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The Pioneer Spirit of Patagonia

With trout from an ice-blue mountain lake and beef from the pampas, chef Frances Mallmann creates a fabulous menu for Argentina's Wild West

If Argentinean cooking has a star, there's no question who it is: Francis Mallmann.

The 43-year-old Patagonian is the only non-European winner of the International Academy of Gastronomy's Grand Prix de l'Art de la Cuisine. Thanks to his good looks, his boyish personality and, not least, his culinary skill, he has become a national TV presence of Emeril-like ubiquity and the force behind a string of successful restaurants--one in Buenos Aires; one in the Mendoza wine region; two on the coast of Uruguay, where the Argentinean elite migrate during the summer months; and one in the town where he was born, San Carlos de Bariloche, which might be described as the Jackson Hole of Patagonia.

People tend to think of Patagonia (if they think of it at all) as a place at the end of the earth. It's a region of wide plains and awe-inspiring peaks, a thousand-mile strip of Argentina and Chile that runs down the eastern spine of the Andes almost to the tip of South America. Historically this was the frontier, home to thebedaggered and billowy-trousered cowboys known as gauchos and to the Araucanian Indians, whom the Spanish never conquered. Today Patagonia has become popular with an international crew of winter skiers and summer anglers--a Wild West with Hermès scarves and Basque berets.

Twice a year, Mallmann packs up his car and, with family and friends in tow, makes the 500-mile pilgrimage from his house in Bariloche to his rustic cabin on an island in the middle of an ice-blue, ice-cold mountain lake, where he has just six neighbors within a 50-mile radius. Or else he flies in to the tiny airstrip nearby, though usually he prefers the sinuous highway: "If you drop in by plane," he says, "your body gets there before your soul." It's the kind of observation a poet might make, and as a matter of fact, Mallmann has recently been gaining a following not just for his cooking but also for his sensual (actually, downright erotic) blank verse and short stories.

For most of us, Argentinean food means endless servings of barbecued meat with, perhaps, a few empanadas to start. Both are on the menu at Mallmann's restaurants as well as at his cabin, where he does much of his cooking outdoors. But the chef has traveled and studied extensively in Europe, including stints at Troisgros in Roane and Taillevent in Paris, and his graceful touch transforms these traditional dishes. He is known, in fact, for his highly sophisticated take on the food of the pampas. He makes much of the 600-degree clay empanada ovens at his restaurants: "They're descendants of Incan stoves," he explains, "and we use them for everything: we cook fish, roast game and bake pies in them in individual cast-iron boxes."

"I learned to cook properly in France," Mallmann says. "France has the best techniques in the world for cooking. But these days I like the food in Italy better, especially in the countryside. I don't like big, fussy restaurants anymore--my style is very simple now. I almost never use classic sauces, like béchamel. I don't make decorations, I don't make towers--I've been through all that. As you get older, you stop copying other people; you can be brave and start doing simple things."

Take his trout, for instance. Practically the first thing Mallmann does when he arrives at the cabin is string up his fly rod and catch a panful of trout, whose pink flesh is the hallmark of wildness. After he fillets and grills them, he layers them with rösti potatoes and spinach in a straightforward dish that's a staple at the cabin and at his restaurants, too. And his empanadas are a far cry from the wonton-like little things you see in the States: they're crispy, delectable dumplings filled with the savory onion, olive, egg and beef filling typical of the Mendoza region. (Every region has its preferred empanada filling.)

A similarly unfussy baby lamb, also a regular at the restaurants, shows off the virtues of chimichurri, the Argentinean condiment that, when it's freshly made, is the most brightening of all taste enhancers for meat. And carbonada--a pumpkin crammed full of veal, brisket, peaches, peppers and onions--is an inspired and fortifying dish that wards off the cold of the Andean nights. It's not bad on cold mornings, either, for the early risers who get up to join Mallmann down at the lake for the first trout of the day.


Story by Peter Kaminsky, New York magazine's Underground Gourmet.

Published February 1999
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