In the course of two-decades-plus writing guidebooks and other travel pieces on southernmost South America, I’ve only rarely stayed at elite hotels – they’re expensive and freebies are far less common than many people think they are – but I have managed to eat at some of the region’s best restaurants. It’s one thing to shell out US$500 for a room and something else entirely to splurge on a meal (especially at times when devaluation makes eating cheap even when top accommodations maintain their prices at international levels). For me, personally, a hotel is rarely more than a place to sleep, but a fine dinner feels like a reward for a hard day’s work.
That’s why, the other night, I streamed the new Netflix series Chef’s Table with interest, because one episode covers Argentina’s Francis Mallmann, who’s become something of a franchise with restaurants in Mendoza, Buenos Aires, and Uruguay, but with strong connections to Patagonia. As one might expect from an Argentine, Mallman specializes in cooking over an open fire.
My only meal at a Mallman restaurant came at 1884, at Mendoza’s Escorihuela winery (pictured above), where I summarized the offerings as “gourmet versions of regional dishes such as kid goat from Malargüe , and a diversity of tapas-style appetizers.” A few years ago, after being commissioned to write a National Geographic Traveler piece on Buenos Aires, I missed an opportunity to dine at his Patagonia Sur (pictured below) because it was closed on the only night my invited guest and I had mutually available.
The Netflix program focuses on Mallmann’s time at Bahía Arenal, a remote lakeside lodge in a part of Argentina’s Chubut province that I’ve never visited (I’ve been fairly close to it on the Chilean side of the border, but there’s no access from there). Throughout the show, Mallmann displays his devotion to fire – sometimes Big Fire – as a cooking technique. He also displays a mammoth ego but, I suppose, that’s not unusual among celebrity chefs with his pedigree.
Mallmann implies, strongly, that his preference for cooking over open fires was something of a reaction against the European training he eagerly sought when he was younger. There’s still something of a disconnect, though, between the self-conscious rusticism of a wealthy restaurateur who prefers grilled food, and the practices of poorer people for whom there is no alternative to firewood – even when the smoke within their homes, essential for heating and cooking, is a health issue.