Playing With Fire
Sarah Henry, December 23, 2012
“Fire has its own language, spoken in the realm of heat, hunger, and desire. It speaks of alchemy, mystery, and above all, possibility.”
Argentina’s most celebrated chef, Francis Mallmann, has earned an international reputation in the culinary arena for his innovative approach to cuisine using that most fundamental cooking method — live fire.
Mallmann adores dissonance in food — two tastes fighting each other — because, he says, it wakes up the palate and surprises. The right amount of charring can be seductive: a burnt peach, say, can have a dark crust bordering on bitter, while the inside is soft and sweet. What appeals to this innovator is the element of danger and excitement in creating something tastefully burnt without destroying a dish, staying just on the right side of the line to craft something lovely and luscious.
This gaucho of grilled meat — grilled everything, really — began his culinary career in Patagonia, went on to work in several Michelin-starred restaurants in France, and after growing tired of fussy fine dining, opted to open his own restaurants and pay homage to simple, age-old Argentine cooking techniques, albeit re-imagined with a contemporary, refined yet rustic sensibility.
Mallmann’s culinary creativity — what he calls the uncertain edge of burnt — is sparked by fire in all its forms, whether a blast of furnace-like intensity from a bonfire or the slow, steady warmth of dying embers. In Mallmann’s world, steaks sizzle on a wood-fire grill, vegetables burn until crisp, potatoes roast in the heat of smoldering ashes, and salt-encrusted salmon scorches between two layers of fire in a contraption called an infernillo (a small inferno) or “little hell.” His tools may be modest — a cast-iron griddle known as a chapa and a barbecue grate called a parrilla —but critics praise the textures that emerge from his flames for their signature char, crackle, and crunch, smoky splendor and tender, moist taste.
The LiP: When did your fascination with fire begin?
FRANCIS MALLMANN: In my early childhood in Patagonia, we lived in a remote house that was ruled by fire: the cooking, the heating, the hot water, the chimney all worked with logs of indigenous woods of the Andes. So, at first, fire was more of an obligation.
The LiP: What do you make of the human attraction to fire?
FRANCIS MALLMANN: It’s an innate attraction for affection, well-being, and happiness — one of the most universal languages of silence — like bread, kissing, touching and smiling. Silence is the most intellectual pattern of human expression, and fire is part of it.
The LiP: Did you have an “a-ha” moment in creating your culinary style?
FRANCIS MALLMANN: It was when I was 40, after winning this incredible prize in Paris; I suddenly felt sad. That sadness was the need to change, the need to finally find my own voice. I was saying goodbye to the past. I was getting ready for fire.
The LiP: Why fire? How did it shape your cooking techniques?
FRANCIS MALLMANN: Fire is a tender way of cooking — it’s complex and fragile, more feminine than masculine. It has to do with patience, intuition and tenderness.
Fire can be brutal, but drama is the most powerful engine for humans. Women are the strongest and most elegant in facing drama, and, so, for me, they are the inspiration for fires. When I cook with fire, I must reach and find every feminine tool that inhabits me.
There’s the hard work with logs and unbearable heat, which has always been related to men, but there’s also the measuring with sight and touch the quality and structure of what you’re cooking, no matter if it is a butternut squash, rib eye, or salt-crusted salmon. This is where fire really starts — with your eyes and hands — and assessing the quality of the logs and coals. It’s not about the stronghold of the shovel at a thousand degrees, but the tender comprehension of temperatures. It’s like a ballet. It’s feminine.
The LiP: Can you give us a description of your culinary style?
FRANCIS MALLMANN: My cooking is not mine, really; it’s an interpretation of the roots of Argentina, its immigrants and the humble silence of what was left from the natives. It’s influenced strongly by France.
The true beauty of cooking starts when you know and have practiced all the classics and you have experience and can start to be inspired by thought and imagination.
The boundaries of cooking have been broken with technology. It’s a bit uptight for me. That’s why I’d rather stand at night with a long stick in front of a fire moving around my coals, smoke and logs, cooking my food. I feel that this, what I do, is a question mark for modernism.
The LiP: How have you evolved as a chef?
FRANCIS MALLMANN: Even though you can’t see or taste any hint of French cooking in my restaurants today, France is still the root of my cooking.
The allure of French cooking is beyond recipes; it’s the culture and history of France that inhabits me. It was my first step to understanding that there is an intellectual road in cooking, touched by every creative human being, past and present.
The LiP: What inspires you — in life and in your work?
FRANCIS MALLMANN: In life — adventure, the edge of uncertainty, irreverence, opposites and the beauty of contradictions.
As for cooking, it is a craft. But service in a restaurant and in life has no limit, and for me that is a great attraction and inspiration. Service can make someone rethink their life.
I work every day of the year, but I feel I am always on holidays. There are no boundaries between work and pleasure since I very rarely sit at a table or talk to someone I don’t enjoy.
I love spending every cent I earn. I dismiss the corporate world as boring and a reflection of human insecurity.
I am a bandit of love; I love all the way, to the limits of my strength.
The LiP: Which tools are constants in your creative process?
FRANCIS MALLMANN: Language, silence, touch, music, words, flowers and beauty — these are diverse things that bring a velvety richness to life. And cooking needs diversity.
The LiP: What have you learned from honing your craft?
FRANCIS MALLMANN: The only truth, as Kipling said, is to realize that success and failure are two impostors and that the important part [of life] is the road and the time spent toward failure or success.
The LiP: Has your culinary success allowed you to explore other creative projects?
FRANCIS MALLMANN: Yes, I am constantly tempted to walk into new creative areas of life. I could be a couturier, a decorator, a film director and an actor.
The LiP: What is your big picture ambition with your work?
FRANCIS MALLMANN: To touch the hearts of people and encourage them to change unsatisfying lifestyles.
The LiP: What is the most progressive concept you’ve come across that you’d like to see grow?
FRANCIS MALLMANN: Patience…the art of waiting.
Photos excerpted from Seven Fires by Francis Mallmann (Artisan Books). Copyright 2009. Photographs by Santiago Soto Monllor.