The first time I laid eyes on Chef Francis Mallmann, he was sitting on the porch of his newest restaurant drinking coffee. He was wearing a denim beret, a red scarf, a white chef’s jacket, and a broad, brown apron. Round sunglasses protected his eyes from the sun. He looked relaxed but also alert, ready for the next thing life would throw his way, which happened to be me.
The restaurant, called Fuegos de Apalta or Fires of Apalta, is brand new. It’s located in Chile’s Colchagua Valley, in the midst of a winery, the Montes Winery Estate in Apalta. One of Chile’s leading wine producers, Montes had brought me and a group of other wine writers out to Chile, and we’d had lunch at the restaurant. Afterwards, I walked out onto the deck, where I found Mallmann seated at a table. The vineyards extended in every direction around us, vines climbing the Chilean hills in orderly rows.
“Hi, Chef,” I said, walking over to him and introducing myself. “I’d love to ask you a few questions about wine pairings if it’s no trouble?”
“I love these wines,” he said, pointing to the Carménère vines in front of us. “But I don’t believe in pairings.”
It seemed an audacious thing to say in a brand new restaurant located within a vineyard, and I told him so.
“I do understand harmony in eating,” he qualified. “But I feel it’s boring; I feel it’s for toddlers.” He laughed. “I believe in clashes in the mouth,” he went on. “I like to eat something that’s delicious and a wine that contrasts with it, and they both fight me to convince me who is the best.” Just the other day he’d paired the Montes wine he liked best, the Outer Limits Sauvignon Blanc, with a steak, a pairing most sommeliers would not endorse.
“I think choosing a wine has to do with you, with me, with the day, with the sun, how we’re dressed, the ambiance, the spirit, you know?” he said. “It can’t be a plan.”
His voice was decadent, a clash between husky and smooth. I thanked him, and put away my tape recorder. But he spoke again before I stood up.
“Would you like to have dinner tonight? Or do you have plans?”
Francis Mallmann is South America’s most famous chef. The owner of multiple restaurants in Mendoza, Buenos Aires, Uruguay, and now Chile, Mallmann is also an author and a television personality. He is famous in South America but he is also very well known in the U.S. He appeared in an episode of Martha Stewart’s cooking show. Katy Perry is a fan, as is Gwyneth Paltrow.
In addition to South American television shows, Mallmann starred in an episode of the Netflix series “Chef’s Table.” The filmmakers followed Mallmann to his island in Patagonia. They took sweeping shots of Mallmann cooking tautly trussed carcasses on enormous outdoor fires, or wrapping fish in salt and clay. These were epic displays that seemed ancient and one with the savage scenery, as did Mallmann himself in his billowing ponchos.
It is for this fire cooking that Mallmann is now famous. After a career built on French cuisine, Mallmann went back to his roots in the mid ’90s, learning local techniques from his childhood home of Patagonia and bringing them to the fine-dining scene.
But the big fires and carcasses are not just a cooking style. They are part of a much larger philosophy for Mallmann, or so I would come to understand over dinner later that night. For Francis Mallmann, South America’s most famous chef, is over the restaurant scene, or at least what it’s become.
“It’s very arrogant what happens,” he explained later that night. Say we go to dinner to a three-star restaurant in Paris or in New York, he explained. We sit down, order a bottle of wine, look over the menu. Then we get to do what we came here to do: enjoy each other’s company. But just as we launch into a conversation, the waiter comes back to tell us something about the mushrooms in our dish, or that the tomatoes are from the farmer’s market, or that the fish is special for some reason. “Every time he comes, it’s so arrogant, you know, so arrogant,” he said with feeling. “There’s no respect for intimacy. They are more important than us, you know?”
Mallmann’s entire ethos is a disruption of this “church” of food and wine, as he called it. For Celebrity Chef Francis Mallmann, food and wine are not the end goal of any evening or event but rather a conduit to something else, something mysterious and meaningful that happens between people that requires food and wine but ultimately transcends it. And it is only in the service of this mystery, this scene, as he would later call it, that Francis Mallmann cooks at all.
I told Mallmann I’d be happy to continue our interview over dinner. He picked me up from my hotel in a silver Nissan. Almost as soon as I got into his car, he turned to me and said, “Are you in love with wine?”
“I do love wine,” I said. “But what does it mean to be in love with something? Does it mean you can’t live without it?”
He thought about it for a minute and didn’t answer right away. Later he told me that the mix of love and desire is the most beautiful thing for humans. “And then solitude and silence and nature,” he said when we arrived at the place he was renting, a small cottage on a plot of land he was considering buying. You could see the Andes in the distance. “I love being alone. I need being alone. I think that’s one of the reasons I travel.”
He had decorated the cottage as best he could to make it feel more like a home. He always does, he told me. His environment is very important to him. He travels with textiles to decorate his hotel rooms.
“I love sewing,” he said. “I travel with a guitar. I like painting, writing. And I love candles.”
With that, he turned off the lights and lit four candles, two on the coffee table and two on the kitchen table. He poured us each a glass of the Outer Limits Sauvignon Blanc that he liked. Then I put my tape recorder on the table and he began to tell me his life story.
He grew up in a small Patagonian town. His father, a scientist, ran a post-graduate program funded by the Ford Foundation. It was a very rich upbringing, sitting with scientists at night, listening to them discuss the future of the world. There was always classical music in the house, and dinner parties.
Mallmann went to an English school in the Patagonian mountains in the 1960s. The family would get Time Magazine, four months late, and foreigners would bring books and records. News of the hippie movement trickled in from the U.S. and captured Mallmann’s imagination, never to let go.
When Mallmann was 11, a group of four Australian sisters came to study in his school. One afternoon, he was invited to their home to have a cup of tea. They put on a record — the Monkeys – and those four Australian sisters started dancing on top of a table. Mallmann was enraptured.
“That was a big first call for me,” he remembered. “By the time I was 13, that’s what I wanted. That celebration, that feeling of change. The long hair, the nudity, the flower shirts. I had high-heeled boots like this,” he showed me with his hands. “It was a new language of life. All the rest was gone.”
But his father, a fourth-generation German who is still alive, just didn’t get it. He was very strict, and Mallmann very rebellious. “When I was 13, I stopped going to school and he said, ‘Well, you have to follow the rules of the house or you have to go.’”
So, like in the Beatles song, Mallmann left home. He lived in a room above a nightclub and at night he DJ’d at the club. He made friends with older people, people in their 20s who owned restaurants and bars and did a lot of drugs (Mallmann abstained). His mother would often try to get him to move back home, but he had tasted freedom, and there was no going back.
“Was I abandoned? Or I abandoned them?” he mused. “I don’t know. I think about that very often. I don’t think I was abandoned. I left them.”
“You never wanted your father’s approval?” I asked. “You never craved his blessing?”
“God, what is that?” he said, covering his face with his hand for a moment. “No.”
His father is very sick now. Mallmann recently saw him for the first time in four years. “And the sad thing is that there’s not much between us, which is the worst because when there is love there is love and when there’s hate there’s still love. But I have no hate for him,” he said.
And his mother?
“My mother passed away two days ago,” he said. “I just came from her burial yesterday.”
I was shocked. I would never have known that he had just lost his mother.
“She was in very good health,” he said. “But she was sad, she was ready to go. She liked me,” he added softly.
Mallmann’s father granted him emancipation status when he turned 16, and he moved to California, to San Francisco, to follow the musicians he loved. But it was 1974, and he was too late. “It was over already,” he said.
After two years, he got tired of California, and returned to Patagonia, and that’s when his life as a chef began.
We’d been sitting on the patio of the cottage drinking wine and looking at the stars. Orion, which I can see from my Brooklyn apartment, was upside down. It was a little how I felt as we talked about his life and other things – art, music, truth, meaning. He spoke with an unguardedness that was disarming.
He asked me if I was hungry, and what I’d like to eat. I said I wanted to eat what he would eat if I wasn’t there. We stood up and went into the kitchen, where 20 bottles of Pellegrino were lined up like soldiers.
“Tonight, you’re going to eat the two things I most like, which is cabbage and rice,” he said. “This is what I ate last night, and the night before, and the night before. I’m quite monotonous with my food, but I love this food.”
He began the preparations. First he turned on some music – Saint-Saens’ “The Swan” began to play. Then he hung a big black trash bag over the stove top. He filled a pot of water and lit a fire under it. Then he started chopping vegetables.
He told me about the next stage of his life. When he returned to his hometown in the mid-’70s, a friend of his, an English girl named Cecilia, suggested they open a restaurant together. She’d studied cooking in France, and she was good at it, plus her father, a wealthy banker, had the money to put behind a food establishment. Mallmann agreed, but just before the restaurant was set to open, Cecilia disappeared. She’d followed her boyfriend, a musician, to India.
Her father sent a private investigator after her, but in the meantime, there was a restaurant to open. He asked Mallmann if Mallmann could open the restaurant on his own. “And I said yes, I can,” Mallmann told me. “I don’t know how I did. It was quite a disaster.”
As he talked, Mallmann poured rice into the pot of boiling water. He started chopping cabbage on a chopping block. The “Moonlight” Sonata began to play in the little cottage.
I asked him what he had cooked at that first restaurant after Cecilia abandoned him for India. “A pie of lamb,” he said, chopping an onion. “A pie of seafood. Onion soup.”
He’d learned it all from his mother. But it wasn’t the food he remembered most. “At home at night when there was a dinner with these scientists, musicians would come,” he told me. “My mother would go out into the garden and pick up the most incredible branches and flowers and get out the most beautiful tablecloths and the best china from her grandmother and the most incredible silver.”
It was that scene, more than any dish, that Mallmann remembered and sought to recreate. It was a theme common to all of Mallmann’s early food memories, like the time he had lunch on a summer day with a German couple his family knew. The husband was dressed in a tie, his wife in a long dress. “And there was this beautiful table with a white tablecloth under a tree,” Mallmann remembered. There were flowers on the table, there was music playing. “And we sat around the table and we had lunch. It was like a photograph,” he said. “So I started thinking about the beauty of restaurants then, but not because of the food but because of the scene.”
Rather than the main event, food, it seemed to me to hear Mallmann tell it, was just an excuse to curate a gorgeous event in a person’s life, an unforgettable episode that would, like the evening I was enjoying in his company, come and go and yet linger, on and on.
“I don’t think I’m an incredible chef,” he said. But it was never about that. “When I opened my first restaurant, it wasn’t only about the cooking; it was almost more about the flowers, the candles, the celebration, the joy.”
Still, there had to be food on the table, too. Cecilia had left him three French cookbooks when she’d gone to India, and for two years, he read those books and cooked the recipes in the restaurant. Then he went to Paris to study cooking, and for years after that, he cooked French food.
But he had a change of heart in the ’90s, around the time a certain trend began to develop. “Everybody was going molecular,” he remembered. “That was at its height, and I just went against it and started burning things and learning fires and cooking with fires… And everybody said, ‘God, this guy is just completely crazy, he’s gone.’” And now, they too are cooking with fires, Mallmann said.
Mallmann’s success grew, as did his family. He has been fulfilled in love “many times,” as he put it. He has six children from four women, three of whom he’s been married to. He and his current partner have a little girl together, though they live apart. They spend 10 days out of every month together. “We like our freedom,” he explained.
“What happened to Cecilia?” I asked.
“God, it was such a sad story,” he said, shaking his head, pouring more wine.
Cecilia’s father eventually found her and brought her back to Patagonia, he said. “Since she was trouble for him, he got her into this psychiatric clinic and jailed her in there,” Mallmann said. “And she died there, 25 years later. So, as my career improved, she would come, I would invite her for lunch to my restaurant, and she would come with a nurse for lunch. And she was completely…” He waved his hand back and forth. “It was so sad. And we tried so many times to get her out of there. It was impossible.” He shook his head. “My first three books that I wrote in the ’80s, they were all to her. The last one, she was dead already.”
It was indeed a sad story, and such a strange mirror image of Mallmann’s own that it seemed to haunt his success even as it vindicated him. The shadow of the girl who had escaped a strict father only to be forced back into imprisonment – literally – must have made him feel that his own decision to leave home was the right one. And yet, I couldn’t help but feel it was an awful specter to live under.
Mallmann spooned the rice into a white ceramic dish, to which he added the cabbage he had chopped, a sliced peach, some local fresh cheese, and another vegetable I couldn’t identify in the dim light, though I tried. He sprinkled salt and pepper and olive oil and vinegar into the dish, and mixed it all together.
We sat down at the candlelit table. Mallmann poured red wine into new glasses in heavy pours, Montes’ Purple Angel, made from the Carménère vines that surrounded his new restaurant. Then we ate.
It was the most incredible salad I have ever eaten. I liked it more than the skirt steak I’d eaten earlier at his restaurant, more than the oxtail and more than the avocado ice cream. It was bright and playful and I could taste the harmony-defying clash, and how it further clashed with the richness of the wine. It was powerful, vibrant, sublime.
But as we ate, Mallmann told me that he was over food.
“I would say that the strongest drive today in my life is words,” he told me. He writes for a newspaper every Sunday and he loves it. “It just brings me so much joy to write that article every week.”
He doesn’t only write about food. He writes a lot about sex. Last week’s column was an allegory, about an Argentinian woman who meets a Chilean man once a month at a midway point in the Andes where they eat lunch and make love.
But his truest unfulfilled desire is to direct a film. It’s what he hopes will become the next movement of his life. He’s written a short film that will be shot in L.A. and Patagonia. “It’s comparing the different strengths of fire to love,” he explained. It’s an abstract film, full of hands and bodies and rain and forest.
His desire to direct a film makes sense, given that his entire career as a chef has been about curating and directing. “That’s what I do, I do scenes in my work every day,” he explained. “Because what is food and wine? The beauty of food and wine is this, is you and me, you know?” We had wine, he went on, we talked, we ate, but we didn’t talk about the food or the wine. “The true celebration of food and wine is sharing,” he said. “It’s that food and wine makes us more witty, makes us speak better, makes us embrace many more things.”
To achieve that joy, to curate that perfect scene, you have to produce a setting that will evoke what’s not there, in addition to all that is. “It’s a question mark to the people you receive in your restaurant or in your parties,” he explained. “It’s trying to make a question mark in their heart, to make them think: ‘What else don’t I know? What is all this?’ There must be something that they want to know and they will never know.”
At the end of the day, it’s that sense of mystery that is Mallmann’s gift, more than any recipe or pairing. And when he dropped me off at my hotel, I had more questions than answers.