Francis Mallmann Wants You to Pay Attention to Uruguay
It’s a balmy night in December, nearly high summer in the Southern Hemisphere. Francis Mallmann is sitting under the stars on the back patio of his restaurant Garzón, named for the 200-person village in which it’s located, 14 miles inland from Uruguay’s rugged Atlantic coast. It’s on a dirt road, with no traffic. Until 1956, the space was a general store that sold saddles and cans of tomatoes.
The restaurant feels so remote that Mallmann ended up building guest rooms for diners to stay overnight. Here, the grassland is punctuated only by the solitary metal-roofed hut. The train station, constructed in Spanish colonialist style, has long since been abandoned by trains and is now used for TV shoots (including Mallmann’s Chef’s Table episode.) It seems unlikely, then, that Garzón would be a destination for London gallerists, A-list celebs, and South American oil magnates. But it is.
José Ignacio, the “it” beachfront town, is just a half hour’s drive away. Here, condos go for two to three million USD, easy. It’s where Katy Perry likes to go horseback riding, and one of the Rockefellers rented out the Bahia Vik hotel for an entire month. José Ignacio is also where Mallmann opened a restaurant in 1977; back then, water had to be delivered by donkey. When the celebs started showing up, he left. His old restaurant, Los Negros, no longer exists. Now he’s encamped to Garzón.
Although Mallmann gets billed as an Argentine chef, he has strong ties to Uruguay. His mother is Uruguayan, and he has two restaurants here. In addition to Garzón, he’s the culinary director at Bodega Garzón, a winery and restaurant just five miles away. There, on the top deck, Mallmann has built a firepit of funeral pyre proportions. It looks out over nearly 600 acres of vineyards, home to wild capybaras and ostrich-like rheas.
“Uruguayan wine has improved so much in the last 10 years,” Mallmann says, over dinner. (He excuses himself briefly to debone a black sea bass that’s been baking in salt.) “What Bodega Garzón is doing is incredible, and the vineyards are still very young. I think that it's a path that's just starting.”
Agriculturally, Uruguay is still best known for ranching: cows outnumber people four to one. Most crops don’t take well to its rocky, granite soil; but grapes, as it turns out, love it. Especially tannat, the Cabernet-like red that’s the country’s mostly widely grown. For his part, Mallmann loves Bodega Garzon’s Petit Verdot 2017 and 2015. Don’t ask him, however, what to drink them with.
“I hate pairings,” he says. “Pairings are for toddlers. I understand them; obviously a steak with a great Cab is great. But I like more challenging things, you know. I like contrasts. I like enemies in my mouth.”
“I will never write, ‘Eat this aubergine with an Albariño,’” he continues. “Am I eating it with you, under this beautiful shade? How is my humor, your humor? Everything changes every day. So to tie yourself to these concepts … it's very boring.”
It’s a response that’s on brand for Mallmann. He’s known for bucking expectations. He’s elusive—famously living alone on a private island—yet ever-visible, owning restaurants in Miami, Buenos Aires, and near Aix-en-Provence. Far from staying holed up in Patagonia, he travels widely; he talks to me fondly of the flowers of Bhutan, where he went once, with a friend. He’d like to go back.
Many attribute to Mallmann the predictable strain of machismo that goes along with steak, cowboys, mountains—and he, in turn, rejects it. “Did I tell you that I was feminine?” he says. “I love sewing. I sew everyday. I would love to be a couturier, doing dresses. I love my feminine things. I'm very vain, in a way.”
For him, fire, too, is feminine.“Nowadays, people think it's a very manly thing, brutal,” he says. “But it's the most tender and fragile thing ever.”
Equal parts an aesthete and an intellectual—his weekly Spanish-language newspaper column is mostly “about Paris and sex”—Mallmann is well-versed in cultural discourse. He quotes Wallace Stevens over steak. He’s also blissfully unaware of contemporary goings-on. He once had dinner with Wes Anderson—of whom he’s a huge fan—without realizing it. Famously, he didn’t know who David Beckham was. (“I said, ‘What do you do?’ He said, ‘I’m a soccer player.’”)
These are the things that make Francis Mallmann Francis Mallmann, and why the world is so fascinated with him. But he’s quick to say that this didn’t happen overnight. “It’s been such a slow process,” he says. “It was 45 years.”
Fame has not been without its challenges for a self-professed introvert. “I’m a grump,” Mallmann says. Photographs, especially, are trying. “You know, it’s exhausting,” he says. “I don’t know what it is. But I did it too, as a kid, you know, when I was cooking in France. I would ask, ‘Chef, let me have a photograph with you.’ So it’s a human thing. I always smile and do it, but it’s difficult.”
Mallmann keeps a house in Garzón, just a few doors down from his restaurant. Its courtyard has a canopied tree in the center, a table with a lamp and lemons, and art everywhere. He’ll be spending the rest of January here. The village is an island of its own because it feels so remote—and receives relatively little press.
The same could be said for Uruguay as a whole, at least compared to its South American counterparts; the country rarely makes political headlines. And despite the increasing “it” factor of beach towns like Punta del Este and José Ignacio, Uruguay remains relatively low key.
The steak and wine for which Argentina and Chile are so well known are also here—and just as complicated, vast, and historic. Uruguay shares much of the same viticultural roots as these two countries, thanks to its early Spanish and Italian settlers. (Almost 90% of Uruguay’s population is of European descent.) Culinarily, the gaucho culture that runs through so much of South America is alive and well.
A few days prior, I rode in a car that stopped to let a herd of cattle cross the road. A man on horseback sauntered past. The sun was setting. It would be tempting to say that Garzón is in the middle of nowhere; but it feels truer to say that it’s the center of something vast and grand.
And Mallmann, for all his colossus, is just one small part of that.