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Trained by some of the most illustrious chefs of France, Francis Mallmann is revered for his artistic take on the native cuisine with which he grew up. The Argentinian’s flamboyant and primal approach to cooking has won fans from all corners of the globe. He operates nine restaurants – in Argentina, Chile, France, Uruguay and the US – and is also a respected author and television personality.
South America’s most famous chef was born in Acassuso, in Argentina’s Buenos Aires province, and moved to Patagonia in the south of the country at the age of seven. Aged 14, he started working as a cook on a tourist boat on Lake Nahuel Huapi, and by the age of 19 he was managing a restaurant with a partner.
Mallmann served Argentinian dishes in his restaurant, but, always keen to learn, he often referred to French cookery books. He was inspired by techniques and anxious to touch, taste and cook the ingredients not readily available in South America.
Subsequently, he moved to Paris in the hope of working with the great chefs of France, but initially couldn’t find a job. Undeterred, he wrote to every three-Michelin-starred chef in France – there were 21 at the time – eventually landing positions in the kitchens of Paul Bocuse and Alain Chapel, among others.
On returning to Argentina four years later, he headed up a kitchen before opening his own outlet in 1983 in the capital’s Palermo district. The restaurant served dinner only, enabling Mallmann to work as a teacher during the day. A year after launching his restaurant, he published his first book, La Cocina del Instante.
During the mid-1980s, Mallmann started working in television and, between 1987 and 1996, took part in a TV series filmed in his restaurant. More recently, in 2015, he featured in the original Netflix docu-series, Chef’s Table.
The episode featuring him followed the chef to his private island in Patagonia, La Isla on Lake La Plata, situated in the south of Argentina, close to the border with Chile. The mesmerising programme, which focuses on his unconventional life and unique techniques, features Mallmann cooking carcasses over vast open fires. Dome-like structures, akin to the infrastructure of a tent and fashioned from tree branches buried in the snow, allow him to gently burn fresh produce that dangles precariously over the flames.
In its interview with Mallmann in 2018, Esquire magazine pointed out that it is fitting that you have to venture so far off the grid to reach the chef: “He is a man whose approach to cooking and living feels like an homage to a forgotten time and place. While many of the most influential chefs around the world have engaged in an escalating competition to be cast as creative and forward-thinking leaders in gastronomy, Mallmann has swerved in the opposite direction, forsaking the trappings of haute cuisine and focusing instead on a primal style of hospitality whose core comes down to one-syllable words: smoke, fire, air, stone, salt, rain, meat, wine.”
For Wolfgang Puck, winner of the International Outstanding Achievement Catey last year, Mallmann is quite simply a one-off. “You know when he is cooking – it’s a very rare experience that you only can get from Francis,” Puck says. “His personality is unique, bigger than life, and wherever he prepares a meal, it’s an experience.”
The editorial team of The Caterer, with nominations from all the Cateys’ judging panels