MIAMI, FL --You imagine you'll know the moment chef Francis Mallmann arrives in your city - maybe the shadow of flickering flames will light up the night or the pleasantly acrid scent of burning quebracho hardwood will fill the air. The acclaimed Latin American chef known for his dramatic open-fire cooking has just opened his first U.S. restaurant, Los Fuegos, at the Faena Hotel in Miami Beach, speciaizing in contemporary Argentinian cuisine.
Highly regarded in South America for his top tier, destination restaurants in Argentina and Uruguay and extensive work in television, Mallmann is best known in the United States for the James Beard award-winning book Seven Fires: Grilling the Argentine Way and its follow-up Mallmann on Fire.
Most recently, he was the stand-out chef of the Netflix series Chef's Table. Where other segments followed a thoughtful yet traditional narrative, his segment is something altogether different. Set in a moody Patagonian landscape that is grand but sparse, rustic but refined, Mallmann is the disarmingly flawed, poetic presence at its center - part Parisian flâneur and part gaucho with heavy doses of Andean mystic.
You half expect that endless sky to follow him wherever he goes. When I met with him weeks before the opening of the restaurant, the weather was appropriately blustery. After answering a few questions about the project, I followed Mallmann outside where two fires burned, their flames reaching for the sky.
Working with minimal ingredients and maximum grace, Mallmann demonstrated a few dishes from the menu he was working on. Soft-spoken and thoughtful, he seemed as comfortable outside with the sea at his back under clouds threatening rain as he was in the hotel's hyper-designed interiors. When you're used to working with fire, you're always in your element.
There is a powerful sense of place in your work from both your travels and your home in Patagonia. Will that be part of Los Fuegos as well?
My work is sort of a language of life that is very related with the outdoors and that's why we have this beautiful terrace at the Faena Hotel where Los Fuegos is and our fires, which are very important.
When I talk about the language of life, it's not only about the cooking. It's about the experience which is very important. I have to feel very tuned to everything I do. It has to be related to the way I live. Inside the business, first there has to be this huge happiness and comfort and yeah - feeling at home.
Is it possible to get regionally differentiated Latin American cuisine in a "pan-Latin" city like Miami?
I think we already have them. We have incredible Peruvian restaurants and some very nice Argentinian restaurants besides us [in Miami]. We represent a little bit of Uruguay too. I'm not a great friend of fusion cooking. I'm very respectful and quite pure about the boundaries of countries and cultures that have to represent a style of cooking. I think that Miami today has a very good merge of all these countries.
You've said that you "could think of no better place to introduce the spirit of South America." What defines that spirit to you?
The spirit of eating in South America is time. We sit down for lunch and we eat and we have a glass of wine and we talk. I think that's the core of what South America is and I think there's a different timing to that. There's not so much rush so I love that. Besides that, fire - in every country of South America, especially in the Andes - is a very strong ingredient in so many different ways.
What can you tell us about the open fire kitchen you've designed for the restaurant?
It's basically a central fire that throws the charcoal to the base and from there we move it to the sides and we have things cooking in ashes, things cooking on charcoals, we have grills, we have planchas, and we have things smoking. We have a dome where food is hanging, and we have whole fish cooking there on bamboo beds. We have beautiful pieces of meat that cook there for 10 hours, very slowly.
That's very important for me, because when I started developing all these techniques of cooking with fires, at the beginning, we used to burn a lot of wood. And now we've created this system where with one simple fire we can have all of these techniques. Obviously, besides that we have a beautiful wood oven where we'll cook fishes and seafood and vegetables and so on. The kitchen is sort of a central part of the building. As you walk into the cathedral of the Faena Hotel you see it right away. You see the fire, you see the beautiful colors. It's an open kitchen to the sea, so I think it's very special.
You've also trained in classic French technique but have become known for a rustic, elemental, anthropological Andean cuisine. When you walked away from making traditional European cuisine, what did you gain and what did you lose?
I gained a lot. Because I wanted to create a language of my own cooking which for me was very important. The change started very slowly when I was forty. From there on, I started working with fires and that went growing, growing, and growing until today; and, we're still learning and changing a lot of our techniques constantly. It's a beautiful path.
The gain is that the cooking of France is a love affair with life. I sunk my hands into that for many years so the moment I decided to turn away from it and do something else, it's not that you can erase that. It's still there and it's a huge beauty. Every time without thinking when I do something, it's in my hands, it's in my spirit, it's in my soul, in my eyes, in my breath. So France is still very present even if I do not do a béarnaise sauce today. It's very rooted in my life. Not only the cooking but the culture of France. I'm a big admirer of that country. It was a county that was extremely generous and rigid with me. It had the two sides. So I think that's the mix of what I'm doing today, looking into the past.
What is the perception of South American food in general and Argentinian food in particular?
I think it's still a small voice. It's not a huge voice. It's a little voice. We're sending this message of our cooking style which is related to fire, which is related to all the immigrants from Italy, Spain, France, England, Patagonia and so on. I think it's just starting. I think we have a beautiful future. I think we'll get a stronger voice because there's a new generation of younger chefs who are doing wonderful things and who have a lot of aim and dreams and they're doing things very well. So it will keep on growing.
Do you think Argentina will start to look inward more often?
I think it has already changed. When I was a kid in the city of Buenos Aires, young kids would stand in front of the Rio Plata that looks into Europe and that was their dream as it was mine. I think that now we're realizing that there's so much to embrace in our country and to show in our culture. I think we will grow in that side. Not only in our cooking but as artisans and with all crafts. Some of the techniques I use, like the curanto [pit cookery] - there are traces of that that are 12,000 years old in Patagonia. The natives were cooking like that 12,000 years ago. That's a long time.