Food & Drink

How to live your life: according to Francis Mallmann

Argentina’s greatest chef talks to The Jackal about food, fire, romance and vegetarians…

1. Tell us about your approach to cooking?

‘The root of my cooking is both Uruguay and Argentina, my cooking is based on the Gauchos and natives of our countries. Argentina is very large; there are Natives in the north with one culinary tradition, and then natives in Patagonia who cook in pits with hot stones – what I do is embrace the different cultures we have in our countries, readapting them to my restaurants. In a way it’s quite a brutal cuisine, but it has a beautiful tenderness, too. To cook like a Gaucho requires a lot of attention. Many of the things we hang and roast for over 12 hours – it’s a big job.

‘It wasn’t always like this though. I was trained in Paris, and in 1995 I won the Grand Prix de l’Art de la Cuisine in Paris. It was a turning point for me, I realised I had to change my voice in cooking – that’s when my passion for fire took hold.’

2. Why does working with fire hold such a fascination for you?

‘Fire is such an important part of being human. If you start a big fire outside under the stars, put 20 chairs around it, and then put different people around it; a president, a priest, a boy and a soldier, everyone will be transfixed by the fire. It’s innate in us – it’s inside us before we’re born. And to cook with fire brings me a great sense of peace; it’s an element that’s always changing, always different.’

3. What does it take to become a great chef today?

‘I think that learning to drink wine takes 30 years – if you want to be a wine expert, it takes a long time. Maybe there are some incredible people who can learn the craft in five years, but it’s a long process. And it takes 20 years to learn how to cook.

‘It’s a silent language. You can read books, sit in a classroom, watch someone cook or watch a TV show, but the craft of cooking is learnt by standing in front of a flame and a pan, and repeating things. You learn a sensory skillset that is unexplainable – I can’t write about it – it’s a measurement of my eyes, my nose, my mouth, my hands. And that’s my worry nowadays with all the molecular cooking and modern cooking we see – because there’s such a hunger for young chefs in modern restaurants, and they cross the bridge without learning the basics.

‘Picasso was famous for cubism, but before cubism, he learned to draw conventionally. Nowadays, chefs go directly into cubism, before they’re ready for it. They learn nothing about the roots and history of cooking, or what a Bearnaise should be, or a Bechamel, or what a Minestrone is. They just know how to cook with gadgets.’

4. Is this a generational problem?

‘There is a thirst for instant gratification in our world today; it goes into food, sex, work. People aren’t committed to things. They don’t believe in apprenticeship, they want to be a star right away whatever they do. And specialisation is a big danger for me, too. I think that what’s interesting in this world is to be a generalist; a person who does a trade as work with a lot of love, care and investigation, but who also has a broader appreciation for the world around him.’

5. Speaking of love, the concept of romance is important to you?

‘People relate romance to a love affair, but romance is how you wake up. How do you wake up? How do you place your feet on the ground in the morning? What are your dreams and ambitions for the day? I think all these things are very important. As we grow up, we tend to make our dreams distant things: “in three years, I want this”. But, where are the dreams for breakfast and lunch? Where are the dreams for dressing up? Are you going to wear a shirt or a tie today? Are you going to wear boots? I think that all that is very important in romance – the short term things, the way the day takes shape.

‘I take six planes a week on average. I’m always travelling, and I take a guitar everywhere with me. When I spend time in the hotel, I never go down to the bar, I sit in my room and sing. It’s important to connect with a sense of romance in your day-to-day life.’

6. What’s challenging you today?

‘My big challenge right now is change, again. If I don’t adapt my work to vegans and vegetarians, I think I’ll have to turn the lights off in 10 years. I really think that in 30 years we won’t be eating animals anymore.

‘So, I’m doing a vegan recipe book, and it’s a challenge not only to fill the pages, but to create food that is as succulent as steak. And to put food in my restaurants where a vegan or vegetarian feels like we’ve really thought about them. I’m not interested in giving them food that’s like “ah, by the way, there’s a little salad with nuts, and kale, and seeds” – no. I’m trying to make food that has the consistency and taste of a great steak, but without using animals.

‘I’m not telling you that we’ll stop serving meat next week, but we’re doing horrible things to animals, and emptying the seas of fish. So, I’m looking towards a path that will adapt to the way of things today, because there’s no alternative.’

7. When can we expect you to open in London?

‘We’re looking into it. It’s difficult to get fire permits and so forth but we’re trying – hopefully one day we’ll get there. I’d like to be in Mayfair, not in busy parts of town where people don’t have time to enjoy their lunch or dinner.’

8. Finally, what do you sing when you’re playing the guitar?

‘I know probably 120 songs by heart, and they’re all from when I was 13 or 14-years-old: Simon and Garfunkel, Janis Joplin, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Joni Mitchell, Curly Simon and so on. That’s my music.’