It’s 4am and still dark in the Napa Valley. In a fold of the surrounding hills, by the light of small fires, a team of men are hard at work. Some are lugging chopped wood, bags of sand and metal contraptions; others are constructing a dome from strips of metal. The hoots of owls answer the crackle of flames. The only other light comes, smoke-filtered, from a slice of moon. The scene looks vaguely apocalyptic.
‘¡Hola! ¡Bon día!’ comes Francis Mallmann’s cheery greeting.
Chef, restaurateur, pyromaniac, Netflix sensation and incandescent Renaissance man, Mallmann is one of South America’s most famous exports. His restaurants span the Americas, France – and soon London.
Argentinian-born Mallmann is among the world’s most sought-after private chefs. Today his team are preparing an open-air lunch for guests of Harlan Estate, the pre-eminent Californian winery. Owner Bill Harlan emerges from the darkness. ‘Today is the soft launch of Promontory, our new wine,’ he says. Soon, chicken carcases, a whole boned lamb, a side of beef and a sea bass are trussed up and hanging above fires, to cook very slowly.
Every year Mallmann fields some 150 requests to cook privately. People track him down: the rich, the famous, the titled and the entitled. His blend of creativity, romance and daring can transform lunch or dinner into a nail-bitingly exciting experience. Whether cooking for two or for 2,000, he charges the same fee. He says that one in 20 requests proceed.
Mallmann’s style seems simple: everything is cooked on open fires, ideally in locations free from distractions such as grid electricity and plumbing. His decor is the great outdoors, and his soundtrack, the shrieks of wild animals. Yet it’s all underpinned by a wealth of experience and a spicing of irreverence. It makes fire-safety officers wake screaming in a cold sweat.
Fire, Mallmann’s favourite ingredient, is delivered directly, indirectly, from above and below, via ashes, in pits and from ‘the dome’. For the Harlan feast the chef has shipped in one ton of ironmongery. Another requirement is patience. Much of his food takes as long as nine hours to cook. ‘Meat is muscle,’ he explains. ‘Heated fast, it tightens and dries; slowly, it keeps its juices, tenderises and caramelises.’
If Mallmann’s food is simple, little else in his life has been. At 13, he left home, later travelling to the US to commune with West Coast hippies. After living off carpentry, termite extermination and seaweed husbandry, he returned to Argentina to open a restaurant. In 1980, he wrote to every three-Michelin-star chef in France begging for stages. After three years of being screamed at in French, he emerged a true believer in haute cuisine. ‘I became an elegant chef,’ he says, wincing.
At a dinner in Buenos Aires for Cartier, the head of the company approached and said, ‘I’ve just had one of the most disgusting meals of my life. The menu is written in French, but really your food is not French at all.’ Stung, Mallmann began to explore the food of Argentina, and then ditched French cooking altogether. Trading toque for beret and ‘fine dining’ for the rusticity of Argentine staples, he lit a bonfire under those culinary vanities.
Today, a father of six children with four women, he lives on an island in a lake in atagonia, but travels continually. His conversion into a culinary caveman has met with both idolatry and repudiation. ‘Comfort zones are not creative,’ he says, smiling. ‘I have lived on the edge of uncertainty.’
The Mallmann way demands strategy, logistics and matches. ‘Get everything ready first. Buy good ingredients. Choose your wood. Cook fast or slow? Use the plancha or the grill for fast; ashes or the dome for slow. If I had only one piece of equipment, it would be a half-grill half-plancha.’
Lunch guests arrive to champagne and empanadas. Soon the valley is abuzz. Mallmann has swathed two large tables in 200-year old linen bought from Guinevere Antiques in London. They are set with lemon-filled bowls from Astier de Villatte in Paris, and giant glass flagons. The post-apocalyptic building site has been transformed.
‘The purpose of good food is better conversation,’ says Mallmann, ‘and decor is almost more important than food.’ At a ‘gastronomic competition’ in Frankfurt, he ‘decorated’ the table using potatoes. And won. At a lunch for Guy Ritchie (from which David Beckham posted a video of himself posing inside the flaming dome), Mallmann plonked clods of earth and grass on the table. ‘I have outbursts of inspiration.’
As the Napa and Silicon Valley elites tuck into salt-crusted salmon, grilled sea bass, whole roast lamb, and dome-cooked rib-eye and chicken, washed down with wine, Bill Harlan nods. ‘Most people want a fancy event. This way gives it a soul.’
I ask Mallmann if the world ‘gets’ him. ‘Finally, yes,’ he says. ‘Thomas Keller [owner of The French Laundry] is sending chefs over to learn cooking on fires! It is a process of exploration. I have much to prove.’
As lunch finishes with ‘nine-hour-roasted peaches’ and Armagnac, guests write down their thoughts on slips of paper from Armorial Paris. Over the shoulder of Francis Ford Coppola, I read, ‘ESPERANZA’ – ‘HOPE’.
If you like rotisserie cooking but have no rotisserie, try this lo-tech alternative: rig a sturdy iron or steel stand to suspend a piece of beef (or leg of lamb, or whole chicken) so that it hangs about 2ft from a fire. (Alternatively, hang the meat from a high tree branch above a fire. Find a sturdy branch at least 10ft above your fire that extends far enough out from the tree to prevent the tree being harmed by the fire. Climb a ladder and loop double lengths of heavy butcher’s twine or food-grade stainless-steel wire over the branch with enough left over to truss the beef.)
8-10 as part of a feast
- 3.2kg piece rib-eye beef
- 6 medium-large fennel bulbs with long stems
- 10 medium carrots with their leaves
- vegetable stock
- Build your fire and rake the coals out for a medium heat. Season the beef with salt and pepper. If desired, brown on all sides on an oiled grate over the fire.
- Truss the beef securely with butcher’s twine or wire, configuring loops on the sides and ends for hanging. Attach the beef securely so that it hangs about 2ft from the coals. The meat will be cooked in about five hours. Let it rest for 15 minutes before carving.
- For the vegetables, gather the fennel and carrots into respective bundles. Tie their stems together with strong string. Hang the two bundles over the fire for five hours as you cook the beef.
- Every hour, dip the bundles in some vegetable stock to keep them hydrated. Using a knife, cut off the burnt outer parts of the vegetables and discard them before serving.
Ashes: a selection of vegetables
Light your fire one hour ahead of time. A fireplace at home will do. Always use hot embers and ashes, not red-hot coals.
4-6 as part of a feast
- 3 bell peppers
- 6 onions
- 3 aubergines
- 125ml extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 tbsp fresh thyme leaves
- 2 tbsp fresh oregano leaves
- 2 tsp grated lemon zest
- 2 bunches rocket, trimmed, washed and dried
- 175g Cuartirolo, Port Salut or mozzarella cheese, sliced
- 1-1½cm thick handful of Kalamata olives, chopped
- Prepare a bed of embers. Bury the peppers, onions and aubergines so that they are completely, evenly covered. Roast for 10 minutes.
- Using tongs, spread the embers apart and turn over the vegetables. Replace the embers and cook for a further 10 minutes.
- Carefully dig out the vegetables. Clean off the ashes with paper cloth. Peel and core the peppers and tear into 5cm strips. Split the onions in half. Cut the aubergines in half lengthwise. Pour six tablespoons of olive oil into a bowl. Stir in the thyme, oregano and lemon zest. Set aside for an hour.
- Heat a large cast-iron pan over a high heat. Brush the cut sides of the onion and aubergine pieces with olive oil. Place cut-side down on the pan. Add the peppers. Cook for 2-3 minutes.
- Arrange the rocket on a platter. Add the vegetables. Wipe off the cooking surface. Brush with olive oil.
- Over a medium heat, brown the cheese slices on one side only, for 1-2 minutes. Using a spatula, place them browned-side up on the platter. Drizzle with dressing. Sprinkle with chopped olives, then serve.
Pudding: burnt summer peaches and plums with mascarpone and amaretto
If you cook torn or sliced peaches in sugar on a hot chapa (metal surface), cast-iron pan or skillet, they will caramelise quickly and with a slightly bitter edge, while their insides remain uncooked and sweet. Afterwards, burnt sugar can easily be scraped off cast iron with a vinegar and water solution, poured directly on to the hot surface.
4-6 as part of a feast
- 4 ripe peaches
- 4 fresh plums
- 225g sugar
- 250ml amaretto
- the grated zest of 1 lemon
- fresh mint leaves and mascarpone, to serve
- Heat a chapa, cast-iron pan or skillet over a medium heat. Cut or tear the fruit in half, leaving the stones intact.
- When the cooking surface is hot, spread half the sugar over it evenly. When the sugar begins to melt, arrange the fruit on it, skin-side down. After several minutes, when the skins are browned, pour three quarters of the amaretto over, averting your face in case of a burst of flames.
- Sprinkle with the remaining sugar. Turn the fruit to brown the cut sides. Pour over the remaining amaretto.
- Transfer the fruit to a platter and sprinkle with grated lemon zest. Scatter with mint leaves and serve with mascarpone.