane Montalto, a local ceramist and holder of the prestigious Meilleur Ouvrier de France title, to handcraft 16 ceramic bowls. Painted in a turquoise and ivory hue to evoke the color of the Mediterranean Sea at Mirazur’s doorstep, each is filled with a touch of alcohol and a blend of ingredients that change to match the theme of the day. 

a table with a cake on a plate: Mirazur's homemade hand sanitizer, coordinated for a flower-themed dinner. Mirazur

© Mirazur
Mirazur’s homemade hand sanitizer, coordinated for a flower-themed dinner. Mirazur

Three months after the restaurant — and its team of 60 — welcomed its first guests back to the dining room, certain rules are still enforced. 

 “We have an alarm in the back office and in the kitchen that sounds every thirty minutes so that we can all wash our hands at the same time,” Huguenin said.

a group of people standing on a mask: Chef Colagreco and some of his team in smiley masks. Mirazur

© Mirazur
Chef Colagreco and some of his team in smiley masks. Mirazur

Other rules have been slightly relaxed.

“At first, clients weren’t able to go into the kitchen, but now we are more flexible. People can take a photo or greet the back of house team as long as they maintain social distancing,” he explained. “We can’t refuse clients everything.” 

Matching a wine menu to the lunar schedule is a fine art.

What pairings has Huguenin imagined up to accompany the four themes of Universe Mirazur? “It’s weighted towards white wines,” he explained. “For root days, I look to the Languedoc-Roussillon in France or the Alto Adige and Veneto regions in Italy to have more powerful wine like Italo Cescon Madre 2016.”

a piece of broccoli: This squid dish is on Mirazur's leaf day menu. Matteo Carassale

© Matteo Carassale
This squid dish is on Mirazur’s leaf day menu. Matteo Carassale

“Flower days I tend more towards the Loire Valley and a Chenin Blanc or Sauvignon Blanc, or a Burgundian Chardonnay or Aligoté from Domaine Arnaud Ente for the minerality and freshness.

“Leaf days are better with a wine from the Southern Rhône like Marsanne or Roussanne or a Bordeaux Sémillon for better structure, texture and a smooth taste. Fruit days I match to Provence or a fruity Alsace Riesling from Valentin Zusslin. But of course, it also depends on the plate.”

And up to 70% of the wine list is biodynamic, he added.

During the pandemic, the restaurant’s clientele has been more local.

Restrictions on international travel have kept much of Mirazur’s traditional clientele away.

“Normally the majority of our clients come from overseas; countries like the USA, Japan, and China,” Huguenin said. “But this summer the clients have been predominantly French.”

In a country that boasts 29 three-Michelin-starred restaurants (only Japan, with the same number, rivals it), this home audience, he added, can sometimes be the biggest critics. “They have very high expectations,” he explained.

a tree in front of a palm tree: The exterior or Mirazur. Mirazur

© Mirazur
The exterior or Mirazur. Mirazur

The restaurant is traditionally booked out months in advance. As international guests have been forced to cancel longstanding bookings, pockets of availability have opened up; however: particularly now the high season months of July and August have passed. Reservations are made via an online booking system that is currently only taking bookings for 2020. As of October 1 until its holiday closure on December 14, Mirazur is open for lunch from Friday to Sunday and dinner from Wednesday to Saturday. 

Chrissie McClatchie is a freelance journalist who writes about luxury, lifestyle, and travel with a particular focus on the world of superyachts and stories from the south of France.

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