When the lauded Argentine chef Francis Mallmann was growing up in Bariloche, in Patagonia, mathematicians and scientists from around the globe were frequent dinner guests, a result of his father heading the prestigious Balseiro Institute. “I was always walking around the kitchen,” he recalls. “Then, as a student, I knew I had to do something more than walk around the streets, so I thought I would start cooking.”
Inspired by the free-wheeling spirit of the 1960s, Mallmann dropped out of school and embarked on his first restaurant venture at the age of 19. Through the myriad cookbooks he devoured, he quickly developed a reverence for French ingredients and technique. But instead of simply reading about chervil and Hollandaise, he decided to experience them firsthand by cooking in France.
Ambitiously, he sent out letters to all the chefs behind the three-star restaurants in Paris, which led to esteemed kitchen posts with the likes of Paul Bocuse. But after years of replicating fancy French food, he grew bored; this rule-laden style of cooking simply didn’t jibe with his rebellious sensibility. An International Academy of Gastronomy competition in Frankfurt—where he served a prize-winning yet controversial feast of Andean-inspired potatoes—was the game-changer. It plunged him back into the past, to a childhood where his home was heated by fire. It was time to return to Argentina and re-imagine soulful, visceral, gaucho-style cooking over crackling coals, buoyed by the solid techniques he developed in Europe.
Mallmann’s passion for the flame is a philosophy he elaborated on in the 2009 book Seven Fires: Grilling the Argentine Way. Cooking out in the wild connects him more deeply to his roots with every piece of thick, charred slice of beef or clay-steamed fish. “I truly have a love for Argentina and the countryside—its lakes and mountains,” Mallmann says.
His food is unsurprisingly a rustic expression of its surroundings, as brought to life in the Netflix documentary series Chef’s Table. Each one of Mallmann’s restaurants is distinctive, yet bound by his devotion to place. In the wine country of Mendoza there’s 1884 Francis Mallmann, and in Buenos Aires, Patagonia Sur, where Katy Perry recently rhapsodized on Instagram that she consumed “the best meal I’ve ever had.” Later this fall, Mallmann will introduce his wood-fired asado stateside at Los Fuegos, his first U.S. project inside the Faena Hotel Miami Beach, where chefs Paul Qui and Gabriel Ask will also helm restaurants.
“Miami is a city that already has a huge South American influence,” says Mallmann. “There’s a real sense of culture there”—though, undoubtedly, a markedly more manufactured one than that of the remote lands where he is most at ease. But Mallmann can deftly straddle both. From Sunday-made Argentine gnocchi to roast chicken at a Bay Area institution, here are 10 of the dishes that have inspired him over the years.
Fish en Papillote at Le Nègre
It was the late 1970s or early ’80s when I first tasted this dish from Charles Barrier, at Le Nègre in Tours, France. He made a papillote of fish, wrapped in paper with mushrooms, leeks, and carrots. Then, once the fish was tightly sealed, you would fill it up by blowing into it with a straw. I love vegetables, and cooked in the oven with the fish’s juices, it was just such an interesting preparation to me. (Photo: blueapron.com)
Coulibiac is a rustic recipe originally made in Russia with sturgeon during the time of the tsars. When I learned to do it in Paris, it was salmon basically prepared as a pie with different layers of fish, rice, hard-boiled eggs, and mushrooms, topped with caviar. We wrapped it up in brioche, thick like country bread, and painted it with egg white. It would explode if you didn’t cook it right. The guests would carve it at the table and, since it was 1980, the sauce was a spoonful of cream and lemon with salt and pepper. It was one of the best dishes we served and people would come just to eat it. (Photo: milkandbun.com)
Lobster Salad at Moulin de Mougins
At Roger Vergé’s Moulin de Mougins, there was a simple salad made with lobster claw, mango, and hazelnuts. I loved it. The lobster was a very classic taste, but the hazelnuts added texture, and the mango was refreshing. Together, it was just delicious. (Photo: ekbrestaurantconsulting.com)
Quail at Ristorante San Domenico
Ristorante San Domenico, in Imola, was my first contact with Italy, and I was impressed. The restaurant was owned by an Italian gentleman, and he had a very special love for ancient Italian cooking. There is one dish I remember most: a roasted quail cooked medium rare. After cooling down the skin was taken off and it was served with mousse, black olives, olive oil, salt, pepper, and country bread. The mix of all the textures and flavors was perfect. (Photo: sandomenico.it)
Gnocchi—ñoquis—were brought to Argentina with the Italian immigrants, and it’s a dish that’s very important to the country. If you walk in a small town on Sunday and look through the windows of houses, you will see people making potato gnocchi. It could be with tomato sauce or with butter and sage. It’s one of the things I crave to eat whenever I am home. One thing most people don’t realize is that gnocchi is extremely hard to make. You have to break it in the right form, treat it tenderly, and cook it at the perfect temperature. It’s one of the most difficult dishes to cook well. (Photo: argentina-travel-blog-sayhueque.com)
Roast Chicken at Zuni Café
Judy Rodgers was an incredible woman and chef. At her San Francisco restaurant she made the famous roast chicken, and it was one of the most delicious things I’d ever eaten. The quality of the meat was impressive, and the way she made it, brined in salt for a night, and then slowly cooked in the oven was just so wonderful. (Photo: Yelp/Susan D.)
Butternut Squash Soup
It is a tradition for me every fall and winter to serve this soup at all my restaurants with crunchy toast for texture. The squash is ripe, the soup has a wonderful thickness, and it’s just a beautiful dish for the season. (Photo: chocolatechiptrips.blogspot.com)
Omelets at Boulettes Larder
It is so difficult to make a good omelet. It cannot be too charred, and it needs a special pan. The one at Boulettes Larder in San Francisco is my favorite. It is perfectly cooked—light and golden-brown. (Photo: bouletteslarder.com)
Hamburger at the Hotel Bel-Air
The best hamburger I’ve ever had was at the Hotel Bel-Air. It has the perfect consistency and is set on a perfect bun with bacon and beautiful homemade ketchup. You can tell a lot about a restaurant based on the quality of its burger. (Photo: wolfgangpuck.com)
Ojo de Bife con Chimichurri
This is a national dish for us. It’s been in our collective memory since we were born. The beef is cooked thin on charcoal, and I love how it’s both tender and has a nice char. It’s served with a fresh, zesty chimichurri on top. When we think of a barbecue, this meat is something we cannot miss. (Photo: gulamagazine.mx)