It is not easy to get to the island. From Miami you fly to Buenos Aires. In Buenos Aires you wait around for half a night, change airports, and catch a 4:00 a.m. flight to Comodoro Rivadavia, a city whose mellifluous name tricks you into thinking you’re about to land at some Patagonian beach resort. Instead, you arrive in a place encircled by oil fields and slag heaps—in the haze of a slow sunrise, the landscape is a postapocalyptic study in gray and beige.
From there, a driver takes you far west, across the expanse of the Argentine province of Chubut. The drive lasts about five hours. What you see from the truck is desolate. You want to text a picture to a friend but your phone has stopped getting a signal. When you get out of the truck to take a whiz, the wind that whips around you is strong enough to feel like a shove. Now and then, as you ride along in a trance, you see a herd of wild horses emerging from the hills and watching the road like sentries.
You are drifting deeper into the wild and farther from anything you know. You are heading toward the Andes. “The lake is beyond the mountains,” the driver says in Spanish. The wind blows the truck so hard that it causes the chassis to give off a ghostly whistle. Eventually you arrive at a dock. Its wooden slats are slick with ice, so you have to step carefully in your boots. You wrap yourself in layers of clothing—hat, gloves, scarf, parka. It’s June here in Patagonia, which means winter is moving in, but you don’t really grasp how cold it is until you climb into the rubber raft and the engine roars and you begin scudding across the frigid whitecaps of a lake called La Plata. The raft slams up and down on top of the water. For about ninety minutes, cold spray hits your face and the seat of your jeans gets wet. You hold tight to whatever looks secure. Mountains rise all around. There seem to be minimal signs of human occupation. When the raft begins to slow down and curve to the left, you have been traveling for something like twenty-five hours straight.
You come to the island and Francis Mallmann is there to greet you at the door of his house. “So here we are,” he says. “A glass of wine?”
It is fitting that you have to venture so far off the grid to get to Francis Mallmann. He is a man whose approach to cooking and living feels like an homage to a forgotten time and place. While many of the most influential chefs around the world have engaged in an escalating competition to be cast as creative and forward-thinking leaders in gastronomy, Mallmann has swerved in the opposite direction, forsaking the trappings of haute cuisine and focusing instead on a primal style of hospitality whose core comes down to one-syllable words: smoke, fire, air, stone, salt, rain, meat, wine. He runs nine restaurants around the world, mostly in South America and also in France and Miami Beach, but unlike Massimo Bottura, Daniel Humm, or René Redzepi, Mallmann is not associated with the visionary menu of one particular establishment. He is known for being Francis Mallmann, the Patagonian dandy who can put together a royal repast in a clearing in the forest, using little more than a few sticks tied together and a smoldering flame surrounded by stones. You can go to the restaurants and get a standardized rendition of Mallmannism, sure, but there’s no getting around the nagging feeling that if you want to experience the essence of his cooking or study fire at his elbow, as countless chefs have, you need to come to the island.
Like a lot of people, I developed a deeper interest in Mallmann—okay, maybe a bit of an obsession—after I watched the Chef’s Table episode about him on Netflix in 2015. Shrouded in woodsmoke and striding around his Patagonian refuge like a deposed king, Mallmann, who turns sixty-two in January, came across as the protagonist of a robust, honest, and highly complicated life. He, like Gregg Allman and Bob Marley, had fathered a multitude of offspring from an array of different relationships—six children, four mothers. The little girl frolicking about in scenes from Chef’s Table turned out to be not his grandchild but his daughter Heloisa, whose mother is Vanina Chimeno, a chef in her thirties who had begun working in one of Mallmann’s kitchens when she was nineteen. (Chimeno and Mallmann got married in 2016.) Throughout the episode, Mallmann expressed no pretense of monogamy. There had been romantic entanglements in his past; he had no intention of reeling them in. He and Chimeno still live separately and both are free to stray as they wish.
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He is, you might say, his own strange island. Even before the Chef’s Table debut, Mallmann’s influence had been growing—almost in direct proportion to his desire to distance himself from the culinary upper crust and do his own thing. When you walk into an American restaurant these days and you see theatrically flickering flames, it’s a good guess that the chef can cite his most recent books, Seven Fires and Mallmann on Fire, as an inspiration. The Dabney in Washington, D.C.; Martina in Minneapolis; Roister in Chicago; the Charter Oak in Napa Valley; Mettā in Brooklyn; Hartwood in Tulum, Mexico; Mallmann’s own Los Fuegos at the Faena hotel in Miami Beach—the fires are burning everywhere you look. But Mallmann himself is elusive, rarely a participant in the festivals that chefs flock to throughout the year. He has several homes in South America, but he is most comfortable here on an island on a lake, beneath the snowy crowns of the Andes, in a place so far away that there is no way to call anyone, aside from a satellite phone that Mallmann has on hand for rare emergencies.
Go ahead, check your handheld—it has flatlined. You’re going to have to readjust to the rhythms of human conversation and the shock of looking up into the night sky at a dense splash of stars. You are not, however, exiled from the pleasures of civilization. Here in their escape compound, Mallmann and his brother Carlos—should you want to visit chez Carlos, you’ll have to hike up a hill even deeper into the woods—have laid in a stockpile of luxury goods. “We have huge supplies of everything,” Mallmann says. “It is quite civilized, to be here.” If the medieval Irish monks could have devoted themselves to the task of preserving the best of what Western civilization has given us lately, their cloister might look a lot like this.
There is an abundance of cheese and wine, but there are also shelves full of films on DVD, many of which tap into the polymorphous mythology that Mallmann likes to feast on: 81∕2, Like Water for Chocolate, Blue Velvet, Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life. April Bloomfield, the British-born chef with restaurants in New York and Los Angeles and San Francisco, once stayed on the island for ten days. “When April was here, we did an extensive course in film—every night we did two films,” Mallmann says. Before long, she too had fallen under Mallmann’s Prospero-like spell. “He’s such a romantic, isn’t he?” she says. “He loves to recite poetry. He loves to paint. He is quite possibly the most interesting man in the world.” On his farm in Uruguay, he has about four thousand books of poetry, but there’s a strong selection here, too, as well as a library of food books, including milestones by Bloomfield and Gabrielle Hamilton, M. F. K. Fisher and Diane Ackerman. Mallmann believes that female chefs have a better handle than men do when it comes to what cooking is all about. “They’re the best,” he says. “When they’re good, they’re much better than us. They’re stronger than us. They make better decisions.”
With no phone to squander time on, Mallmann has ample hours on the island to watch movies and read books and paint and strum the guitar over in the corner. He’s looking forward to a week of that. He likes to revel in the overabundance of it all. Clothes strewn everywhere, empty wine bottles, overflowing ashtrays—this, for Mallmann, is the ideal domestic setting. “The thing about a beautiful house is to make it untidy every day,” he says. “I wake up in the morning and I see the mess and I love it. That’s the way that I like to live.”
But first, lunch. As you’ll come to see, meals on this island of misfit Renaissance men seem to be served with the assumption that you’ve just come back from a hike across the Chilean border, or a fishing expedition on the lake, or a twenty-five-hour journey from one continent to another. “I eat a steak every day,” Mallmann says. “Sometimes twice a day. I love steak.” Lunch today is a steak milanesa, a South American staple, although instead of making it the way you expect, with the fillet of beef sliced thin and pounded even thinner, Mallmann presents a high round milanesa in which each piece of meat has the girth of a couple hockey pucks stacked one on top of the other. He panfries the steaks with a crust of bread crumbs and cheddar cheese. How good is the milanesa? You inhale two of the steaks and seriously consider eating a third.
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Eat all you want. No one here is going to judge you for enjoying a steak. No one even knows where you are. Francis and Carlos Mallmann call the house on the island La Soplada, which can be translated as “the blown away.”
Mallmann’s life has been marked by a fair share of blowing away—and blowing off—what has been built up. His father, a prominent physicist, raised the family in Patagonia, and Mallmann speaks of his childhood with a reverence that slips into unbridled romanticism. He used to hitchhike home from school and would chew on bark and grass that he found in ditches. “There were lots of lemony tastes,” he says. “My parents were always angry at me because my mouth was green.” In the mornings as a boy, he had the same breakfast that he has now: toast, butter, jam, cheese. He remembers the way his father would join him for breakfast before drifting away to his office to listen to West Side Story and work on equations.
Mallmann was restless from the start. School bored him. He would bring a pillow to class, place it down on his desk, and sleep. He slunk around in pink pants and high-heeled boots (“My father thought I was gay”) and became enraptured by music—Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, the denim-troubadour balladry of the American sixties. He moved out of the family home at the age of thirteen, already possessed of a desire for freedom that would cancel out any of the other pressures tugging at him, and at sixteen he emancipated himself from his parents and transplanted to San Francisco. He bought a vintage MG for $723 and cruised around the California coast, soaking up music and working as a carpenter. “In those days I was a beach bum, sort of,” he says. “I never did drugs—I don’t know why. I feel that I’m drugged all day long, so what else do we need? I’m in love with so many things that inspire me so much.”
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At first he had no intention of becoming a chef, but he drifted back to Argentina to open a restaurant with a friend, and circumstances eventually led him to Paris, where he became as smitten with French culture as he had been with the music of the Pacific Coast. “The way the French people live,” he says. “And love. The ladies are so unfaithful. I love that.” He was twenty. The year was 1976. During the next couple decades, he would pay his dues in some of the top kitchens of France, learning alongside chefs such as Roger Vergé, Raymond Oliver, and Alain Senderens, and gradually advancing toward a level of success that would enable him to . . . blow it all up. “The International Academy of Gastronomy—the most prestigious culinary organization in the world—had invited me to prepare a meal for them,” he writes in the introduction to Seven Fires. “I was in great company—such European superstars as Alain Ducasse, Ferran Adrià, and Frédy Girardet had received the same invitation, and I would be the first New World chef.” But Mallmann was seized by an imp of the perverse. Instead of dutifully serving up a delicate ode to Gallic glory, he dispatched an associate to Peru and asked him to secure a thousand pounds of potatoes. The potatoes traveled from South America to Frankfurt, Germany, where the gods of gastronomy were to assemble. Mallmann, in a tribute to the continent of his birth, served the audience nine courses of potatoes. The response to the tuber-centric repast was unexpectedly positive. According to Mallmann’s account in Seven Fires, an Italian leader of the academy, who had gone into the dinner with “nightmares of indigestion” imagining “many potatoes soaked in oil,” proclaimed that “what I have eaten today, I truly believe, was food made by the angels.” That reaction helped give Mallmann the confidence to move into more primordial modes of cooking. “For inspiration, I turned to the methods of the frontier, of the gauchos and, before them, of the Indians,” he has written. To this day, he considers himself a humble student of the indigenous people of Patagonia, many of whom were systematically wiped out by outside invaders.
“A feeling of resolve came over me,” he writes. “I was through with the fancy sauces and the elaborately arranged ingredients piled high on the plate like one of Marie Antoinette’s coiffures. I wanted to create a cuisine based on my Andean heritage.”
He had grown up around fire. In the Michelin-starred kitchens of France, he missed the fragrance of smoke and the bitter funk of a good char. “I was forty and I had been doing French food for twenty years,” he says. “I realized that I didn’t have a voice of my own, and I was losing interest. One day I realized that all those fires from my childhood were very deep inside of me.”
Pretty soon the fires seemed embedded in him—for real. He would board planes and passengers would ask to change seats, so pungent was his cologne of burning wood. In South America, he built up a reputation as a shaman of smoke. “They were all laughing at me when I started,” he says. “I just went against the current.” He became a TV star in South America—famous for his combat-savoring talk-show appearances and a newspaper column that often drifted into erotica—and his empire of restaurants grew. But the beggar’s banquet of potatoes was only the start of his mischievous contrarianism. He became an outspoken critic of movements like molecular gastronomy—“I don’t give a shit about who gets mad,” he says—and a refusenik on the topic of marathon tasting menus, meals in which conversation must cease with the breathless arrival of each new dish. “The only reason to eat and drink is to have better conversation,” he says. Even though 1884, one of his restaurants in Mendoza, Argentina, has made appearances on an influential annual list of the fifty best restaurants in the world, Mallmann resigned in 2013 from the organization that chooses the list. He had grown opposed to the whole enterprise.
He does not deny that his romantic fires have, along the way, left behind a trail of ash. “When you live as I did, you leave some harm on the way,” he says. “It’s not only roses. It’s a bit selfish, in a way. But for me there’s no way out.” In the United States these days, sexual harassment and abuse are being exposed as a plague on the restaurant industry; in the wake of allegations that brought down the New Orleans–based celebrity chef John Besh (and later chef Mario Batali, as well as Bloomfield’s business partner, Ken Friedman), critics are excoriating toxic manifestations of masculinity in the kitchen. No such controversy has surfaced regarding Mallmann. His reputation as a hopelessly romantic ladies’ man, though, is no secret—in fact, he’s happy to tell you all about it. At a certain point in his life, he stopped even trying to hide his infidelities, and he told Chimeno as much when they fell in love.
“The first time we slept together, I said, ‘I’m fifty. I’ve been unfaithful all my life. I’ve lied all my life. I don’t want to lie anymore,’ ” he says. “I love women and I love to have them around.”
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Every year, usually at Easter, Mallmann tries to bring all six of his children together on the island. With his scorched-earth approach to life, how has he kept from scarring them? “You do,” he says. “You scar them. They’re scarred.” One of his sons, Andino, who is entering his teenage years, recently asked him, “Why don’t we have a normal family, Dad?” He told Andino, “I have led a special life. I have fallen in love many times.” “My path of freedom has not made everybody happy,” Mallmann admits. “There’s a price you pay. But I’ve been truthful with my children about all of it.” He has watched friendships wither along the way. “I see friends caught in these webs of duty and they can’t get out of them and I can’t see them anymore—I can’t respect them,” he says. “They’re frightened. ‘What will happen to me?’ Fucking sell the house. Move to a hole and be happy.” Mallmann has seen so many things go soplada in his own life that he appears to have shed the normal anxieties about radical change.
“I’m not afraid of anything,” he says. “If I have to start again, I can start anywhere—cleaning bathrooms. The worst enemies of man? Fear. And routine. They paralyze us. They’re the worst enemies we have.”
“Let me go see how the beast is doing,” Mallmann says.
You could talk about the ups and downs of his messy life for hours, but if you really want to be blown away, there comes a moment on the island when you need to watch the man cook. You need to watch him cook the beast. And so after a deep, phoneless sleep, you awake and squeeze into your snow boots and enter the forest, where lichen seems to shine on the trunks of the trees like candlelit Chartreuse. You amble your way over to an open-air shed made of logs. Mallmann is there, wearing a beret, an ascot, a pink oxford shirt, eyeglasses with red frames, and a gold corduroy blazer with an orange pocket square. In this dandyish attire, he and two assistants are tying the carcass of a capon lamb to a wooden cross. “It’s a bit lean, because it’s winter, but it will be delicious,” he says. “It cooks all the way through on the side of the bone. Very slowly—that’s the beauty of it.” He explains that the lambs live by the sea and eat salicornia, the “sea beans” that grow on the beach. Nearly everything that he and his team eat on the island—like every single nail and beam and pot and pan in the house—has made the trek, by truck and by boat, over the land and the lake.
Ash and sparks swirl through the air. The lamb is tied to the crossed sticks a couple feet away from the fire, leaning over it, but not right on top of it, so that it can yield to a patient transformation. Every now and then, impulsively, Mallmann wipes the flesh with a brush made of rosemary leaves, soaked in a brine.
“What time is it?” Mallmann asks. “Is it time to have a glass of wine?” He’s told that it’s 11:00 a.m. “Perfect,” he says. Bottles are uncorked. Glasses of water appear, too. “You’re drinking the lake,” he says. There is a long wooden table in the center of the shed. “I did my wedding lunch here,” Mallmann says. That was in 2016. “I was here for the anniversary,” he goes on. “With a lover.” He winces. As the fire progresses, ash builds up on the surface like an off-white tablecloth, but then the winter wind blows it away. Mist floats around the mountaintops and rain patters on the lake. It becomes clear that this is what we’ll be doing all day.
Here with the cinders crackling and the fat dripping down like candle wax and the splayed ribs of the lamb starting to look like a glistening harp, it’s easy to regress to the mind-set of a twelve-year-old boy. You eat with your hands. You toss sticks into the fire. Somewhere far away, Mallmann’s restaurants are clicking along, their harried general managers unable to contact him. What if a problem arises? “There are never problems,” he says. “I tell my managers, ‘I don’t know what you’re doing, but Don’t. Ever. Call. Me. With. A. Problem. Fix them.’ And it works!” He spends a great deal of time on jets, flying from one location to another and charging top dollar for private fat-and-ashes asados that he throws for celebrities like Bono. He had been planning to travel to France in three days to visit the restaurant in Provence, but he would miss his daughter Heloisa too much, so he has changed the schedule, in his mind, without making anyone aware of that. “I never make plans,” he says. “You can’t make plans. Or you make plans just to break them. I just changed my plans an hour ago.”
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His plan, for now, is to be present at this table. This is where his theory of cooking comes into full focus. Mostly he sits around waiting; he does a lot of the work with his ears, his eyes, his nose, and his fingertips. “Cooking is about patience,” he says. “It’s about capturing the right moment for everything. The most beautiful thing about cooking is the silent language. You can’t write about it. I can’t teach it. That’s why there are so many cookbooks but not much success out of cookbooks.”
Here on the island, as fog rolls in over the lake and slowly burns off, Mallmann rises from a bench now and then to join his fire crew around the pit and prepare a dish. He grates potatoes and layers the shreds right onto a cast-iron plancha to make Patagonian hash browns. He gets up from the table at one point, touches his fingertips to the cavity of the lamb to see how it’s coming along, and slides a knife in to snip out the kidneys, which are served salted and swaddled in fat on the tabletop. “I like brutal things,” he says. “I like brutal food.” Even dessert is brutal—he swirls batter around the plancha to form a crepe, fills it with gooey dulce de leche, folds it up, sprinkles sugar on the surface, and then cauterizes the sugar into a crust with the tip of a poker that has been heated up in the red coals.
The pièce de résistance, though, comes midway through the meal: Mallmann sears tomatoes on the hot metal and throws puffy bread directly into the coals so that it blackens. “Quite radical,” he says. “I mean, we’re fucking burning it.” When the bread is sufficiently scorched, he platters it on the table, crowns it with the hot tomatoes, floods it with salt and olive oil and chimichurri sauce, and chops it all up into bite-sized chunks with a tool that looks like a drywall scraper.
“Help yourself,” he says. We fall silent around the table as we pick up the soaked, charred bread with our fingers. It is brutally delicious.
“This is very important,” he says. “This mess. Look at this—it’s such a beautiful scene, no?”