“I am a cook that uses cooking to send this message of a way of living. I am always cooking in remote places in the wild with fires. So the message is get out of your chair, sofa or office and go out,” says the most influential chef from Argentina.
When I sat down to watch Chef’s Table documentary on Francis Mallmann I was intrigued by the visuals of the trailers which showed Argentina’s arguably most high-profile chef cooking lamb with fire in snow with a stunning landscape as the backdrop.
That intrigue was not misplaced. This documentary, produced by David Gelb is an exceptional portrait of a chef who has really returned to the basics of cooking, using fire in all its possibilities to produce simple dishes which are full of flavours.
Mallmann explains that today we educate children to be settled and once they have a job, a car and a place to sleep the dreams are dead. “You do not grow on a secure path. All of us should conquer something in life. It needs a lot of work, it needs a lot of risk. To grow and improve you need to be there at the edge of uncertainty.”
I watched the documentary without knowing much about the chef, other than the fact that he was extremely famous in Latin America as a television presenter and also as an author of many books. Having watched Gelb’s exceptional portrait of Mallmann, I know that his two English language books Mallmann on Fire: 100 Recipes and Seven Fires: Grilling the Argentinian way will soon be in my library.
At 59, Mallmann does not have to prove anything to anyone and can take a philosophical approach to life. But what you see in the documentary is a man who has taken that approach throughout his life.
He is French-trained, having learned in some of the best three Michelin starred restaurants in France and was heading towards a career of serving French food in Argentina. But as he himself says in the documentary there were two moments which in a way made him change direction. The first was a chat with the head of Cartier who was having dinner at his restaurant. At the end of the meal, he called Mallmann to one side and told him this was a really horrible meal and not French. Mallmann said his first reaction was to ignore what the person said but it was something which got him to reflect. At the end, I realised he was right. Like every craftsmen who emulates his master, it is not good to just copy but you need to find your way, Mallmann said.
The next really important episode was in 1995 when he was asked to prepare a meal for L’Academie de Cuisine just outside Frankfurt. Mallmann decided to pay tribute to the Andes and served a menu of dishes featuring the product that Latin America is most famous for. He found out that he could not take the potatoes to Germany legally so he smuggled half a tonne of potatoes instead. All the dishes on that menu, included the dessert, featured the potato. He won the Grand Prix de la cuisine that year, emulating his friends and teachers.
When he returned back to Argentina, he knew that his direction would change forever. In many ways he threw away what he had learnt and decided to move from haute cuisine to cooking with Argentine ingredients and wood fires.
His cooking, and what he is famous for, is largely based on wood fire and this is emphasised in the stunning visuals of this documentary which is like a journey to Patagonia from the comfort of your living room. You may be tempted to book a trip on the spot such is the beauty of the filming.
Mallmann is constantly travelling. He says that for the past 30 years he is on a plane at least four to five times a week. He says that he is on a plane every two days and he needs the change in structure, ambiance, people and of languages because they are very inspiring. “It is what makes me live,” he says.
Mallmann explains that whenever you grill you need to be respectful of that first contact. If you are cooking a steak on a grill and you want to cook it for nine minutes, he tells you to put it there and leave it for at least six minutes without touching it. “If you put it on a surface which is hot, it will stick but slowly it develop a crusty layer which allows you to move the meat without breaking it.”
This is the second documentary I watched from this series on Netflix and like the first one on Massimo Bottura, it is a beautiful portrait not only of the chef but also of food in general. There is no doubt that you will never look at a barbecue or grilling in the same way after you watch this documentary.