Argentinian cuisine with Francis Mallmann
and his recipe for churrasco with chimichurri

Francis Mallmann in Patagonia

Argentina

Francis Mallmann is a celebrity chef, author and restaurateur famous for his skill in cooking over live fire, particularly using traditional Patagonian techniques. While he is trained in complex classical culinary techniques, growing older has encouraged him to appreciate the beauty in simplicity. For Mallmann, there is as much skill involved in boiling a potato as there is in making a multi-layered sauce.

What food did you grow up eating?
“Well, as a child I lived in Patagonia so we were outside a lot. We lived in the mountains and would always have fresh fish from the lakes, great meat and fantastic potatoes - all quite simple but very nice. My father was a scientist and received many visitors for whom my mother would cook a lot. Nothing exotic, mostly Argentinian staples like gnocchi [or ñoqui Hispanicised: a thick, small type of potato dumpling], ravioli or, my childhood favourite: malinesas [breaded and fried meat akin to schnitzel].

“There was a small restaurant in the village, run by a German couple, that we used to visit sometimes. I remember the scene, the ambience, rather than the actual food. The beautiful tablecloths and linen, the happiness and dresses of the ladies who would spend their evenings there. This atmosphere sparked my interest in cooking.”

Do you think that the ambience is more important than (or as important as) the food itself?
“I still believe so, yeah. I think that the scene is very important. It shouldn’t be related to eccentricity or expensive things. The most pleasing thing, as a host, is to treat your guests to an experience.  It’s like an attractive dress or a fine tie - it shows a lot of who you are. The ambience is what speaks to people. Oh, and if the food and wine are delicious? Then all the better.”

You were trained in three-star restaurants in France, but it sounds like you drifted away from that style over time.
“Maybe not in the true heart of the cooking: the flavours, the importance of the products, timing and temperatures and so on but yes, with all other things. Luxury now is a different beast to what it was in the ‘70’s or ‘80’s. It has a different meaning. You can get closer to people through simplicity and quality than through the stiffness and arrogance of a three-star restaurant.”

What do you mean about arrogance?
“Well, you sit down and choose your food and your wine and you’re trying to talk to a dear friend, but every couple of minutes you get interrupted by the waiter with hard-to-follow explanations about the food you’re about to eat. That, to me, can spoil the atmosphere.”

Patagonia

Francis grew up in Patagonia

But these are also the places where your career started. Which lessons do you cherish most?
“France has been very generous to me. It feels as if France put a handful of seeds in my pocket when I went there as a teenager, and I have been carrying these seeds with me ever since. They symbolise the beauty of their country – the traditions, the culture, and the flavours. The respect they have for food, wine, joy and celebration. I have been carrying these seeds in my pocket for 40 years now. I touch them every day. They make me profoundly happy because they gave me the most incredible tools through which I got to explore my life, my thoughts and ambitions. I’m very grateful for that. I am who I am because of those seeds.

“One day, when I die, I will plant those seeds somewhere and then we have come full circle, and I think that something beautiful will grow from them. It’ll be my life’s poem.”

What do you love most about cooking?
“I think the most beautiful thing about cooking is sharing. Bread, for example, is important in every culture. Sharing bread brings us together, and that happens on the tables of the kings and impoverished alike.

“Cooking holds an unspoken language that is inexplicable, something mysterious. You cannot write about it. You cannot share it with anybody - not because you do not want to, but because it’s a mystery. That, I think, is the most beautiful thing. It’s like love, like a lady. When you’re in love with someone, you’ll never know what her true secrets are; that’s the essence of cooking to me. There will always be more to learn about cooking. Noone can ever truly understand everything about it."

You’re most known for open-fire cooking. What is so magical about fire?
“Fire is in our DNA. It’s something that’s written on our skeleton, even before we were born. Something so ancient that even if we live in the city and never started a fire, the moment we see one we get attracted by it. It takes us to this incredibly deep silence. It’s an embracing aspect of our lives.

“If you make a big fire in an open field and put twenty chairs around it with a priest, a scientist, a president, children, artists and musicians – there will be a huge connection that’s rooted in silence. There is no need to say anything. Fire speaks for itself. One of the most beautiful communions between people is around a fire.”

Francis Mallmann at a fire

"There is no need to say anything when around a fire. Fire speaks for itself."

Francis Mallmann

Does food cooked over open fire taste better?
“It’s not better or worse, it’s just different. It has a very strong character and there are so many techniques to choose from: wood fires; cold and hot smoking; using ashes and coals; hot stones buried under the earth; cooking under a dome… I love all of these techniques.

“The one I’ll use depends on so many factors. Is it summer or winter? Are you with your lover, a friend or your wife and kids? Do you have meat or fish? Vegetables? Are you cooking a dessert? Are you in a valley by a river or under a tree in a field? All those things make an impact on my decision and I decide in which spirit I’d like to cook. It’s different every day. Cooking is not about repetition, but about adapting to your environment. Where, why, with whom.”

Do you think our vision on food will change in the coming years?
“Change is already happening right now. The world will never be the same as before the COVID pandemic. We have to reinvent ourselves in different ways. I feel as if the young generation, the 16, 18, 20 year-olds have great plans for our planet. They’ll change the way we look at work, at food, at the climate. I believe they will heal the planet.

“This pandemic has brought a broad avenue for change, and these young people won’t stop until everything is changed. They are stubborn and very strong. It’s really inside of them in the most romantic and beautiful way possible, and they will keep fighting for these ideas as they grow older.

“What we have learnt in this pandemic is that this must be the end of selfishness. This period has shaken the roots of humanity, and I feel so positive and energetic about it. We will all have to be more generous and stop looking at our little garden and trying to make that garden bigger and bigger. We have to learn to share with others and that, I think, will change the world. The future will be very different, but it will be an improvement.”

Market in Argentina

Roberto Michel / Shutterstock.com

This change probably also means we’re steering away from meat and fish, don’t you think?
“I think in 20, 25 years we’ll be eating very little meat or fish. I’m slowly making the change in my own cooking as well. I’m working on a vegan cookbook and trying to get my new projects to be more vegan-oriented than those I did in the past. We have to change, there’s no way out. We cannot keep doing the damage to the planet as we did before.”

So what is your favourite Argentinian vegetable?
“The potato is the king of vegetables. It embraces so many different techniques of cooking and it delivers incredible different textures depending on how you use it. Boiled, with olive oil, pepper, maybe a few chillies and some mayonnaise. People will say: ah, boiled potato – anyone can do that! But no. A good boiled potato takes a lot of attention. It’s very fragile, and you have to be aware of what you’re doing, how you’re seasoning it and how you’ll be serving it.

“The potatoes in the Andes in particular grow at an altitude of 4000m and have to struggle so much that they have a concentration of taste that’s incredible. They have always been an important part of the diet of the natives who lived high up in the mountains, in Peru and the north of Argentina.

Andes potatoes

"The Andes potatoes are so rich in flavour that it doesn’t take much else to make them special."

Francis Mallmann

“It’s the birthplace of the potato, and as you know, the potatoes went to Europe and turned into a very different thing, but we still have those beautiful potatoes from the Andes. They’re so rich in flavour that it doesn’t take much else to make them special.

“That’s the beauty of growing older: you realise that the most difficult thing to achieve in life is to appreciate simplicity. Taking away all the costumes that we wear, and just be what we have to be.”

What defines Argentinian cuisine?
“The best thing we do in Argentina is sitting at a table. It’s very important for us to just sit down – especially at lunchtime. No matter if you’re enjoying an expensive meal or a tiny menu with simple food. The whole country sits down for lunch. We talk, we share, we laugh, we cry, we discuss. And when the lunch is over, we stay at the table for hours, just enjoying life.

“Something else that we’re very well known for is our meat and our grilling. We have very good beef and lamb, but also specialise in the art of fire. The most important ingredient of cooking with fire is patience – to sit down on a chair and doing everything slowly. The Italians say that you cannot leave risotto alone for a second – the same applies to grilling. You cannot leave the meat alone during the four hours you’re cooking it.”

Churrasco with chimichurri

The Dish

That also brings us to the dish you choose: steak.
“Yes. Even though the world is leaning towards a plant-based future more and more, steak is a highly prized ingredient in our culture. A rump steak, which we call caudril, is not expensive but cut in the right direction it’s an excellent piece of meat. Put it on a plancha and cook it to the right temperature, it is an ecstasy to eat.”

What do you serve it with?
“Roast some potatoes in the ashes and serve it with our national sauce chimichurri and you have something that would represent our country very well.”

The Ingredients

Churrasco
4
rump steaks, 0.5 inch/1.3 cm thick, about 220 g/8 oz each
2 tbsp
extra virgin olive oil
coarse salt
Chimichurri
1 cup
water
1 tbsp
coarse salt
1
head garlic, separated into cloves and peeled
60 g
fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
50 g
fresh oregano leaves
2 tsp
crushed red pepper flakes
4 tbsp
red wine vinegar
120 ml
extra virgin olive oil
Churrasco
4
rump steaks, 0.5 inch/1.3 cm thick, about 220 g/8 oz each
2 tbsp
extra virgin olive oil
coarse salt
Chimichurri
250 ml
water
1 tbsp
coarse salt
1
head garlic, separated into cloves and peeled
1 cup
fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
1 cup
fresh oregano leaves
2 tsp
crushed red pepper flakes
4 tbsp
red wine vinegar
1/2 cup
extra virgin olive oil

The Recipe

Total preparation time: 30 minutes (chimichurri ideally a day ahead) | Yield: 4 servings | Category: main

Francis: "The exact cut for a churrasco may vary from place to place but for me it means flavourful, chewy rump steak."

Churrasco

  1. Heat a chapa or one or two large cast-iron skillets over high heat.
  2. Brush the steaks with the olive oil and sprinkle with coarse salt. When the surface is very hot, add the steaks and sear them, without moving them, for at least 1.5 minutes or until well browned. Lift up an edge of one steak with tongs to check them.
  3. Turn the steaks and cook for another minute, or until done to taste. Transfer to a platter and let rest for 1 minute.
  4. Serve with the chimichurri.

Chimichurri

Francis: "The basics - olive oil, parsley, and oregano - never vary but the rest is up to the ingenuity of the chef and local tradition. Chimichurri changes from town to town. My variation is fresh herbs instead of dried, which is what the gauchos use."

  1. Make a salmuera [brine] by bringing the water to a boil in a small saucepan. Add the salt and stir until it dissolves. Remove from the heat and allow to cool.
  2. Mince the garlic very fine and put in a medium bowl. Mince the parsley and oregano and add to the garlic, along with the red pepper flakes. Whisk in the red wine vinegar and then the olive oil. Whisk in the salmuera. Transfer to a jar with a tight-fitting lid, and keep in the refrigerator. Chimichurri is best prepared at least 1 day in advance, so that the flavours have a chance to blend. The chimichurri can be kept refrigerated for up to 2 to 3 weeks.
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