[This interview took place at The Splendid Table's 20th anniversary stage show in St. Paul in October 2015.]
Chef Francis Mallmann, author of Mallmann on Fire, was raised in a house in Patagonia that was "ruled by fire." Now he is known for cooking with it. "It's 20 hours when we do these fires," he says. "We start at midnight and we finish at midnight the next day."
Mallmann was one of the chefs featured in the documentary "Chef's Table."
Lynne Rossetto Kasper: I have been a fan. I think we spoke several years ago when your book called Seven Fires came out. I remember you wrote about fire in a way that went far beyond cooking and yet, in many ways, actually defined what cooking is: the transformation.
I'm curious to know what was going on [in the scene from "Chef's Table"]. What was happening? Is that a festival or a feast? Was it something that you just do with friends?
Francis Mallmann: No. That's something I've been doing for the last two years. It's a new thing, which is dome cooking. I do these domes with wires, and I hang food. I hang whole, very big fish on bamboo beds, whole rib-eyes on their bone, chicken or turkeys.
We cook them extremely slowly. We make a fire all around it, and the food is hung in the middle. For example, a rib-eye we will cook for 10 hours. And a fish very, very slowly for six. It's so tender and moist.
LRK: Maybe you should explain what the seven fires are.
FM: Seven fires are the techniques that I grabbed from my country and some parts of South America.
LRK: That's Argentina.
FM: We have a grill. That we all know. We have a plancha with fire, which is a cast-iron grill. We have a curanto, which is cooking in a pit with hot stones. There are some traces of that that are 12,000 years old in Patagonia. The natives were cooking like that 12,000 years ago.
LRK: You were raised in Patagonia, which is a wild place.
FM: It is. And I certainly love it.
Then we have asador, which is hooking on a stand a whole animal. We do a big cow, a lamb or a goat sometimes on wood crosses or iron crosses.That we're cooking very, very slowly, quite far away from the fire. We brine it with water and salt.
Then we have the wood oven. We also have rescoldo, which is cooking in ashes. So those are the techniques, plus the dome.
LRK: These are very traditional techniques from your country?
FM: Most of them, yes. And "a little hell," which is cooking in between two fires. That comes from the Incas.
LRK: You're opening a new restaurant in Miami next month. It's called Los Fuegos, meaning the fires. What is it with fire? What for you is it?
I should preface this by saying that I think this is something that I personally feel very strongly about. I think there's a draw. We all know this. We love sitting in front of them. But you have turned this into something that is a life. I'd love to know what is that about?
FM: If you look a bit into my background, I was raised in Patagonia in a house that was ruled by fire. We had chimneys, the hot water system was with fire, the heating of the house. As kids, having a full shed of wood of every size for every different fire was very important.
I never remembered that. Then I went into training in France with the best star chefs of those times. I came back to become an arrogant French chef. I was for many years. I tried to copy everything I had learned in a very bad way.
Then suddenly I was fortunate. I got this prize in Paris. I thought, "What in hell am I doing? I'm 40. I've been cooking for 20 years. Who am I?"
So I said, "I better start thinking about having my own language in cooking." I didn't invent anything really. I just went down to my knees, looked around and remembered all the tools from my childhood. I looked around a bit into the mountains and saw what the natives had been doing.
I grabbed all that and I started cooking with it. But it was very slowly. It was a process that took the last 20 years. I feel that I just started. There's so much more to do because fire is such a fragile and beautiful thing. People think that it's a manly thing -- fire and you burn things. But it's, on the contrary, very feminine. It's very fragile. I love it. I'm learning a lot still.
LRK: It's very hard to control, isn't it?
FM: It is very hard to control.
LRK: The quixotic side of it. Is that one of the things that draws you in?
FM: It's like everything in cooking. If you think about a risotto, or today I was writing a new recipe for a profiterole -- when you cook, you have to be there. Yes, you can put something in a wood oven, walk away for five hours and maybe it will be OK.
But when I put something in the oven, I feel like my wife has a lover. I look into the oven and I say, "What the hell are you doing with my chicken? How dare you. It's warm in there. I'm out here. What are you guys doing in there?" I sit by the oven when I cook because I think about that and I look at it. That's a joke.
But I think that we have to be very aware when we cook. I love that. Nowadays, I have a lot of help when I do these big fires. I have a comfortable chair. I point: Do this. Do that. Because I'm grown up, and I have the right to do it now.
But I'm still there for the 20 hours of the cooking. I love it. It's 20 hours when we do these fires. We start at midnight and we finish at midnight the next day.
LRK: Then everybody feasts.
You talk about living on the edge. Did I interpret that?
FM: Yes, the edge of uncertainty. My life has been a bit like that. I've always chosen that edge. It sounds dangerous, but it has more to do with risk, with doing new things, with starting again constantly, with not being comfortable. I think that the worst enemies we have in life are routine and fear. They are the two things that paralyze us.
When you're afraid and when you're in routine too, it's so sad. My TV shows nowadays are more about a lifestyle trying to push people outside, making them dream that there's a better life. That you can work and go to the office, but you have to be outside a bit.
Kids, until they're 7, they should spend half of the day in the wild. It's the best school. I hate schools. My children, I see them go to school, I'm so unhappy. I don't like schools. They indoctrinate. They take the dreams away of children.
LRK: Were you raised with that kind of freedom?
FM: Yes. It wasn't that my parents taught, but we lived in a very remote place. My father used to give us money to pay the school to bus in to school but not out. We got to school. We spent the day at school. The way back we had to walk or hitchhike. I remember hours and hours walking with my dogs in the fields after school everyday. That saved my life because every time I'm hurt, every time I see adversity in my life, I remember that. It's just a clean thing. It's the best medicine.
LRK: I wanted to take you back to, perhaps, not such a gifted moment. You mention being very arrogant and doing French food. I understand that one of the turning points was when the president of Cartier came to your restaurant for dinner.
FM: I came back from France. I was 27. I had worked with eight of the 3-star chefs of those days in the late '70s, early '80s. I thought I was the best. I had trained with these guys and I was doing my menus and trying to copy every recipe I had learned in all the good restaurants in France. And I did.
One night the restaurant was booked by the president of Cartier. A very elegant man, I remember. I was walking around the room after dinner with my hat like a turkey -- very happy.
The man said to me, very kindly, "Can I talk to you?" I said, "Yes."
He took me to the side and he said to me, "I know you've been in France. I know you love France. I know you work very hard. The menu was in French, but the food wasn't French. This is not very good food. I'm very sorry to say this, but I didn't enjoy this meal."
I looked at him and I said, "Thank you very much, sir." We parted.
I got home and I thought, "This guy, he makes wonderful watches, jewels and rings, but what does he know about cooking?" I never forgot it.
Many, many years later, I realized that he was right. He had read in my life something that I still didn't know but that was very important. Nowadays I feel that one of my responsibilities is to tell young chefs those sort of messages, not in a harsh way. But we must because you don't forget those things. They help you grow in life.
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