“You eat snake in Hong Kong, no?” Mauro Colagreco asks a group of diners.
“Yes,” one woman pipes up. “Not really, most people don’t,” a bespectacled man immediately protests.
But Colagreco refuses to be drawn into the debate. “Right, where can I get some?” he booms.
Everyone laughs, not quite sure whether the Argentine-Italian chef is joking or if he’s really planning to wander the city’s backstreets in search of pythons to poach, cobras to cure or boas to bake.
I’d guess that Colagreco is pulling our leg – not because he seems squeamish at the thought of eating snake, but because his own dishes are so free of meat. He’s in Hong Kong for a five-day residency at Petrus at the Island Shangri-La, an event that is part of the Shangri-La International Festival of Gastronomy, and is intent on impressing diners with his fruit- and vegetable-heavy menu.
And impress diners he has. Lunch begins with an asparagus salad – not exciting on paper, but an eye-opener in person, with the delicate ribbons of asparagus and bite-size chunks of grapefruit making the dish a summery surprise on a dull autumn day.
Some of these ingredients have been grown in Colagreco’s own garden, which sits close to his two-Michelin-starred restaurant, Mirazur, in the French Mediterranean town of Menton. “It’s all about the quality,” Colagreco explains. “When you use a product that you just picked a few hours or one day before, it’s totally different from a product that has been in the fridge for a month, or one that has come in from the other side of the world. We’re very lucky in Mirazur, it’s a place where it’s possible to grow our own ingredients.”
This is more of a challenge in two of Colagreco’s other restaurants, which are both in the heart of Shanghai. “Two hours from Shanghai we have a garden there, we grow tomatoes, some fruits, salad, herbs – but it’s not the same,” Colagreco admits. “In Mirazur it’s a special place – you have the sea, you have the mountains, we have our garden.”
Mirazur balances on the border between France and Italy, and looks out over the glittering ocean. The Mediterranean seafood that Colagreco has delivered daily to Mirazur also makes an appearance in his menu at Petrus, and the salad is followed by a slice of squid with bagna càuda sauce and a main of John Dory accompanied by black garlic, leek and licquorice Béarnaise.
Colagreco puts his experimental mixtures of ingredients (and many of his other successes) down to his training under some of the gods of French cuisine. “I worked with Bernard Loiseau, I worked with Alain Passard, Alain Ducasse and Guy Martin,” Colagreco says. “But if I need to say which of these four chefs influences me more, for sure it’s Alain Passard.
“Passard is totally different from the other three. The others are more traditional, and they work with very French techniques. With Alain, it’s something more open. And he worked with his garden, too. He’s very passionate about vegetables.”
It’s not hard to imagine that Colagreco is now inspiring a similar level of reverence among the next generation of chefs, though he’s too humble to say so. On top of winning two Michelin stars, he’s also secured Mirazur a position on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list for six years in a row.
“The two last years were huge, because we’ve got the 11th position for two years now,” he recounts with a smile. “And we’re the first in France. Wow! We’re very happy, very honoured, but it’s a little pressure because people come with a lot of expectation.”
But as Colagreco plates up the final scoop of orange sorbet, each of which is topped with a cloud of almond foam, no one could claim that the pressure had got to him. He shuffles out of Petrus, blushing, while the restaurant applauds.