Francis Mallmann
Francis Mallmann
Francis Mallmann (Photo: Joe Pugliese)

Francis Mallmann Is the King of Outdoor Cooking. But He Still Has Work to Do.

The legendary chef runs restaurants on three continents and has perfected the art of cooking over an open flame. We joined him in Patagonia to ask: What’s next?

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I am sitting with Francis Mallmann, the famed Argentine chef, on the deck of his house, perched on La Isla, a nearly 15-acre island within a remote lake in Patagonia. Before us are a strip steak and thinly sliced potatoes, both cooked in clarified butter and just removed from an iron parrilla, or grill, gently smoking nearby. I’ve offhandedly told him about a volume of essays and poems by Jorge Luis Borges, an even more fabled Argentine, that I’d recently bought at a bookshop in central Buenos Aires.

Mallmann, holding an almost comically bulbous glass of Chilean wine, brightens, and then asks: “Do you know the ‘Two English Poems’ by Borges? ” He reaches for his phone, searches for a moment, then begins reading. “What can I hold you with?” one poem opens, followed by a catalog of declarations, such as: “I offer you the loyalty of a man who has never been loyal.”

It’s the sort of moment I’ve come to regard as pura Mallmann, a heady, intoxicating foray into the empire of the senses. The scent of something sizzles away on a nearby plancha, or griddle; a soft tango plays in the background; people are gathered under a huge sky, with weather that seems to change on the half-hour; and the chef, with a broad, sympathetic face and flowing white hair, is declaiming some verse whose words, per Dylan, glow “like burning coal.”

Mallmann’s story has already reached near-legend status, but in case you haven’t heard it: A poetically inclined, libertine chef from Argentina is cooking French cuisine at some of the top restaurants in the world, winning awards, when, at age 40, he has a midlife crise de foie and turns instead to a sort of gastro-anthropological passion project to bring traditional Argentinean cooking—everything from the hot-rock-lined curanto pits of the Indigenous Mapuche, to the metal-grates-over-hot-coals campfire cooking of the gauchos—to the wider culinary scene. At the time it was a head-scratching move, but one that worked out for him, resulting in nine restaurants around the globe, adored cookbooks, television shows in Argentina, and big-name fanboys, including David Beckham, Tim Ferriss, and the late Anthony Bourdain. Perhaps his most famous endeavor is a noted Chef’s Table appearance, during which he barbecues meat via a staggering variety of outdoor pits, bonfires, and grills, and poignantly waxes by turns adamant and wistful about his many romantic loves. In the end, Mallmann’s name has become virtually synonymous with one word: fire.

Francis Mallmann walks to his living quarters above the boat house at his La Isla property in Patagonia.
Francis Mallmann walks to his living quarters above the boat house at his La Isla property in Patagonia. (Joe Pugliese)

Since 2017, Mallmann has been inviting small numbers of paying guests to his private island retreat on Lago la Plata in Argentinean Patagonia. It’s not cheap—around $65,000 for a five-night buyout for a half dozen or so guests—but then again, neither is the cost of running the place. There’s a bit of solar power, and the water, even the stuff you drink, comes out of the crystalline lake. But just about everything else, from gasoline to fly-fishing guides, has to be procured from the mainland. Acquiring food means a one-hour boat ride followed by an almost six-hour drive east (some of it on gravel roads) to Comodoro Rivadavia, the nearest big town. The logistics partially explain why, when requests to visit the island started pouring in after his Chef’s Table appearance, he became a hotelier of sorts. But it’s clear that Mallmann enjoys playing host.

What you get for your money is stylishly comfortable lodging, a location of staggering beauty and silence, and time with Mallmann and a number of chefs picked from his various restaurants for stints on La Isla.

I arrived a few days before Mallmann did, and I spent a lot of time in the quincho—a small structure where the grill is housed—with Sandino Fernandez, who usually cooks at Garzon, Mallmann’s restaurant in rural Uruguay, as well as Maria de Luynes, Mallmann’s assistant, and her spirited and fearless toddler, Clementina. There was usually a huge mound of glowing embers on the stone floor of the quincho, with squash and onions and sweet potatoes nestled among them, in the Patagonian cowboy-cooking method known as rescoldo; meanwhile, a young pig, slaughtered the day before (an act that I heard but did not witness) and stretched out on a wire rack, slow-roasts in front of a carefully arrayed tepee of burning wood.

The food was otherworldly, and so was the experience: it’s a cliché to call cooking over a wood fire primal, but that makes it no less true. Perhaps to remind guests of our species’ evolution by fire, Mallmann will have them build their own mini bonfires during their time on the island—and then compose an essay about it.

Smashed potatoes cooked over the fire
Smashed potatoes cooked over the fire (Joe Pugliese)
The boat house and living quarters on Francis Mallmann’s La Isla property in Patagonia
The boat house and living quarters on Francis Mallmann’s La Isla property in Patagonia (Joe Pugliese)

You spend a lot of time at La Isla looking out at what’s around you: a 360-degree panorama of water ringed by thick forests topped with sawtooth peaks and broad ridges with an occasional glacial drift creeping down. The lake, living up to its name, looks like hammered silver, a gleaming surface occasionally marked by a faint ripple. There are inviting woods everywhere you look, but few actual trails. “You make your own path,” Mallmann told me, which seemed like a life lesson lurking in pragmatic hiking advice. Geographically, the place is a bit confounding; you’re in Argentina, but during a morning walk you could cross the border into Chile.

The first afternoon Mallmann arrived, surprisingly energetic after having flown from his restaurant in France, we stood in his immaculate, wood-paneled bedroom above the boathouse on La Isla, examining a row of volumes—everything from John Muir to Marguerite Duras’s The Lover in the original French. He was wearing red glasses, white sneakers from the tony British brand Church’s, a Barbour jacket, and a jaunty pink cap emblazoned with the word esperanza, or “hope,” which he’d embroidered on top. Mallmann, who likes to sew, once asked guests at a dinner party to write a single word on a piece of paper; “esperanza” was Francis Ford Coppola’s contribution.

Soon he was standing at a small plancha, one of myriad wrought-iron cooking contraptions scattered about the island, brushing clarified butter, a Mallmann necessity, over an array of thinly sliced potatoes, slightly overlapping like some tile pattern. This was paired with grilled steak and, for dessert, “pancakes”—crepes, really, drizzled onto the same plancha and topped with Ilolay, a store-bought dulce de leche that is a favorite of Mallmann’s. There were no heated river rocks here, nothing hung over fire from his famous wire dome, nor any of Mallmann’s more adventurous cooking methods. This was relatively simple food you cook for friends, and it was delicious.

The question Mallmann often hears from journalists—“Why fire?”—sends his thoughts back to his childhood, in the Patagonia mountain town of San Carlos de Bariloche. “We lived in a house ruled by fire,” he tells me. “It was innate to our upbringing.” There were fires in the kitchen, in the chimneys, to heat the bath. He and his brothers would race to chop wood before the winter snows started and the timber trucks stopped coming.

The outdoors was equally important. “We lived outside, literally,” he says, skiing, hiking, and fishing. There were “mountain priests,” men like Otto Weisskopf, an “almost indestructible” alpinist who participated in the first winter expedition to the Patagonian ice fields and who would take Mallmann and his friends on strenuous hikes. Mallmann would also sit in on meetings as his father, a renowned physicist, worked with colleagues on models of the world’s future. He dropped out of school at 13, spending a lot of time at a local cinema that showed art movies. “Everything I know,” he says, “I learned by watching films.”

Mallmann first came to La Isla in the 1980s, on a camping trip with friends. He was so taken with it that he decided to build a modest cabin there with his brother. A guest book, begun in 1990, shows early names like Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard. “The fish are too small for him here,” Mallmann jokes.

There was no outside communication with the island until Mallmann acquired a satellite phone in 2004. He long resisted the internet but finally gave in during the pandemic. “So we have internet now,” he jokes, “and look at me, here on my phone.” (Mallmann is an inveterate, if somewhat repentant, Instagrammer, with nearly a million followers.) In another sign of the changing times—or at least of requests from his guests—he’s been testing out a seaplane service to lessen the rigors of reaching the island.

Mallman’s staff roasts a whole pig over the fire for lunch.
Mallman’s staff roasts a whole pig over the fire for lunch. (Joe Pugliese)

Now 66, a year beyond the legal retirement age in Argentina for men, Mallmann seems to have little interest in slowing down. “My life is mixed with so many beautiful things that I can’t see how I would retire,” he says. He is a perpetually restless soul. “We have to change,” he believes. “When we don’t, we are fossils.”

His new book, Green Fire, cowritten with Peter Kaminsky and Donna Gelb, contains no recipes for meat, which is a staple in Argentinean cuisine. “I think there’s a huge change coming, and it will be faster than we think,” he says, hinting at a shift away from a resource-intensive carnivorous lifestyle.

Mallmann’s shirking of meat may come as a surprise to longtime fans, but what is often overlooked in his cooking is just how good his vegetables can be. He’s a master of the humble potato (take, for instance, his famous domino potato recipe), and I had many other nonmeat standouts on La Isla: grilled eggplant, buttery roasted squash, tender onions pulsing with flavor. He hasn’t overlooked fruits: one dessert, a banana roasted to a deep char, was cut open to reveal a soft, slightly smoky sweetness inside; with some dulce de leche added, it was a revelation. His own favorite meal might come as a surprise: basmati rice with red cabbage. “After 45 years of working in restaurants, my soul needs that,” he says.

Following one of our numerous conversations about film, I ask if Mallmann might, had his life gone another way, have become a director. “I would love to do a film,” he says. Then he tells me he’s actually working on the art direction for a new TV series about the life of a food critic and starring a legendary Hollywood actor. (Mallmann is not allowed to speak in detail about the project until it is released.) There are hints that Mallmann might appear on screen, but even if that’s not the case, he already seems to strut through his own kind of movie; spotted at the stern of his boat, alone, in the early-morning fog, wearing a long black robe and the floppy gaucho hat known as a boina, he looked like something out of a Bergman film.

During my last evening on La Isla, I went for a walk with Mallmann and a pair of the island’s dogs. It was one of his favorite treks, but as usual, there was no discernible path; we just tramped over the soft, stubby sotobosque, pausing to look at llao llao mushrooms and other new-to-me Patagonian fungi. We arrived at a sheer rock wall that seemed to rise out of nowhere like a natural proscenium. “This is beautiful, eh?” he says. There was just one thing missing. “I would like to bring a grill and a table here and have dinner.”