The mild-mannered man, wearing knee-high brown leather boots and a soft brown jacket, his thinning gray hair covered by a brown wool cap, lifts gargantuan hunks of beef from a simmering caldero or cast iron pot set over smoldering logs. Behind him we glimpse a sprawling adobe hacienda, perhaps the remains of a derelict estancia, set amongst dry scrubby brush. A dusty Land Rover is parked nearby and underneath, a black and white dog lolls in the dirt.
Cooking show or love story?
The man has made a puchero, a South American take on the rustic meat and vegetable stew known in Spain as a cocido. With a tender smile, he scoops an array of vegetables, including a huge collapsing pumpkin squash, onto a wooden platter.
And then it happens: The scene goes all soft focus and slow motion. A misty haze surrounds the meat and vegetables, nestling together like lovers, as the man ladles broth slowly and sensuously over the food.
It’s as romantic a scene as you’ll find on late night Argentine TV.
The man is Francis Mallmann, Argentina’s most popular chef, star of numerous cooking shows, owner of restaurants in Buenos Aires, Mendoza and Uruguay, and author of Siete Fuegos, or Seven Fires, a 2009 cookbook written with his good friend Peter Kaminsky. As a young chef he trained in France with nouvelle cuisine luminaries Alain Senderens and Roger Verge, but in middle age he’s become an exemplar of South American-style, fast, high-heat cooking, mostly done outside over a blazing fire.
A while ago I ran across a Facebook page in which a fan gushed, “Yo quiero vivir como Francis Mallmann!” [I want to live like Francis Mallmann!] And no wonder. In a country that many say lacks a strong national identity, Mallmann’s itinerant but well-heeled lifestyle (as displayed on TV) taps into the romantic, still powerful myth of Argentina’s rural past. It’s a golden Ralph Lauren-esque vision of the good life as it was once lived on vast cattle-rich estancias, exemplified by simple and delicious food cooked gaucho-style over glowing wood fires.
In his various TV shows which air on the G (for ElGourmet) channel, Mallmann takes to the open road, setting up camp, seemingly on a whim, in magnificent natural settings. His old black Land Rover holds everything he needs, including a DVD player for watching foreign films like La Dolce Vita. A stylish awning shades a Swedish church pew—he saw the original in Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night; copies are in all his restaurants—made comfortable with piles of cushions and warm blankets. Raw ingredients, fuel and cooking equipment–custom made cast iron parillas (grills), chapas (griddles), and calderos–are there when he needs them. At the end, he pours himself a glass of wine and records his thoughts in a handwritten journal.
In one episode he writes something like this: “The only reason to eat and drink well is to have the most intelligent conversations possible around the dinner table.”
Mallmann couldn’t be more different than the chirpy, dumbed down, “How easy is that?” chefs who occupy our own Food Network. No phony kitchen set, no irritating references to “my onion” or “my pot roast.” Instead, here is a gracious, self-sufficient, almost elegant man (middle-aged spread notwithstanding), living the itinerant good life accompanied only by his dog . Incidentally I never saw him taste a morsel of food, though he did sip from a glass of wine.
Here’s a clip from one of his ElGourmet programs, Un Lugar en Mendoza:
While in Mendoza, we went to 1884 Restaurante, Mallmann’s joint venture with winemaker Nicolas Catena. Arriving at the restaurant is like crashing a party at a baronial estate: There’s a massive gate with security guards who check your name against a list of reservations before you’re allowed in. When you step into the bar, you feel almost giddy for having gotten away with it.
The restaurant is in an old winery, La Bodega Escorihuela, built in 1884 in a blue collar suburb of Mendoza known as Godoy Cruz. Much of the original structure has been preserved, including the high ceilings, tiled floors and turquoise Italian chandeliers. With wooden tables, thick curtains and oxblood walls, or as the website says, “the color of the wines of Mendoza,” it’s the epitome of rustic chic.
Just about everyone is there to eat meat and drink wine.
From our table we could see into the kitchen where a team of good looking young chefs, one of them wearing a blue bandana around his head, were in constant motion.
But the real action was in the grassy courtyard where we found the outdoor “kitchen” with its various wood-fired ovens and parillas and big stacks of algarroba wood for feeding those fires. In the glow of the red hot coals, the four black-clad chefs whirled from station to station, sweating as they filled a steady flow of plates headed to the dining room.
You can order seafood—B had grilled octopus and shrimp sizzled in a cast iron “box” based one used by Brazilian gauchos—but the meat really is the main event: Between us, we devoured cabrito or baby kid braised until it was so tender it fell to pieces when pierced with a fork, giant pork ribs served on a wooden platter with a bowl of cherry tomatoes and marjoram, and a monstrous rib eye, at least 3 inches thick, that came on a plate of thin sliced potatoes fried in oil until crisp and golden brown.
And we really loved the vegetables, especially the fried zucchini blossoms stuffed with goat cheese and charred carrots, also with goat cheese, and arugula and garlic chips. Mallmann’s book includes a little sidebar called “The Taste of Burnt” in which he extols “dissonance in food—two tastes fighting each other.” He writes: “The right amount of burning or charring can be delicious and seductive: a burnt tomato, for example, has a dark crust bordering on bitter, while the inside is soft and gentle in texture and taste.”
Over the course of our trip to Argentina I found myself increasingly fascinated with the Mallmann phenomenon, and when I got home, I ordered Seven Fires. The title refers to seven techniques of cooking over fire using different types of equipment. Among them are the parilla or grill, the chapa, a griddle or sheet of cast iron for sizzling thin steaks or lamb chops, and the infiernillo, or “small inferno,” which he describes as “two fires with a cooking level in between” used for “baking large pieces of meat, whole fish and poultry encased in salt.”
A few days ago I decided to thrill the meat lovers in our house by making Mallmann’s Whole Boneless Rib Eye with Chimichurri. Once you’ve gotten over the sticker shock—I paid around $70 for a 4-1/2 pound roast, which, I must admit, was a magnificent piece of beef—it’s a simple and delicious way of trying one of his signature dishes at home.
At 1884, such a roast would probably be cooked in an horno de barrio, a dome-shaped, wood-fired adobe oven where only way to control the temperature is by letting the fire burn down, or by moving the meat closer to or further away from the hot coals.
Luckily he’s given us excellent instructions for roasting the rib eye in a home oven.
The roast is slathered with chimichurri before cooking and is served with the remaining sauce at the table. Besides Mallmann’s recipe, I decided also to try the original gaucho version of the sauce, which is simply dried oregano, garlic and crushed aji or chile, sometimes mixed with salt. Diego Felix, a young Buenos Aires chef who runs a quirky puerta cerrada or “closed door” restaurant in his home, told me to be sure to buy Argentine oregano and chiles if I planned to make the sauce, since their flavors are distinctively different from those with which we are familiar.
I’m glad I followed his advice. Argentine oregano is indeed different—almost sweet, with strong minty undertones—while the aji, or dried chiles are mild and fruity. Traditionally these would have been mixed with dried chopped garlic, but I took the line of least resistance and used some garlic powder lurking in back of the pantry. I mixed these ingredients with enough olive oil to make a paste and, as an experiment, rubbed half the roast with the blend.
As for the rest, I followed Mallmann’s recipe for fresh chimichurri—in which leafy oregano and parsley are mixed with lots of chopped garlic, salmuero or salt water, red wine vinegar and olive oil—and drizzled it over the rest of the rib eye.
Each of the sauces created a delicious crust over the roast, but they were decidedly different. The fresh chimichurri was tangy and very garlicky, while the dry version had an herbal, slightly sweet flavor.
Best of both worlds. We devoured them both.
Whole Boneless Rib Eye with Two Kinds of Chimichurri
This recipe is adapted from Seven Fires by Francis Mallmann. It includes his recipe for fresh chimichurri as well as a gaucho-style sauce made of dry ingredients mixed with olive oil. Coating half of the roast with each of the two sauces allows you to try the different versions. Serve what ever is left over at the table.
To serve six:
Ingredients for the rib eye:
1 boneless rib-eye roast, about 4-1/2 pounds
6 bay leaves
Ingredients for Mallmann’s chimichurri:
For the salmuera:
1 cup water
1 tablespoon coarse salt
For the sauce:
1 head garlic, separated into cloves and peeled
1 cup packed fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 cup fresh oregano leaves
2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes
¼ cup red wine vinegar
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
Ingredients for gaucho-style chimichurri:
¼ cup dried oregano
2 tablespoons garlic powder or dried garlic chips
1 tablespoon red pepper flakes, or to taste
Red wine vinegar, optional
Method for Mallmann’s chimichurri:
1. To make the salmuera, bring the water to a boil in a small saucepan. Add the salt and stir until it dissolves. Remove from 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 flavors have a chance to blend. The chimichurri can be kept refrigerated for up to 2 to 3 weeks.
Method for gaucho-style chimichurri:
1. Combine the dried oregano, dried garlic or garlic powder and red pepper flakes. Add just enough olive oil to turn the mixture into a paste.
Method for the rib eye roast:
1. Set your oven to 450 degrees. Position the oven rack in the lower third of the oven.
2. Remove the meat from the refrigerator an hour before cooking. Pat dry with paper towels. Sprinkle with coarse salt.
3. Coat half of the roast with some of the fresh chimichurri and the other half with some of the gaucho-style chimichurri. Scatter the bay leaves over the meat. Place on a rack in a large roasting pan and roast for 20 minutes. Lower the heat to 350 degrees and roast for approximately 10 minutes more per pound for rare (120 degrees). Transfer to a carving board and let rest for at least 10 minutes.
4. Carve the roast into thick slices and serve with the remaining chimichurri sauces. If desired mix the gaucho-style chimichurri with a little red wine vinegar for a more pungent flavor.