Mallmann about town

10 August 2001 by
Mallmann about town

Francis Mallmann is Argentina's most famous chef. He has three restaurants, a chain of coffee bars, a thriving events catering business, a range of cookers bearing his name, and has even starred in a television series that ran daily for more than a decade.

Up until last autumn he had four restaurants, but closed Patagonia Sur, in La Boca, Buenos Aires, converting it into his home. The problem wasn't his food, for which he has fans aplenty, but the area it was in. It put his customers off - getting mugged on the way back to the car is not the best digestif. La Boca, to use the words of a Fodor travel guide, "is best avoided at night", which does put rather a damper on dinner.

"I opened Patagonia Sur two-and-a-half years ago, but I think it will take another 10 years before the area takes off," Mallmann reflects, having sold off the restaurant's 120,000-bottle cellar, furniture, pictures and rugs.

He has plenty of other interests to keep him amused, not least his London friends who, much to his amazement, like to plan things up to four months ahead. "I lead a very different, disorganised life," says the tall, charismatic chef. He adores the emptiness of his country and "all that space". He loves the capital city, too. "It's a very sociable town."

Mallmann was born in Buenos Aires but raised in Patagonia, hundreds of kilometres away in the south. His family, of German extraction, has been in Argentina since 1860, he boasts.

He opened his first restaurant in Patagonia when he was just 18 years old, after leaving school at the tender age of 13. "I was a bad student," he laughs. "The first time I heard hippy music was the last time I studied. My father told me to get a job, or leave home. I left."

At 16 he headed for California. "I had $700 in my pocket. It was 1973." He travelled from San Francisco to San Diego, working as a dishwasher, carpenter and pest controller. "But I missed Argentina," he remembers. So he returned a couple of years later with enough cash in his pocket to open a restaurant. "I had only six dishes in my repertoire - and that included a lamb casserole my mother used to make."

Then came Argentina's "dirty war". "I had a tough time with the military. Horrible things were happening," says Mallmann.

He got out, travelling to France where he spent the next four years working in some of France's top restaurants, among them Grand Véfour, Taillevent and Ledoyen in Paris, and Alain Chapel and Oustau de Baumanière in Les Baux de Provence, further south.

When he returned, enticed by a Buenos Aires restaurateur to front a new French restaurant, he was "full of it". He says: "All that nouvelle cuisine. I couldn't wait to copy everything I'd seen there. It was extremely pretentious, with white linen on the tables and candle-light. Disgusting."

He says he was "tempted by the devil" further when another wealthy businessman approached him to open a string of restaurants in a smart new ski resort near Mendoza, called Las Le¤as. After two years the chain had grown to 14 restaurants.

"I walked away from it in the end," Mallmann says, explaining that he opted to open his own place in 1990 (closing it eight years later) in the Palermo district of Buenos Aires. He called it Patagonia.

"No white linen this time. Luxury means something different for me now. In the 1980s it meant being pretentious and more theatrical. Now luxury to me is about space, silence and respect - with no flash or fuss. Simplifying things is luxury."

He has just got back from New York and a meal at celebrated restaurant Daniel which, of course, he didn't like. "The waiters don't let you eat, and the food is far too creamy."

So where does he like to eat when he visits London (which he does about four times a year)? "You don't need all this pretentiousness. That's exactly what I like about the River Café - the produce is perfect and the cooking is good." His bookshelves are crammed with the works of Alastair Little, Nigel Slater, Jamie Oliver and the River Café.

Mallmann's own food draws from the ancient cooking of the Incas, from the early Spanish settlers and from the Mapuche Indians. It uses potatoes, corn, maize, peppers, llama and squash, such as cayote - a type of pumpkin which is grown more than 12,000ft up in the mountains and used to make a sticky sweetmeat. Beef from the pampas features prominently, as it does in all Argentine restaurants and homes, where the citizens eat beef up to four times a week.

On the menu at his flagship restaurant, 1884, which opened in the grounds of Mendoza's Bodegas Escorihuela in March 1998, are starters ranging from empanada salteña (baked pasties filled with minced meat, US$8/£5.59); tomaticán (a Mendoza tomato soup with poached egg, US$8/£5.59); and green salad with sweetbreads, croûtons and lemon, US$9/£6.29.

Main course dishes include Tupungato lamb cooked in red wine with mashed potatoes (US$17/£11.87); Malargüe baby goat with burnt rocket, tomatoes and potatoes (US$22/£15.37); and black hake with artichoke purée, tapenade and olives (US$15/£10.48). Desserts range from dulce de leche flan (Argentina's favourite super-sweet, toffee-like confection), to burnt orange tart with yogurt (US$7/£4.89).

Mallmann makes the journey to Mendoza twice a month - the cooking is left mostly to head chef Connie Aldao, who has worked with Mallmann for 12 years. He spends the summer cooking at his second restaurant, Los Negros, near Punte del Este in Uruguay, just a half-hour plane ride from Buenos Aires. It has a more Italian influence, and fish is the order of the day, invariably cooked in cast-iron boxes which double as cooking utensil and serving dish.

Los Negros used to be Mallmann's summer house before he converted it into a restaurant in 1991. "Punte del Este is the Hamptons of Buenos Aires," he explains.

During the skiing season, Mallmann can be found behind the stove at his third restaurant, Pire-hue, in Bariloche, Patagonia, which opens only during the winter and summer months.

Between the seasons he concentrates on his hugely glamorous events catering business. This sees him flying around the world, sometimes with an entourage of up to 80 staff, charging up to £1,500 a head.

He is particularly proud of these parties, which he has been organising for the past six years. "Look at this," he says, pointing to a picture of Murano glass baubles that he had made for one particular party. For this event he rented a warehouse in Hoxton, north London, for three months to prepare. The parties, commissioned by "private clients", take him and his team from Majorca to Palm Beach.

Mallmann admits, though, that he would rather be cooking than being a restaurateur or an events organiser. "I think there will be a Buenos Aires comeback soon," he declares. His latest project is a new restaurant in São Paulo, Brazil, which opened last spring. "It is based on the mud ovens of the Incas," he reveals, with a grin.

Mallmann on…

Fusion cooking: "It's a lack of respect for all these countries. Chefs open a couple of cookery books and start cooking Thai. You have to live there and really get to know the food."

TV chefs: "They're horrible. It's so narcissistic. I should know, I did it for 15 years."

On the Internet: "I don't like it. It lacks language and personality."

Food-and-wine matching: "It's all bullshit. Sometimes anything goes - except maybe asparagus and red wine."

Wine: "So many wineries here are trying to make Robert Parker happy - many people end up making the same wines."

His favourite Argentine wine producers include Nicholas Catena, La Nita, Luigi Bosca and Raoul Davalos. He professes to find the technical side of winemaking boring. "I like the guy who makes it and I like the vineyards. That's it," he says.

His wine list at flagship restaurant 1884, however, is packed with details on each wine, from specifying the months the wine has spent in oak and the precise blends to the height of the vineyards where the grapes have been grown and the duration of fermentation. Outside Argentina, his favourite wines are from Australia, California and Piedmont - "although I love France the best. Their wines are the leaders."

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