The achievements of a chef are no longer limited to technique or creativity: they are also a matter of principle. Chef Mauro Colagreco, vice-president of Relais & Châteaux, is dedicated to environmental responsibility, with values that run through his entire team and have sealed his reputation.
As you get closer to his home base, the town of Menton–and his restaurant, Mirazur–you realize what an extensive ecosystem Chef Mauro Colagreco has cultivated to rise to the challenge he has set himself: to reconcile haute cuisine and eco-responsibility.
On that journey–in which his restaurant was the first in the world to receive Plastic Free Certification status–he has surrounded himself with a team not only of cooks, but also cultivators who tend three kitchen gardens, an R&D department, an agronomist, and an ethnobotanist. He spares no effort to respect his ambitious environmental commitments, with a keen awareness of the inspiring example that he has set within the Relais et Châteaux network and more broadly among all his colleagues and admirers.
What sparked this commitment?
Mauro Colagreco: In my case, it was not a precise moment, but rather an evolution. When I came to Menton in 2006, there was already a garden below the restaurant. It was somewhat abandoned, but it awakened long-forgotten memories of my grandfather’s garden, so I immediately wanted to cultivate it. As I got closer to the earth, I started to learn more about the subject. I started to realize that every action has a direct impact on nature. For example, we might use products approved for organic farming to control the spread of insect pests, but those insects are food for birds, and when we eradicate them, we destroy the biodiversity that forms the foundation for rich, fertile soil. Learning all these things, in contact with the terrain and through research, led me to greatly question the way we produce food.
What led to the decision to eliminate plastic from your restaurant?
MC: That decision did arise from a single moment, during a trip I made to Tulum, Mexico, with my wife Julia and our children. As we were crossing through a natural reserve to reach a village, we happened upon a deserted beach that was covered, as far as the eye could see, with debris and plastic: the same type of objects that I used on a daily basis at home and at the restaurant. Confronted with my children’s questions about what was going on here, I couldn’t find any justification. Back at Mirazur, I rallied the teams, telling them: “We need to find solutions. This cannot go on.” That was in December 2017, and we obtained the Plastic Free Certification mark in January 2020, right after receiving a three-star rating in the Michelin Guide and being ranked No. 1 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Over the next month, no fewer than 500 restaurants across the world contacted us to learn how they, too, could acquire that certification.
Can other restaurants be expected to devote the same resources to this task?
MC: Yes, it is a true challenge. I was able to have one of my employees devote half of their time to the subject for three years. That’s something not all restaurants can afford to do. But thanks to that investment, it is much easier today to apply those good practices to all types of establishments. We were the first restaurant to do it, but since then, a number of other solutions have emerged that we didn’t have at the time.
What remains to be improved?
MC: Managing plastics that we receive by way of our suppliers, and cling film, which remains a critical subject. There are substitutes, but they are not always suitable. But what counts more than the products we use are the good practices that we apply. There are so many situations where it makes no sense to use cling film: a little leftover sauce, half of a lemon, and so on. It is a continuing education, and it can be laborious and time-consuming, but we don’t have the choice. We need to raise awareness among the entire profession–that work should already be underway at culinary schools.
Isn’t there also a training problem?
MC: Agriculture should be a part of culinary education. Every time I give a lecture at a culinary institute, I start with the same question: “Who here knows how long it takes for an onion to grow from a seed to a vegetable?” No one can ever answer. The loss of connection between agriculture and cuisine is truly alarming. It’s not just about being nostalgic for the past: it’s about evaluating what we used to do well, how we have improved, and what has had good results, in order to build the future in an intelligent way.
It is urgent that we take action, and we can use our reputation to do so. When you become a public figure, you have the ability to influence others–to get strong messages across–so that perhaps someday governments and politicians will consider actual solutions.
In today’s world, is it the role of a chef to make such commitments?
MC: It depends on what the chef wants and how they see things. A chef might concentrate on cookery, creating magnificent dishes, and making a whole experience of the culinary arts. But they can also participate in projects and contribute to change. Food reaches everyone: it spans every culture. And now that people are cooking much less these days, they come to restaurants seeking a little of that attention and care that they used to get at home.
Is that why you are working with a supermarket on a campaign about seasonality?
MC: Within just one or two generations, people have lost their knowledge of nature’s cycles and the seasons. Few people know whether tomato season begins in May, June, or even January. When a proposal came up to collaborate with a supermarket chain, we thought about it for a long time. We eventually accepted, but we asked them to make a number of commitments before we agreed to it, and we managed to accomplish quite a bit. One example is a seasonal barometer for the produce section. It indicates which fruits and vegetables are in season, but more importantly which are out of season, and that has had an enormous impact. They went along with it, and in particular, they withdrew strawberries from their shelves during the winter months. If we don’t include supermarkets and mass distribution as part of our considerations and commitments to sustainable food, we will never be able to effect the changes that truly need to happen.
Is it hard to stay on track?
MC: We are continually seeking to improve. That means rethinking the entire waste cycle: reducing the waste we produce, considering what we could use as substitutes or how to reuse things we would otherwise throw away, and anticipating our recycling and composting systems. Another measure I established six months ago is to motivate my teams by offering environmental bonuses that increase with the degree of their involvement and success. You have to demonstrate that those efforts have economic value, and actually everyone is very motivated.