Cooking With Fire
Open flame, the joys of solitude and his latest work with Laphroaig whisky – we sit down with masterful Argentine chef Francis Mallmann.
Francis Mallmann is a man of the elements. Specifically, the award-winning Argentine chef (cue that time you caught him on popular Netflix series, Chefs Table) is a man of fire.
It was at the age of 40, after establishing himself as one of the finest chefs in Europe, that Mallman traded his chef’s whites for a life of pure solitude and fire. Reconnecting with his heritage and learning the ancient techniques of cooking over open flames, Mallmann’s take on traditional Patagonian ‘open’ style cooking is today regarded as some of the best in the world. Eager to further explore such areas, he’s now teamed up with Scottish whisky distiller Laphroaig in an initiative-first ‘Taste Trailblazers’ program — set to showcase culinary pioneers pushing the boundaries of taste and a concept Laphroaig honours as it celebrates 200 years of crafting whisky of elevated quality and flavour.
Robb Report: The cooking techniques that underpin your notable style are quite primal in essence: smoke, fire, air, stone, salt. What initially attracted you to such and what was it about your adaptation that you feel led to this global resonance you enjoy?
Francis Mallmann: The truth is that my use of fire comes from my childhood. I was raised in Patagonia and we lived in a home that was sort of ruled by fire: cooking stove, chimneys, hot water system, heating system of the house. So every day as kids we had to start three, four, or five fires to get the house going in winter and the snow season. I later became a French chef and I’m so thankful to France; it was so generous and rigorous with me, but when I turned 40, I thought, ‘what the hell am I doing? I don’t have my own voice, I don’t have my own language. I have to start something on my own’. And I sort of knelt down and picked up all the tools and memories of my childhood and decided to go with fire.
RR: ‘Man’ has been cooking with fire for thousands of years – but there’s more in play here than most people realise.
FM: Fire is a magical and mysterious thing. And in order to work with it and understand it, you have to be in front of it and use it a lot and make a lot of mistakes. But just by watching it and seeing different foods cook, you can learn so much. You slowly start developing all these techniques. Nowadays, we use 11 different techniques of cooking with fire and heat and I really love them and I’ve been doing it for such a long time. I embraced the history of our ancestors and the natives of our countries and then took them into my own spirit — adjusting things, looking very much for the right use of the heat, the temperatures, the timing and all that. You need to have this incredible tender intuition to understand fire.
RR: You’ve now lived ‘off grid’ for quite some time. What have you learnt about yourself in these moments of solitude?
FM: Silence is the most beautiful ingredient of life. When you cope with silence it means that you are in a way happy with yourself. The most beautiful thing I learned is the impulse to go out, to be outside and to live in the wild and to cook in the wild.
RR: This exciting new partnership between yourself and Laphroaig – how did it come to be and what did you know much about Scotch whisky before working together?
FM: I definitely knew about the brand and had tried some of its whiskies and I knew about the smoking involved. So, when they contacted me regarding this project, I thought it was a good match because, basically, we do the same thing – we cook with fire and smoke. I was very impressed when I visited Laphroaig to see the pits, to see the oven, to see how it all works, to see the tenderness and fragility of the work of the oven, how they use the smoke, how they manage it — it’s a true craft.
RR: Is there a standout memory from your visit to Laphroaig earlier this year?
FM: I almost died of enthusiasm when I stood in that wood oven where they were burning the peat and the man operating the oven was like a Formula One racer. He was driving this oven so carefully, looking for little spits of flame, but not too many. He was constantly looking for what he wanted to see because he knew that what was happening down there was going be the language of the smoke upstairs. It was very, very interesting.
RR: What does it mean to be Laphroaig’s Global Culinary Ambassador, Francis?
FM: It is amazing to stand by a whisky that’s incredibly good and has been made for centuries, that is made with smoke and with fire. And to be associated with Scotland, which is the most incredible country with all its natural resources and its style of life, is incredible.
RR: You run nine global restaurants around the world, an undisputed master of open flame cooking, your cookbooks are celebrated across the world, you’re now a Laphroaig ambassador – what’s next?
FM: I always have many dreams – that’s been a beautiful thing about life. I sit in a chair and I dream about something new every day. The moment you start dreaming about what it is you want from life, things sort of start to get together. I want to do a new documentary about obedience in life and how important it is. I want to write a book about potatoes… Yes, there are many projects and I’m always on the go.
The partnership between Laphroaig and Mallmann will extend to a series of announcements and events in 2023; laphroaig.com
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