April 9, 2019 – They started building the fire days ago, well over a week before the “House of Mallmann” parties were set to begin at Pebble Beach Food & Wine.
That’s because it’s a quite a fire. And quite a pair of parties.
The fire will rise from the heart of a huge iron dome, its latticework draped with ribeye steaks and chicken, cooking slowly for as many as 12 hours, with a massive 10-foot-diameter custom cast-iron plancha grill sizzling shellfish and whatever’s most fresh from local fisherman.
Everything from fennel to potatoes will roast in ashes nestled on the grounds of a $40 million estate. The party will run a cool $1,750 a la carte, and feature what promotional copy calls “an idea of life so many of us have only watched on television, a raw and uncompromising mix of luxury and celebration for the bounty of Mother Earth.”
“While we constantly try to raise the bar of events past,” the hype continues, “this one may take the cake.”
Francis Mallmann is the man behind the party and South America’s most celebrated chef. He operates 10 world-class restaurants, from the Andes to the French countryside. He enjoyed a degree of fame in his native Argentina thanks to various TV shows since the 1980s, but his penchant for what Esquire’s Jeff Gordinier calls “a primal style of hospitality whose core comes down to one-syllable words: smoke, fire, air, stone, salt, rain, meat, wine” gained international renown with an appearance on Netflix’s Chef’s Table in 2015. His approach—detailed by his books Seven Fires and Mallman on Fire—has been a direct influence on the boom in award-winning wood-fired restaurants across the country.
For Mallmann, 63, the fire was sparked more than a few days ago, when he was a child raised in the wilds of Patagonia, hitchhiking home from school and chewing on foraged weeds until his mouth turned green. The preferred method of food prep was over an open flame; to this day his last meal would be standing over a grill with a knife in one hand and a piece of bread in the other, gaucho-style.
To hear him tell it, he believes the fire was lit even earlier than his childhood. “I think fire is a language that is primal to human beings,” he says. “I always say we feel it inside of us, long before we were born.”
It took a mid-career crisis-of-sorts for him to uncomplicate his cooking. After starting early (he opened his first restaurant in Patagonia at 18), he worked at a string of eight Michelin three-star restaurants in Europe, while returning to Argentina for various projects. By age 40 he was accepting the Grand Prix de l’Art de la Cuisine in Paris, the International Academy of Gastronomy’s highest honor.
“It completely changed my life,” he says. “I realized I was happy with the prize, but at the same time I was very sad, and started wondering why.
“I had to change,” he continues. “I had been doing something very related to my soul and love for France, but I was ready to start my own language. God, I need to kneel down and go to my roots and go to my youth and remember the fires, to go outside.”
That was the start of a transition from what he calls “edgy French chef” to “rustic artisan cooking with fire.” Edible Monterey Bay checked in with Mallmann as he hustled to catch a plane from Buenos Aires to California for year 12 of PBFW, happening April 11-14. Very limited tickets remain for House of Mallmann and select other events at www.pbfw.com, as do opportunities for locals to volunteer in exchange for tasting passes.
Edible Monterey Bay: You love to talk about the magic of fire. Take me into the magic.
Do a fire and gather a round of chairs, put people of different credos, religions, politics, ways of thinking, different languages, different parts of the world, and there’s always this huge silence, and there’s always this beautiful connection with people. For me it’s a way of saying, “Guys we all know this, we all feel this, we know what it’s about.” Fire eases our mind, takes us down to a place inside of us, it brings peace to people. It’s something everybody recognizes and is touched by. I love that.
There’s a whole generation of restaurants and chefs you’ve helped inspire to cook with fire. What advice do you have for them?
Cooking with fire starts with patience. Fire is a beautiful tool and has beautiful energy for cooking. You’re looking every second at what’s happening to the fire and your food. I think the most important ingredients are patience and intuition.
What are you eager to share with Pebble Beach Food & Wine guests?
Besides the food being delicious, what we do gives something people will never forget. It’s quite a scene. Meat hanging from iron, the ring of fire, the ceremony, magic and mystery. The scene is like theater.
What do you like to cook for your family?
I usually like to do something delicious that can be ready in half an hour. I never do long cooking. Never complicated things. In the wild, maybe it’s a whole lamb, sit by with a book, and have nothing to do for eight hours.
PBFW is doing more and more to weave mentorship into its DNA. What does this concept of education and mentorship mean to you?
Our work is a way of life. What I spread to my team goes beyond cooking, it goes beyond taste. It’s the sun, the beauty of the wind. It’s silence too.
Imagine having 10 restaurants. I have probably 240 chefs working for me. It’s very rare we take a chef who has worked at A, B and C. We prefer to take a young person who is really willing to learn and train staff from scratch. I walk around my restaurants constantly and see who is doing what. I’m not good with names, but I know how they walk, how they cut, and see them grow in their skills, so once I watch them I know who they are. Once they’ve become a good technician, we look at intuition, the way they walk around the fire when cooking. Then I start choosing leaders.
When you’re interpreting French food—for instance, at your restaurant in Provence—how does your cooking change?
The language and techniques are always the same. In Provence I have the most incredible herbs and artichokes and vegetables and lamb from 10 miles away, and fish and shellfish and so on. When I cook in Miami it’s a very different scene. The difference is products. The foundation is the same: fire and heart.
What would you say to Americans who believe the United States has the best barbecue?
The barbecue in the South, in Texas and in New Orleans, it’s incredible. A very unique thing. It reaches into the 9s and 10s of cooking with fire. When they think of American grilling in Europe they imagine flip-flopping a burger. It goes so much further than that. There’s a very grown up chef in Buffalo Gap, Texas, named Tom [Perini] who has very deep knowledge of cooking with fire. He’s been doing it for 60 years. For me it’s like watching a painter paint.
We’re at a challenging place in food. It’s getting harder and harder for normal people to afford restaurants like yours. And at the same time food insecurity is a real thing, especially in countries like the United States and Argentina. How can we reconcile the two?
There is very good food at every edge of pricing in the world. I think you have to learn to find it. It’s not, “Expensive is always better.”
What great ingredient doesn’t get enough love?
Cheap meat cuts: They’re great. I don’t know what you call them but we have funny names for them: marucha [chuck steak], entraña [skirt steak].
What makes simple food so difficult to do well?
You depend 100 percent on quality of product, and the temperature and timing of cooking.
How do poetry and painting and film inform your life—and your cooking?
Everything affects cooking. Culture, reading, walking, dancing, getting dressed. That’s the beauty of cooking. It’s touched by every gesture of human experience.
When do you feel most alive?
I love to be in the wild, in Wyoming, in Yosemite, in the hills of Uruguay. I love to be outside in the wild.
What might surprise people about you?
I don’t know what to tell you. What is special about me? I have no idea. I’m sort of in love with the opposites, the contradictions. I hate routine, I try to run away from fear, the two things that paralyze us. Sleep under a tree one day, the next day at the Ritz in Paris. You need those opposites to enjoy both. I extend that to many things in life.