Few chefs have developed a signature that’s as accessible and appealing as Francis Mallmann’s quintessentially South American style of live-fire cooking.
Using wood-fuelled flames and simple tools – an axe, cast-iron griddles, a barbecue grate – he creates meals that are as primal as they are delicious, as much a product of the setting and prevailing wind as his culinary skill.
While the environment and prep times are fairly predictable at his six restaurants, located in Argentina, Uruguay and Miami, tonight’s intimate dinner in the Uruguayan hills, 30 minutes inland from chic beach resorts José Ignacio and Punta del Este, is a rare opportunity to watch Mallmann work in a wild setting befitting his culinary philosophy.
The scene unfolding could be from a Tolkien epic or an episode from Game of Thrones.
The blazing fire, measuring a few metres across and surrounded by smaller satellite fires and heaps of glowing embers, is capped by a huge domed metal cage lashed with splayed carcasses and slabs of meat, with root vegetables strung from hooks at varying heights from the flames. Beyond, an imposing wooden table is set with platters and wine glasses, framed by rugged hills and the open, steely grey sky.
While a small army of 20-odd cooks tends the pit, Mallmann, dressed in a pink shirt, navy-blue jacket with red pocket square and a grey beret, greets me with a Negroni cocktail and a grilled fish and citrus-avocado pita-bread pouch, warm from the grill. The dinner will be a little longer cooking, he says. While we wait, he offers me a quick tour of his one-room, corrugated-iron and wood house, set atop a huge boulder at the bottom of the hill. Inside, walls are simply whitewashed, with shelves of poetry and design books framing a huge hearth and a bed made with red-and-white-striped covers; windows look out over the tree canopy and green hill slopes beyond.
This rustic bolthole isn’t his only home, of course; Mallmann comes here when he needs some peace and quiet. At the age of 61, the peripatetic, Patagonian-born chef, restaurateur, writer and TV star is arguably the most famous chef in South America. His cookbooks Seven Fires: Grilling the Argentine Way (2009) and Mallmann on Fire (2014) schooled readers on how to achieve the unique flavours imparted by live-fire cooking; the episode of Netflix’s runaway TV sensation Chef’s Table introduced us to the charming, romantic personality fanning the flames.
His restaurants are equally popular among hungry regulars and visiting notables, and while Mallmann is tight-lipped about his celebrity clientele, Katy Perry was one fan to out him on Instagram, posting shots of them posing with cigars at his restaurant Patagonia Sur in Buenos Aires, as the pop star put it: “smoking Cristos & pondering life with Francis Mallmann after consuming the best meal I’ve ever had…”
Despite his highbrow international profile, in person Mallmann is as unpretentious as his cooking, which he explains is firmly rooted in his Patagonian upbringing. Growing up on a cliff overlooking Lago Moreno, fire played a large role in his childhood – summer and winter, his home abutting a huge shed of wood, which supplied fuel for heating, hot water and cooking.
“Those things that get inside you as a child are the most rooted for the rest of your life. Patagonia has been my best friend and companion and help in adversity; I always go back to those thoughts of childhood whenever I need to be cured of something,” he says.
As the sun dips behind the hills, we take our seats and tuck into cuts of Wagyu beef, rack of lamb, roast pork capped with a thick layer of crackling, blackened roast pumpkin and charred, sweet pineapple, talking all the while. He recites Edgar Allen Poe’s poem The Raven and mentions his recent marriage to his fourth wife; he expresses his love for his hometown in Patagonia and admits Paris is the city he admires most in the world.
“I’ve written so many essays about Paris, and they’re not about the monuments or the paintings or the architecture; they are more about the aura of Paris,” he rhapsodises. “I can be anywhere in the world, close my eyes and just think about [Paris] and it takes me to the most beautiful places in my heart.”
As a young chef, Mallmann made his name preparing haute French cuisine. Shuttering his restaurants in Bariloche in Argentina and José Ignacio in the off season, he went to France for the first time in 1977 to cook under the direction of Alain Senderens, Roger Vergé and Raymond Oliver, working in the kitchens of lauded restaurants Le Taillevent and Le Grand Véfour in Paris and at L’Oustau de Baumanière in Provence and Troisgros in Roanne.
“I have fond memories of those years: cooking with the masters, my bicycle, my dreams and French culture,” recalls Mallmann, wistfully.
When he returned to Argentina on a more permanent basis in the early eighties – his first wife was pregnant with his first son, Francisco – Mallmann continued to run his own kitchens. He could have continued to cook fancy Gallic dinners for his wealthy Argentinian clientele, but he was bored with replicating rule-bound French dishes in the incongruous South American setting and began to focus more on Argentine ingredients such as potatoes and meats, cooking them over fire using cast iron like he’d seen gauchos cooking as he was growing up, eschewing mother sauces and the extensive French batterie de cuisine in favour of olive oil, salt and pepper and the chapa, a cast-iron griddle.
Mallmann’s rebellious streak also showed in the way he ran his restaurants. Tiring of the crowds arriving from Argentina to party in Uruguay during the summer season from December to March, in 2003 he shuttered his busy beach outlet in José Ignacio and moved to Garzón (a half-hour drive inland) into a building fronting the plaza. It turned the small bucolic town into a destination in the process.
His namesake eatery Garzón, with its red-and-white-chequered tablecloths and green wooden shelving, plays up the town’s backcountry feel.
In the kitchen, a wood fire adds Mallmann’s distinctive character to dishes prepared using local seafood and produce – eye of steak with chimichurri, domino potatoes and bacon-wrapped asparagus; catch of the day with parsnips, vegetables and farofa (toasted cassava flour) seasoned with herbs from the garden and served with excellent local olive oil. Guests keen to stay overnight, as I was, can book one of three rooms that face the garden and pool. You can even enjoy breakfast with Mallmann the next day, if he’s in town.
But it’s more likely that he’ll be on the road. Adding to Garzón and his three restaurants Patagonia Sur, Siete Fuegos and 1884 in Argentina, last year Mallmann launched restaurants at ecologically sound LEED-certified winery Bodega Garzón in Uruguay, not far from Garzón’s town plaza, and Los Fuegos within the Faena Hotel in Miami, his first outside South America, which averages 600 customers per day.
He opened Fuegos restaurant at Montes Winery in Chile in February; his eponymous eatery Francis Mallmann at Château La Coste, near Aix-en-Provence, is scheduled to welcome guests in June; and he has another TV show and cookbook in the works.
Staying faithful to the language of cooking with fire for which he’s become famous – and which the chef says is his greatest professional accomplishment – is a formula that’s working, and Mallmann’s running with it.
“I don’t see myself retiring,” he says. “I love my work. Right now is a very interesting and inspiring moment in my career.”