June 25, 2009
Last week, I had the pleasure of meeting Francis Mallmann, and Vanina Chimeno, chef de cuisine at Mendoza's 1884 restaurant. Over lunch, we talked about Mallmann's around-the globe travels, his love of art and poetry (he's a fan of Auden's works), the economy, freedom as defined by the American hippie movement, being a parent (he's the father of 5), and of course, food.
Growing up in Bariloche, what were some of your earliest food memories, and how did growing up there influence you later on?
I didn't realize until quite late in life that it influenced me so much. I was incredibly lucky to be raised there, in the sixties and seventies, because it was a tiny town at that time, the quality of life we had was great We were lucky enough to live about 15 miles from town, in a beautiful place, it was very remote. So after many years of working in kitchens and having success in my career, I realized that I wanted to go back to the foods of my childhood. And that's what I did, and that's what Seven Fires is about; that huge impact that Patagonia had. It's the place in the world I most like.
As for tastes, my father was a physicist, and because of his work, there were lots of guests at our home, always. He created a foundation in Bariloche for post-graduate studies, but we had guests from all around the world at home, and my mother cooked simple but nice things, and that was my first relationship with cooking. We had a wonderful garden with fresh fruits and vegetables–starting in mid-November to mid-March, we had lots of fresh things. It was natural for us to live around the garden. We had a simple, nice life there–it was very good.
Who inspires you?
Well nowadays, I think the most inspiring thing for me is sort of tracking back onto the path I've taken, you know, French cooking, elegance, luxury, all the best that I could imagine, now it's just sort of gone backwards to return to more simple things, when you go simple after going through all that sort of sophisticated path, it's wonderful. You have a language where you exactly understand why your choice of simple is simple. If you choose simple because it's the only thing you know, it's different.
Your Buenos Aires restaurant, Patagonia Sur, has a collection of over 2, 000 cookbooks. What are your favorites?
I have many favorites! They are mostly old books. One is Larousse Gastronomique that was given to me by a friend in 1976, it's a book I love very much. The other ones are first editions of Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child and Simone Beck, and a book called La Cuisine by a chef I worked with in the eighties, Raymond Oliver, I admire him a lot. For more contemporary cooking, I like the book from the River Cafe in London, by Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers, and White Heat, by Marco Pierre White. I don't really buy any books anymore, but I have a big collection of poetry books, too. (Note–I've added these books to the Amazon store on this site!)
What things outside of the food world do you find inspiring?
Many, many things. I really believe that in general , whatever you do in life, if you 're a chef, or an architect or a carpenter, you know the techniques for what you do, but there's a limit in that. There's a limit to the knowledge of practical things you can do. And after that, in order to grow, you have to look at all the other areas that influence whatever you do. Those can be chemistry, theater, music, walking, gardening. So I'm very inspired by the moments in life, by simple pleasures, my luxuries are space and quiet. I don't want to be working anyplace but home now, I try to travel as little as possible, I think being home inspires me.
You created Nuevo Andean cuisine, which blends indigenous flavors with influences from other cultures; where do you think the future of food is going?
Well, if you look at the last five decades of cooking, in history, there have been trends that have lasted about ten years. So in the sixties, it was France going from traditional to more modern, the seventies was French Nouvelle Cuisine, the eighties was Italy, the nineties was fusion, and this decade is all about Spain. So the world is changing so fast, with the internet, with information, young new chefs seem to inherit easily and quickly a lot of information in their thoughts but not too much with their knife. Nowadays you can read, you can know so much, grab information, but they aren't rooted enough to create things. So where are we going? I don't know.
Cooking has become such a glamorous and popular thing in the word with all these celebrity chefs, that even though the industry is growing in a very nice way, it has lots of dangers. Cooking has been taken to a place where people think it's an art, when it really is a craft, that's what I think. At some point there will be a return to more basic things. Obviously with this economic crunch is taking people to go out a bit less and entertain at home, which I think is great. That's happening all around, and in America especially. People are saying "I won't go out to that expensive restaurant, but I will buy the more expensive cheese, or the best cut of meat, and eat at home." That sort of thing, it's very good.
The danger is that young chefs are missing steps in their training and going directly to very specific things that they like, and not going through a classic training that can also open your mind and your thoughts and ideas to broader things. You can't not know about the rest–the history, the culture and different cooking.
What advice do you have for people entering the food industry today?
Find your passion and follow it. The only way to do well is to do things from the heart, then the money will come. I would tell people not to be afraid to be yourself–you have to have a voice, even if you think people don't like what you have to say. Stay with it, it's the only thing that will make you heard.