Argentine chef and cookbook author Francis Mallmann is known for elemental, open-fire cooking—though he opened his only stateside restaurant, Los Fuegos, at Miami Beach’s Faena Hotel, where excess is the air you breathe. Technicolor interiors by Baz Luhrmann and Catherine Martin lead to an airy veranda set under a canopy of deep red textiles imprinted with a hundred Argentine suns. A gilded mastodon by artist Damien Hirst watches over the scene. The refined but rustic plates carrying food from the wood-burning kitchen, designed by Mallmann and crafted in Texas, may seem out of place in this tropical baroque setting, but they both evoke the feeling of a blazing fire, barely contained. Mallmann wears these contradictions well. Trained in classic French technique before finding inspiration in the fiery foodways of his native Patagonia, he was widely introduced to American audiences in the Netflix series Chef’s Table. With acclaimed restaurants in Argentina and Uruguay, he has plans to open a new restaurant in Aix-en-Provence, where he’ll explore dome cooking, a method in which food is cooked slowly suspended over a fire. Mallmann shares with TLP a few of his favorite spots as he discovers Miami and his thoughts on the complex language of fire he’s still learning.
There’s this actual understanding of fire that goes through your senses that you can’t explain technically.
What first drew you to open-fire cooking? I remember receiving a Spanish journalist who said he was surprised that Argentina didn’t have a very rooted culture. I looked at the man and thought, “how rude.” We finished the interview and I wrote him a letter telling him what the cultural roots of the country were—in a nice way. That made me think, “why am I still so influenced by France?” I sort of have to be because they were so generous and rigorous and they taught me so many things, but I think it’s time for me to show the world who we are. That took me directly to my childhood in Patagonia and the fire life we led as kids in our home.
Grilling seems simple, but what are the intangible elements that make a difference when you’re working with fire? The simplest things are the most difficult to accomplish and the language of fire is so complex, so tender. People think it’s brutal, that it’s a manly thing, but it’s exactly the contrary. The incredible thing about this is that you can try to write books and explain in detail how you do things, but there’s this actual understanding of fire that goes through your senses that you can’t explain technically. It’s this act of looking at it, and the wind, and the wood you have, and what you’re going to cook and how. I’ve been cooking with fire for a long time. In a way, I think I’m quite knowledgeable, but I feel like I’m still learning so much.
What’s the one grilling technique everyone needs to master? The most important thing to master with fire is timing and patience. You can’t be in a hurry when you cook with fire. [You need] patience and the peace to make the right decisions and in the right time. With fire and tools and meat and fish and vegetables, everything is evolving and changing all the time.
How important is smoke and how can you use it? I like to see traces of smoke in a steak, in vegetables cooked inside a pit. Just smoking something is so strong that it takes away most of the quality of the product. I believe that smoke has to be used in a gentle way so you have hints of it on food, but it’s not the main taste.
We have a strong tradition of grilling in this country, especially in the South. Have you had the opportunity to experience it? I really admire the use of fire and smoke in Texas. Especially in a town near Abilene—a place called Buffalo Gap—the Perini Ranch. We shared some open fires with Tom Perini, a senior fire cook, and I really admire his work. He is the person, of all the people I met in America, who has the most knowledge of the silent language of fire cooking.
What’s the one tool you can’t do without? A very long stick is really a primal tool— that’s basic. My second choice would be a large shovel and then very strong strings, good wire, and pliers.
Anything you haven’t tried to grill? I’m quite a purist in my thoughts. I like cooking wild boar, birds, beef, goat, lamb, pig, and every possible vegetable and fruit. But I don’t want to cook kangaroo or crocodile. I’m not interested at all in that.
Mallmann shares a few of his favorite stateside spots.
CECCONI’S AT SOHO BEACH HOUSE
The peaceful, light-strung courtyard inside the members-only Soho Beach House belies the ever-present buzz surrounding the international expat crowd that gathers for chef Sergio Sigala’s northern Italian menu of Venetian cicchetti (snacks), housemade pastas, and fresh seafood. “I’ve had some very good meals there,” Mallmann says.
This otherworldly music box restaurant evokes Mambo-era Havana with classic Creole dishes, frosty cocktails, and full cigar menu, all served with a heavy dose of nostalgia. “The Cuban magic of taste in Miami Beach.”
Mark Iacono keeps it authentic at the Miami Beach outpost of his acclaimed Brooklyn pizza shop. Pizzas are rolled out with empty wine bottles, the sauce is homemade, and the toppings are few. Perfect in its simplicity, the thin-crust pizzas hit the table, bubbling and charred in all the right places, so it’s not surprising they caught Mallmann’s attention.
JOE’S STONE CRAB
Joe’s in Miami Beach has been serving the famous and infamous alike since 1913—Al Capone was a regular and so were several American presidents. Known for meltingly sweet Florida stone crab claws dipped in mustard sauce, their classic roundup of steakhouse sides keep locals loyal. A baroque tipping ritual gets you one of their coveted tables, though they insist it’s first-come, first-served. “The best simple crabs in season, a landmark.”
MANDOLIN AEGEAN BISTRO
Husband and wife Ahmet Erkaya and Anastasia Koutsioukis transformed a 1940s bungalow in mainland Miami’s Design District into a taverna by the Aegean Sea. In a sundrenched patio surrounded by bougainvillea, they offer light Mediterranean fare prepared with the best possible ingredients. “I feel very close to the food that’s done in twenty minutes. That’s the true spirit of cooking and that’s the sort of food you eat at Mandolin,” Mallmann says. “Delicious unpretentious Greek food with a fresh outdoor setting.”