Welcome to On Location, where we talk to the coolest cooks and makers around the country about what's inspiring them right now.
Swapping in vegetables for meat isn’t exactly a novel concept these days. After all, you can now cook a plant-based burger that actually “bleeds,” and order veg-friendly versions of just about everything at your favorite fast food chains. But when a world-famous chef known for preparing epic cuts of meat over open fire begins a very public love affair with vegetables? Now that’s worth noting.
Francis Mallmann, the Argentinian chef with a mastery of fire, has just released a new cookbook that shines the spotlight on produce. "Green Fire" is every bit as educational as it is inspiring (we’d buy it for the gorgeous photography alone), with tips for coaxing the most flavor out of fruits and vegetables. Vegetarian cooking? Yes. A consolation prize for those who don’t eat meat? Hardly—this book proves that Mallmann’s expertise extends way beyond the realm of steak.
The chance to feast on a meal prepared by Mallmann is rare—unless you happen to be Gwenyth Paltrow, who hired him to cater her wedding’s rehearsal dinner; or you’ve got a spare few thousand dollars to book a week on his private island on Patagonia. But despite his in-demand status, Mallmann is a refreshingly approachable cook. "Green Fire" is full of actually-doable recipes and “a-ha!” moments that quietly boost home cooks’ confidence.
And, as we learned, if you ask him to cook a casual meal of Eggplant Milanese, he just may do it. After dining, we chatted with Mallmann about his shift toward the greener side, and even snuck in a few lightning round questions. If you’re not hungry yet, read on, and get ready to fire up the grill.
You cooked us Eggplant Milanese. What significance does that dish have for you as a chef and a diner—beyond being delicious?
I think that this dish, besides being delicious, has a very nice texture. You find yourself with a crunchy crust outside, and on the inside you have a sort of souffléd, very soft smoked eggplant. You can eat it with yogurt or with soft cheese or aioli. That’s the beauty of cooking, to subtly change recipes with your thoughts and desires.
How has Argentinian cuisine changed since you began cooking professionally—and what are the constants that will likely never change?
Young chefs have realized that the true value of our cooking—our pots, our pans, our fires—is that we have an idiosyncrasy of food that goes very far back. I’m talking about pit cooking, which has been going on for 11 thousand years. Then we have the influence from the natives of the north of the country: the Incas, and all the people from the Amazon, Brazil, and Paraguay. From the 1800s on and even a little bit before, we have the arrival of the Europeans: the Spanish, Italian, French, and English. They came with the tastes of their youth and adapted those techniques into Argentinian food. If you mix that all together, we have a beautiful cultural scene to be proud of and inspired by, and that's the most important thing in Argentinian cooking.
How has your experience writing cookbooks changed your outlook as a professional chef?
I've been doing cooking books for a long time, I think I have eight or nine in total including the South American ones. Doing a cookbook is a reflection of your soul—it's like stopping to look over your shoulder into the past and seeing every step you've taken since you started. It's very inspiring. A cooking book is the reflection of your thoughts in a moment of your life, when you were dreaming of something. When you grow older and revisit that, you realize who you were and how you've changed. And I celebrate change, because without it, we become like a rock.
Since shifting your focus to produce over animal protein, what has been the most surprising vegetable or fruit you “fell in love with"?
Well, I've been in love with potatoes for many decades. They came from the Andes to Europe, and I think they are the most surprising, simple, and elegant vegetable you can eat. They change according to the humors, will, and desires of human thought. You can have mashed potatoes, you can have a soup of potatoes, you can have a potato that is super crispy outside and very moist inside, you can make thinly sliced crispy potatoes, you can fry them until they crunch in your mouth like you were eating a nut. So, I find potatoes to be one of my great friends.
What’s the biggest mistake novice cooks make when grilling?
Novices and cooking and mistakes: I think they are related to patience. Or rather, the lack of patience. You don't want to be flipping and flopping your food on the grill or on the plancha. You have to respect how it cooks slowly—that first contact, and you have to stay with it. Patience is the most important thing.
And then, not knowing fire. In order to cook with fires, you have to start a fire and look at it burn down and observe what happens around it. Observe the ashes and the coals and the flame. That will give you insight into what sort of technique you want to use. But I think the most important thing in cooking is patience.
What’s your favorite city for eating?
Wherever I am in love. Wherever I have a partner whom I love and who I want to court; to flirt with. I think that is the beauty of food. It's that you sit down with someone you admire, and enjoy life. It's not a particular city, it's anywhere in the world where I'm in love.
Describe your ideal cup of coffee (or tea).
For a cup of tea I chose verbena from the mountains, from high altitudes, from Cachi [Argentina]. That's a delicious tea that holds a citrus taste because of the altitudes. And I love drip coffee in the mornings. I drink coffee all morning and maybe an espresso after lunch.
Aged or soft cheese?
That's sort of a silly question. Aged cheeses are for certain things, soft for others. My inspiration comes from what the day is like. Is it sunny? Is it summer? Am I eating under a tree? Am I sitting at a beautiful table in a palace? What sort of cutlery do I have? What sort of plates and wine and food? Love, inspiration, and romance all tie together, so it is difficult to put boundaries on preferences.
Hardy cooking greens or tender salad greens?
Well, both! We need a tender salad and we need a delicious rustic kale cooked slowly in a pan with a little butter and garlic; maybe a hint of honey. And just lettuce with the best vinegar in the world, salt, and pepper. I love everything.
The best cooking scent in the world is…
Besides wood smoke outside, I love the scent of something roasting in the oven. A chicken, maybe a fish, a piece of meat… even a cake. I love how ovens scent the whole house.