WLC meets: Francis Mallmann

Born in Buenos Aires in 1956, having grown up in Patagonia, Argentine chef Francis Mallmann began his culinary career in Paris, where he learnt how to cook in some of the top Michelin-starred restaurants in the city. Having won the Grand Prix de l’Art de la Cuisine in 1996 for an ambitious feast involving ten different dishes that made a hero of the humble potato (in a nod to his Andean roots), Mallmann turned his back on classical French cooking and returned to Patagonia, where he developed his signature style of open fire cooking. Today he runs nine restaurants around the world, everywhere from Mendoza to Miami. Known for his controversial views on love, life and liberty, he eats a steak a day, drinks wine with every meal, and when not cooking likes to indulge his creative side through poetry, painting and playing the piano. He lives in Patagonia with his fourth wife, chef Vanina Chimeno, and their two daughters, Heloisa and Alba.

Why did you decide to do a London pop-up at Cut at 45 Park Lane?

I’ve always been a big admirer of Wolfgang Puck as, along with Alice Waters, he turned the page of America’s cooking in the early ‘80s with Spago in Los Angeles. He had a huge impact in America. For the last four years we’ve done a grilling night together at The Belair in LA, so that bought us together. Wolfgang is going to be doing a pop-up at my Garzón restaurant in Uruguay in January.

Are you considering opening a restaurant in London?

We’ve been trying to for a few years. I’ve been looking for a space with a permit to burn wood, which isn’t easy to find in London. We found some spaces we liked but we didn’t get the permit. I’m seeing another space this week. Ideally I’d like to open somewhere central near Mayfair.

What attracts you to open fire cooking?

It’s a very fragile technique to cook with fire. Some people think that it’s brutal and manly but it’s not. It’s quite the contrary – it’s very feminine and fragile. You need patience to cook with fire. Patience is very beautiful and important, and I think women are so much more patient than men. Fire is a primal tool and is something that’s innate to us and is inside of us before we’re even born.

Are you bored of tasting menus and molecular gastronomy?

I respect it but I really don’t enjoy it as it involves so much intrusion into a meal. You’re eating 20 little plates and every time a new dish arrives the waiter says that the chef has something to tell me.

For me, the reason to go to a restaurant is to enjoy the company of who you’re with and I find it very arrogant to be interrupted all the time. I don’t like it when you’re expected to behave in certain restaurants as if you’re in a church.

Was it ever a goal to have a Michelin star?

No, not really. I respect Michelin but I never worked to achieve a Michelin star – I never thought about it.

Having practiced French cooking for 20 years, why did it take you so long to find your true voice through open fire cooking?

It happened when I was 40 and I won an important culinary prize in Paris. That day I realised that I had to change. I was very happy about the prize but also very sad – I remember going to Barcelona the next day and crying in the streets because a chapter in my life had ended.

It took me a while to make the change but slowly I started seeing the answers. Up until that moment I had a point to prove as a chef and I was in love with France. I leant so much from cooking in France but suddenly something broke.

Do you think women make better chefs?

Yes! Restaurants are very stressful places and women work better under pressure than men. Female chefs make better leaders than male chefs I think. The World’s 50 Best Female Chef award is very controversial. I really dislike it. I renounced being a judge at the awards six years ago. I don’t like the way they work – it’s a lobby thing – chefs are lobbying all year round for it.

Being so meat focused as a chef, what are your thoughts on the recent rise of veganism?

I’m pro the idea and am doing a book about fire and veggies and vegan cooking – I think in 30 years we won’t eat meat anymore. Veganism is a silent and respectful trend and is a growing path of young people.

In the ‘80s and ‘90s there was still a lot of aggression from some animal rights activists, but the new generation of vegans and vegetarians are very respectful. It’s time for us to think about it, to celebrate it and to learn from it.

Are you adapting your business model to cater more to non meat eaters?

I’m planning to make big changes in my restaurants next year towards becoming more vegan and veggie friendly. We already have made some changes but these will be more evident by the year. I’m not saying that I’m going to stop serving meat and fish, but maybe one day, who knows…

The aim with my new book is to make a vegan feel like when they eat a main course that it’s like having a steak – it’s not about serving a little salad with some nuts in. I want them to feel that we’ve really thought it through and serve them something that is substantial and delicious and that they have the same experience as having a steak at one of my restaurants.

Interview continues on the next page 

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