InterviewsThe Collection

Chef Francis Mallmann and the fire within

He’s famous for his live-fire cooking, but his other passions run just as deep. Laura Richards meets with Club O guest editor Francis Mallmann to talk rebellion, sewing and an enduring love affair with wine

Words by Laura Richards

Photography by Rebecca Marshall

francis mallmann at table with bowl of lemons
The Collection

‘Wine is quite… romantic,’ says Francis Mallmann as he sits in the garden of his restaurant in Provence, his signature monogrammed beret slanted towards the sun. It might not be much of a surprise to learn that he feels this way about the humble grape and its slow journey to the glass. He has to be the world’s most romantic chef, after all; a man who quotes Edgar Allan Poe in his Instagram bio and who turned his back on the Michelin-starred kitchens of Paris to take to the wilds of his native Patagonia and harness the power of fire in his cooking – something he claims he is yet to master, even after 30 years dedicated to the craft. But in his mind, winemakers have it even tougher in their pursuit of perfection. ‘Serious winemakers who make one or two wines at the most, they have 35 years or 40 years to show that they’re good. For all the other trades, it’s different. Like with cooking: we practise every lunch and every dinner,’ says Mallmann in his considered style of poetic prose. ‘Suddenly, the year gives you some difficult grapes, and you have to decide maybe not to present your wine, as they often do. I think that’s very romantic.’

He continues, his knees bent so that his legs push against the table and his chair teeters back on two legs. ‘And then I find the idea of stressing the plant, as they do, is very romantic, too. The plant thinks it’s going to die, so she sends everything she has to the grape because the seed is there. I find that very beautiful.’

chef francis mallmann in kitchen of provence restaurant

The 67-year-old chef-restaurateur has a strong connection to drink. A large proportion of his starring episode in the first season of Chef’s Table – the Netflix show that propelled his style of live-fire cookery to the world stage – sees him swirling a glass of red in delicate stemware, even when immersed in the Argentine scrubland. He has fronted a festival for Krug Champagne, and there’s an appropriately peaty collaboration with Islay Scotch label Laphroaig in the pipeline. The brand collaborations might all seem par for the course for a celebrity of the culinary world – especially for what must be South America’s most famous chef – but five of Mallmann’s eight restaurants also happen to be attached to some of the best-loved wine estates in the world.

We’re meeting at one such location, Restaurant Francis Mallmann, based at modern-art Mecca Château La Coste in the South of France, to discuss his ideas as Club Oenologique’s first-ever guest editor. The domaine’s striking modern art trail is dotted with installations (Ai Weiwei’s Ruyi Path a favourite for Mallmann) that zigzag past a patchwork of olive trees and rows of vines into the Provençal hills that surround. ‘For my restaurants, 60 per cent of it is about the scene,’ he says. This particular scene features chequerboard flooring, tablecloths and ceramics hanging from the walls and an overall aesthetic said to be modelled on Paul Cézanne’s former studio in nearby Aix-en-Provence – and, of course, a vast patio for dining by the dance of flames.

Inside Restaurant Francis Mallmann at Chateau la coste
The chef has had a hand in every detail of the design for Restaurant Francis Mallmann, based at Château La Coste in Provence

His first venture on a winery, 1884 Restaurante, opened at Escorihuela Gascón in Mendoza back in 1995, a collaboration with winemaker Dr Nicolás Catena Zapata and a first of its kind for Argentina. You’ll find Fuegos de Apalta in Chile’s Colchagua Valley, with its outdoor dining deck jutting out into a sea of grapevines belonging to Montes Wines. Or there’s Ramos Generales a sophisticated patio restaurant at Kaiken Wines in Mendoza, backdropped by the Argentinian region’s signature snow-capped mountains. These locations give the impression of a wine fanatic, but it’s not so straightforward. ‘Do I choose the winery because of the quality of the wine? No. I choose it because of the possibility of freedom I will have working there,’ says the chef.

Mallmann also tells me that he can’t get behind his country’s signature grape (‘Malbec? It’s like sleeping with Cassius Clay’), and he outright rejects some of the showier aspects of the drink. For example, for him, the way a wine might be described by a sommelier is a particular cause of consternation. ‘This thing where they stand and they say 20 adjectives about a wine… I just feel that I’m in the theatre or something,’ he says. But even if he’s dismissive of some of the signifiers used within the world of wine, empty magnums of Petrus and Masseto line a shelf inside Restaurant Francis Mallmann, a room whose interior has been curated by the chef himself and whose decor is in constant flux. Their placement feels as intentional as the bright bowls of lemons placed on each table, the fruit ‘a symbol of joy and hope’ to the chef. Although he tells me he’s ‘not a maniac about wine’, it’s clear that the feelings run deep.

Do I choose the winery because of the quality of the wine? No. I choose it because of the possibility of freedom I will have working there

His first stirrings towards wine, Mallmann says, happened at the age of 18, over a bottle of Cos d’Estournel (which, admittedly, would have a similar effect on most drinkers). ‘That was 1979, the year it happened. I have no idea what vintage the wine was,’ he begins. ‘I had arrived in Paris, and a friend of a friend – an older man – took me out for dinner one night, to a simple bistro. He ordered a bottle of wine, and we both had just a little, not too much. And when we were leaving, I said, “But the wine…?” and he said, “Well, we buy a bottle of wine, but we don’t need to drink it all. Wine is something very special. And there’s no need to drink all of the bottle.”’

The same connoisseur (who remains unnamed) also introduced Mallmann to Armagnac, of which the chef is now an avid collector; he actively gathers bottles from two of his favourite domaines, Château de Lacquy and Laberdolive. Although he claims to have ‘many vintages’ in his select stash, for Mallmann, the enjoyment of the liquid is the most important aspect. ‘I like to use it almost as a perfume,’ he quips.

Francis Mallmann in the Provence vineyard and olive grove

Fully aware that his line of work has afforded him the opportunity to try ‘some of the best years and wines of the world’, Mallmann nonetheless credits his appreciation to one person in particular. ‘My true learning in wine came out with an English man called John Armit. Do you know who he is?’ Of course, Mallmann is referring to the renowned London wine merchant. The founder of Armit Wines – also a great bon vivant of the UK capital, a man who had a hand in establishing Soho’s Groucho Club (a private members’ club with a literary lean), plus Covent Garden celebrity magnet Zanzibar before it – became ‘great friends’ with the chef during their years in Paris.

‘With [Armit], I went around the world. We went to Australia; we went to California. We did all the good wineries of Italy… probably 15 of the best wineries of France, too. So, that was a very big learning thing for me, because he was a man who could smell a wine and tell you what wine it was and what year. It was incredible. He was one of the great noses of the world.’ Mallmann claims that Armit was received ‘like a king’ at many of the world’s top wineries and that in the late 1980s and early ’90s, he went along for the ride – before introducing him, in turn, to what Argentina had to offer.

I think that having an incredible Cabernet Sauvignon with a steak is for toddlers, it’s boring

Mallmann eventually returned to Argentina with all he had learned from the restaurants of France’s three-star kitchens – but with time he became somewhat disillusioned with the idea of serving the haute cuisine he’d discovered in Paris to diners at his Buenos Aires restaurant. From the 1990s, he began to forge his own path, and by the early noughties he had established Uruguay’s Garzón, a restaurant and hotel that helped transform a small village in Uruguay into a destination for art, food and drink. It also helped prove the prowess of his open-flame cooking and just what could be achieved when championing ingredients native to South America.

The elaborate domes he has had constructed in each of his restaurants – featuring various planchas and parrillas, plus cast-iron hooks with vegetables cascading at heights calculated for the optimum flame-tinged flavour, all ranged around the coals and embers – have become Mallmann’s calling card and are used by his team to convey the chef’s siete fuegos (seven fires) philosophy. The chef says he turned fully to flames when molecular gastronomy was at its peak. ‘When I started cooking with fires, chefs would laugh at me,’ he says. But now, live-fire cookery has taken off around the globe and features at some of the most established fine-dining restaurants.

The fire at restaurant francis mallmann
Chefs work the horno on the patio of Restaurant Francis Mallmann

Mallmann’s approach to flavour also stands him out from the crowd. He claims that what he adores in taste is the opposite of the harmony so many chefs so actively seek. ‘I think that having an incredible Cabernet Sauvignon with a steak [is] for toddlers, it’s boring,’ he says. ‘Yes, I’ll understand that. Yes, I’ll love it. Yes, I’ll enjoy it. But what are you learning? I’d rather have a very good meat, a very good wine, and there’s a bit of dissonance in it, you know, and they fight to convince me who’s the best. I like that.’

This rebellious streak isn’t anything new. Mallmann left school and home in Bariloche at the age of 13 to join the hippie movement on the American West Coast. From our meeting, I get the sense that the free-spirit energy has stayed with him all these years. With his more controversial ideas and opinions, he is very careful to make it clear that he’s not forcing them on anybody else. In lockdown, ‘bored to death’, he even started putting together a documentary on disobedience, although it’s yet to see the light of day. ‘One of the engines of the world and change is that disobedience and irreverence and standing up and saying, “I don’t believe in this.” This is what I want,’ he says.

One of the engines of the world and change is disobedience and irreverence

This bohemian outlook on life has helped to amass a fanbase so devoted to Mallmann that they’re prepared to cough up US$19,000 per person to stay on his private island in Patagonia – a two-hour flight, six-hour car journey and 45-minute boat ride from Buenos Aires – to have the chef impart his wisdom in outdoor cookery, share poetry readings around the firepit and to be immersed in nature and in isolation from the rest of the world.

While it sounds like he is rooted here, Mallmann’s restaurants allow him the freedom of movement he truly craves. He leads a well-documented nomadic existence, a way of life almost as revered as his philosophy in food. The two youngest of his seven children make an appearance during my visit to the restaurant, and Mallmann tells me they are home-schooled and follow him around the world as much as they can. And when I ask him where home is, he struggles to narrow it down, landing on ‘Uruguay, Patagonia, Mendoza… and Buenos Aires’.

Francis Mallmann with his fire dome at Chateau la Coste
Francis Mallmann with his dome, which takes pride of place at his Provençal restaurant

The pandemic doesn’t seem to have changed his nature – although the pause did see him take up sewing, a hobby he’s since continued (‘I sew every morning when I wake up’). There’s certainly no ‘new normal’ for Mallmann, now back on the road as before. But the chef does continue to question the status quo. He’s recently released a cookbook, Green Fire, which incorporates his famous grilling techniques but focuses solely on fruit, vegetables and grains, perhaps a surprising switch-up for a chef from a nation known for its obsession with steak. ‘I started getting these messages on social media from very young people, saying, “Chef, we love your work. So beautiful, the fires, how you cook… By the way, we don’t eat meat or fish, but we still like what you do.” So, after many hundreds of messages like that, I thought I owed them something.’

There are also new restaurants in the pipeline: one in New York and a second just outside Florence in the fields of Fiesole. Both are currently due to open in 2025, and with these he hopes to bring some of his plant-based cookery to the fore. But would he consider fully vegan operations? ‘I would love to. I don’t know if I’m ready yet, but I would love to do that.’

At the end, the reason to eat and drink is to talk – to be sitting at the table

Throughout my visit, a common response to my questions seems to be, ‘Not yet.’ He’s not trying to be evasive or dodge my questions. I get the sense that rather than being the symptom of a restless soul, this reaction extends from an outlook as sunshiny as those artfully positioned lemons. He’s generous with his time, as he rocks back in his chair, languidly responding to each question as if he’s searching his soul for the answer. And whenever the conversation turns to one of his passion points, it seems the excitement of a new-age hippie discovering the beauty of the world has never really left him.

Early in our conversation, Mallmann even disappears for five minutes, returning triumphantly with his laptop so that he can share an article by American journalist Nick Tosches. ‘It’s very important in my wine life. I read that probably 20 years ago, and I really like what he said,’ says Mallmann, before slowly reciting Tosches’s lament for the way a wine is often described, ending on the powerful call to action, ‘just shut up and drink’.

Francis Mallmann with wine glass at restaurant

Perhaps this is what is most central to this thinking drinker: wine as a way to commune rather than something for show. ‘At the end, the reason to eat and drink is to talk. It’s not the wine. It’s not the food. If, by the way, it was delicious, much the better. But I can have horrible wine and have a great time.

‘I love beautiful and delicious wines. But basically, as with food, I can drink anything. When I’m happy and with friends, you know, I’m still happy with friends. And that’s the important thing for me: to be sitting at the table.’