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In Patagonia, a celebrity chef plays with fire

FRANCIS MALLMANN’S CABIN is warm in temperature and tone. Lamps cast a cognac light on the stone walls, yellow drapes hang from the windows, and red-spined books fill the shelves. Mallmann’s notebook lies open on my lap. Inside — a witch. “La Bruja,” the ink sketch is titled. The figure, in boots, is voluptuous. “Do you believe in magic?” I ask. “Of course,” he says from the armchair beside me. Blue eyes, silver hair, red glasses, pink hat, gold necklace. “I love witches. Every witch. I find them fascinating. I think they’re very lonely people, witches.”

I continue to flip through: Joan Didion’s face in charcoal. Photos of his daughters. More witches. We’re alone in Patagonia. And yet, I find that in the private company of Francis Mallmann — chef, fire lord, Renaissance man — there’s the impression of being in constant spiritual communion with women. From past lovers to old friends, daughters to cultural figures, women color his entire being. Their energies fill his sketchbook, the art on his walls, his stories, and his philosophies, shrouding him so thick I can almost smell their perfumes.

Francis Mallmann Is Playing With Fire Image Float
Mallmann touches a swath of red moss. This particular moss runs 13 feet deep into the ground and dates back 15 million years.

But how did I get here? I woke up in Buenos Aires at 5 a.m. and caught a plane to Comodoro Rivadavia, a seaside inlet in the Chubut Province. Upon landing, I met a driver who took me on a six-hour journey through vast arid flatlands that rose to snowcapped mountains on the horizon. Giant oil rigs became packs of guanacos, horses, cows, and rhea birds. The only human we passed was a gaucho, stately atop his horse in a poncho and boina hat. I was dropped at a lakeshore, where I boarded a small boat for the 45-minute ride across Lago La Plata’s choppy waves to Mallmann’s cabin on a private island simply referred to as La Isla.

Mallmann found this island years ago on a camping trip. A 2015 episode of “Chef’s Table” mythologized the life he created in this wild place, raising the already renowned Argentine chef to new levels of fame. Today, the 67-year-old is one of the culinary world’s most prominent evangelists of live-fire cooking, a technique used throughout his 11 restaurants across Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, the U.S., and France. He has homes across many of these countries. But nothing feeds his soul quite like Patagonia.

Through Mallmann’s massive windows, the sun lowers behind the mountains, tinting the sky saffron. “I was born an old man and I’ve been getting younger each year. I’ve always been very disobedient. As you grow, I think that you learn to play more and more,” Mallmann muses. “Aging is a very beautiful thing.” He once saw a woman at the opera, older and of generous proportions, not traditionally attractive to him. But she walked with radiant confidence. “That presence,” Mallmann whispers, eyes on the sunset, “was true beauty.”

I have plans to interview a disciple of his when I return to New York City: Ignacio Mattos, the Uruguayan chef behind Estela, Altro Paradiso, Lodi, and Corner Bar. Mallmann is very proud of Mattos. “He has his own vision,” he smiles fondly, adding with a chuckle, “I see none of myself in his restaurants.” But the quirkiest thing about him and Mattos? “We share a lover.” Mattos used to date, and live with, Mallmann’s current wife while they both worked for him. Then Mallmann fell in love with her. She lives in Mendoza and sees Mallmann 10 days a month. This is enough for them both.

I ask if he’s ever heard the term “limerence.” “Limerence … limerence ….” He turns the word over in his mouth, savoring it. “What a beautiful word.” He jumps out of his chair and lurches for the notebook. “How do you spell it? And what does it mean?” He opens to a fresh page, pen poised. I try to capture its meaning as he annotates — that early obsession when you first fall for someone. “Like lovesick,” I explain. He writes very carefully, lost in the lyricism. I have a feeling this happens often.

“I gave myself permission to love yellow a few years ago,” Mallmann shares. To him, yellow is unabashed joy. “It’s also the color of madness,” I add. He pulls out a bright yellow rug, patterned in florals, that he is repairing. It’s 150 years old, from the Andes. Mallmann sews every day. One patch takes five hours. There are many patches. His favorite color used to be pink — a proud symbol of his femininity. “I have a very feminine side to me, a side that helps me connect to my feminine intuition,” he says.

Mallmann holds up an interlaced web of scalloped potatoes, crispy from the grill.
Steak, onions, and squash are grilled over the flames.
Potatoes, Mallmann’s favorite vegetable, are being carefully sliced.

“What are your dreams?” he asks me. “To never feel alone,” I reply. Mallmann dropped out of school and left home at 13. So he’s been alone for quite some time. His favorite time of day is the solitude before dawn. He sews. He paints. He used to write — namely short stories for the Argentine newspaper La Nación, but he stopped during the pandemic. I ask if he’d ever write in English, but Mallmann thinks in Spanish (he speaks Spanish, English, French, and Portuguese — in that order of strength). The Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges only wrote two poems in English out of over 400, he tells me. “May I read one to you?” His voice fills the room, ending on a stirring last stanza: “I can give you my loneliness, my darkness, the hunger of my heart; I am trying to bribe you with uncertainty, with danger, with defeat.”

Mallmann pulls a jug of Armagnac down from the shelf. He takes out a single glass with delicate etchings. “We’ll share this,” he states, pouring. I ask him about leaving home so young, taking a sip and sliding it back across the table. He was the same height he is now (over 6 feet to my eye), so he passed as an adult. He moved to an apartment on top of a nightclub and deejayed for cash. In the mid-’70s, he moved to California, working odd jobs to make ends meet — as a termite exterminator and another curious role he describes as “hanging plants from cliffs.”

I ask about the military dictatorship and the Dirty War era of Argentine history in which tens of thousands of citizens with suspected leftist sympathies were rounded up and killed. “It was difficult times,” he says. “Being young was very dangerous because that’s what they wanted, young people who had thoughts. They would just take you for no reason and kill you. I lost my friends like that.” But Mallmann says there’s been a silver lining. “Since our country has been a mess always, I think we are very romantic because we have to start anew so many times. When you’re in a war constantly — with life, with work, with money — it’s very inspiring.”

His current dream is to direct a film. “I would really like to start writing again. It’s so cleansing.” He was writing a script, a love story, but couldn’t figure out how to end it. The story is about a man who comes from the Chilean side of Patagonia and a woman from the Argentine side. They meet in the mountains and begin an affair. They meet again and again without a plan. They never plan. This lack of a plan, I sense, is both integral to the story and a real pickle to conclude.

I ask what he’s afraid of. He struggles to answer. “I’m not so brave; we all have our weaknesses. But I’m not afraid of the night, or loneliness. I’m not afraid of death. I don’t want to die, but life has prepared me to die.” Mallmann realized he might die before his two youngest daughters (4 and 10) reached adulthood. So he painted a watercolor for each of them and hid a letter in the back — to open when they’re 21. They’re hanging in their rooms right now.

Mallmann drives his boat across the lake, Lago La Plata.
The view to the mountains from within the main house.

I start bringing over some of the glasses we’ve accumulated to rinse in the sink. Mallmann implores that I stop. “I love all the mess! In the morning when I wake up, I like to read what happened. I love to see the glasses and the dirty everything. Please place that back where it was. I’ll be very happy in the morning remembering the details of the night. Look at this,” he says, gesturing lovingly at our remains on the coffee table, “your glass of wine, our little Armagnac. There’s no mess. It’s beauty.”

Before I head to sleep, I ask about his necklace. He pulls the chain out to reveal a medallion. “I took a stamp of a tree I love, the bark of a tree in Uruguay that I have at home, very old. I did it in metal, and I gave one to each of my children [Mallmann has seven and would like more] and one to all of the mothers, the four mothers. So we all carry the same.”

Lying in bed that night, it’s so dark I cannot see my hand in front of my face. I fall asleep to the howling of the dogs outside, barking at the deer across the lake.

By dPrimeramano

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