To refuse a fresh-baked fougasse mentonnaise—a sweet focaccia filled with almonds, pine nuts, and raisins that’s a signature treat of the French Riviera town of Menton—is a travesty. But to refuse one being offered by a three-Michelin-starred chef, straight from the window display of his two-year-old Mitron Bakery? That’s a whole other level of sacrilege.
“Coffee?” asks Mauro Colagreco. “Water? Nothing?”
I decline, explaining humbly that it’s his fault, as I’ve only just eaten a croissant and oeuf à la coque at his aptly named Riviera Restaurant, inside the new Maybourne Riviera hotel, less than 10 miles up the road in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin. And, of course, there was the eight-plus-course seafood feast—grilled Camargue oysters, red snapper with caviar, abalone in miso sauce, and much more—I had last night at Ceto, his gastronomic restaurant inside the same seaview property.
Colagreco, 45 and dressed casually in jeans, a forest-green pullover, and sneakers, forgives me the transgression and motions me to follow him. He has agreed to let me tag along this morning as he runs errands around Menton, a town of which he appears to be the unofficial culinary mayor. Aside from the two hotel spots and several other establishments around the world, he runs three restaurants here: the two-year-old Casa Fuego, which serves fare such as rabbit ragout with cavatelli and rib-eye steak topped with chimichurri; Pecora Negra, a pizzeria opened in 2019; and the famed Mirazur, which snagged its first Michelin star only nine months after he took over the kitchen in 2006 and reached of the mountain when it earned three stars in 2019.
“I started to cook because I love it, not for a star,” Colagreco tells me in Franglais—mixing two of the five languages he speaks, along with Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese—as we stroll narrow alleys in between yellow-hued buildings crawling with ivy. Born and raised in Argentina, he moved to France in 2001 and began working alongside the late Bernard Loiseau, who died by suicide amid concerns that his restaurant La Côte d’Or would lose one of its three stars. “When that happened,” Colagreco says, “I made a promise to never work in that way. If you work well, and if you love your work, maybe [a star] will come. But it’s the only way.”
Down an alley, we duck into an unmarked door, where a brick oven dating back to 1906 is about to produce country bread for his restaurants. One of the bakers, who has been there since 6 a.m., asks if I want to give kneading a try, but I leave that job to the experts.
Next, we head toward the port, walking along crooked cobblestone streets that eventually give way to docks where hundreds of boats bob in the bay. Here, we’re meeting a couple of fishermen. “I love and need contact with people,” Colagreco tells me. “I meet so many, from fishermen to presidents, and sometimes it’s more interesting to talk to the fishermen!”
The gaiter-wearing guys are unsurprised at the arrival of the superstar chef, taking a break from slinging swordfish to greet him with fist bumps. As seagulls call and midday church bells ring, Colagreco looks over the sea bream and sole, wondering aloud what his executive chef, Andrea Moscardino, has chosen for that night’s menu at Ceto.
For now, though, he’s off to have a more humble lunch with his two young sons at Pecora Negra. Thankfully my appetite has returned, and I’m headed over to dine at Casa Fuego, but not before Colagreco’s wife, Julia, arrives bearing a paper bag stuffed with pastries—including that fougasse mentonnaise—which the chef asked her to bring for me. “For later,” he says with a wink.
Feast in the French Riviera: Daily nonstop flights between New York/Newark and Nice, France, begin April 29.