How to Make the Perfect Cup of Italian Coffee
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During a stay at his Patagonian hideaway, the iconic chef shares his singular philosophies on life and love.
FRANCIS MALLMANN’S CABIN is warm in temperature and tone. Lamps cast a cognac light on the stone walls, yellow drapes hang from the windows, and red-spined books fill the shelves. Mallmann’s notebook lies open on my lap. Inside — a witch. “La Bruja,” the ink sketch is titled. The figure, in boots, is voluptuous. “Do you believe in magic?” I ask. “Of course,” he says from the armchair beside me. Blue eyes, silver hair, red glasses, pink hat, gold necklace. “I love witches. Every witch. I find them fascinating. I think they’re very lonely people, witches.”
I continue to flip through: Joan Didion’s face in charcoal. Photos of his daughters. More witches. We’re alone in Patagonia. And yet, I find that in the private company of Francis Mallmann — chef, fire lord, Renaissance man — there’s the impression of being in constant spiritual communion with women. From past lovers to old friends, daughters to cultural figures, women color his entire being. Their energies fill his sketchbook, the art on his walls, his stories, and his philosophies, shrouding him so thick I can almost smell their perfumes.
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But how did I get here? I woke up in Buenos Aires at 5 a.m. and caught a plane to Comodoro Rivadavia, a seaside inlet in the Chubut Province. Upon landing, I met a driver who took me on a six-hour journey through vast arid flatlands that rose to snowcapped mountains on the horizon. Giant oil rigs became packs of guanacos, horses, cows, and rhea birds. The only human we passed was a gaucho, stately atop his horse in a poncho and boina hat. I was dropped at a lakeshore, where I boarded a small boat for the 45-minute ride across Lago La Plata’s choppy waves to Mallmann’s cabin on a private island simply referred to as La Isla.
Mallmann found this island years ago on a camping trip. A 2015 episode of “Chef’s Table” mythologized the life he created in this wild place, raising the already renowned Argentine chef to new levels of fame. Today, the 67-year-old is one of the culinary world’s most prominent evangelists of live-fire cooking, a technique used throughout his 11 restaurants across Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, the U.S., and France. He has homes across many of these countries. But nothing feeds his soul quite like Patagonia.
Through Mallmann’s massive windows, the sun lowers behind the mountains, tinting the sky saffron. “I was born an old man and I’ve been getting younger each year. I’ve always been very disobedient. As you grow, I think that you learn to play more and more,” Mallmann muses. “Aging is a very beautiful thing.” He once saw a woman at the opera, older and of generous proportions, not traditionally attractive to him. But she walked with radiant confidence. “That presence,” Mallmann whispers, eyes on the sunset, “was true beauty.”
I have plans to interview a disciple of his when I return to New York City: Ignacio Mattos, the Uruguayan chef behind Estela, Altro Paradiso, Lodi, and Corner Bar. Mallmann is very proud of Mattos. “He has his own vision,” he smiles fondly, adding with a chuckle, “I see none of myself in his restaurants.” But the quirkiest thing about him and Mattos? “We share a lover.” Mattos used to date, and live with, Mallmann’s current wife while they both worked for him. Then Mallmann fell in love with her. She lives in Mendoza and sees Mallmann 10 days a month. This is enough for them both.
I ask if he’s ever heard the term “limerence.” “Limerence … limerence ….” He turns the word over in his mouth, savoring it. “What a beautiful word.” He jumps out of his chair and lurches for the notebook. “How do you spell it? And what does it mean?” He opens to a fresh page, pen poised. I try to capture its meaning as he annotates — that early obsession when you first fall for someone. “Like lovesick,” I explain. He writes very carefully, lost in the lyricism. I have a feeling this happens often.
“I gave myself permission to love yellow a few years ago,” Mallmann shares. To him, yellow is unabashed joy. “It’s also the color of madness,” I add. He pulls out a bright yellow rug, patterned in florals, that he is repairing. It’s 150 years old, from the Andes. Mallmann sews every day. One patch takes five hours. There are many patches. His favorite color used to be pink — a proud symbol of his femininity. “I have a very feminine side to me, a side that helps me connect to my feminine intuition,” he says.
“What are your dreams?” he asks me. “To never feel alone,” I reply. Mallmann dropped out of school and left home at 13. So he’s been alone for quite some time. His favorite time of day is the solitude before dawn. He sews. He paints. He used to write — namely short stories for the Argentine newspaper La Nación, but he stopped during the pandemic. I ask if he’d ever write in English, but Mallmann thinks in Spanish (he speaks Spanish, English, French, and Portuguese — in that order of strength). The Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges only wrote two poems in English out of over 400, he tells me. “May I read one to you?” His voice fills the room, ending on a stirring last stanza: “I can give you my loneliness, my darkness, the hunger of my heart; I am trying to bribe you with uncertainty, with danger, with defeat.”
Mallmann pulls a jug of Armagnac down from the shelf. He takes out a single glass with delicate etchings. “We’ll share this,” he states, pouring. I ask him about leaving home so young, taking a sip and sliding it back across the table. He was the same height he is now (over 6 feet to my eye), so he passed as an adult. He moved to an apartment on top of a nightclub and deejayed for cash. In the mid-’70s, he moved to California, working odd jobs to make ends meet — as a termite exterminator and another curious role he describes as “hanging plants from cliffs.”
I ask about the military dictatorship and the Dirty War era of Argentine history in which tens of thousands of citizens with suspected leftist sympathies were rounded up and killed. “It was difficult times,” he says. “Being young was very dangerous because that’s what they wanted, young people who had thoughts. They would just take you for no reason and kill you. I lost my friends like that.” But Mallmann says there’s been a silver lining. “Since our country has been a mess always, I think we are very romantic because we have to start anew so many times. When you’re in a war constantly — with life, with work, with money — it’s very inspiring.”
His current dream is to direct a film. “I would really like to start writing again. It’s so cleansing.” He was writing a script, a love story, but couldn’t figure out how to end it. The story is about a man who comes from the Chilean side of Patagonia and a woman from the Argentine side. They meet in the mountains and begin an affair. They meet again and again without a plan. They never plan. This lack of a plan, I sense, is both integral to the story and a real pickle to conclude.
I ask what he’s afraid of. He struggles to answer. “I’m not so brave; we all have our weaknesses. But I’m not afraid of the night, or loneliness. I’m not afraid of death. I don’t want to die, but life has prepared me to die.” Mallmann realized he might die before his two youngest daughters (4 and 10) reached adulthood. So he painted a watercolor for each of them and hid a letter in the back — to open when they’re 21. They’re hanging in their rooms right now.
I start bringing over some of the glasses we’ve accumulated to rinse in the sink. Mallmann implores that I stop. “I love all the mess! In the morning when I wake up, I like to read what happened. I love to see the glasses and the dirty everything. Please place that back where it was. I’ll be very happy in the morning remembering the details of the night. Look at this,” he says, gesturing lovingly at our remains on the coffee table, “your glass of wine, our little Armagnac. There’s no mess. It’s beauty.”
Before I head to sleep, I ask about his necklace. He pulls the chain out to reveal a medallion. “I took a stamp of a tree I love, the bark of a tree in Uruguay that I have at home, very old. I did it in metal, and I gave one to each of my children [Mallmann has seven and would like more] and one to all of the mothers, the four mothers. So we all carry the same.”
Lying in bed that night, it’s so dark I cannot see my hand in front of my face. I fall asleep to the howling of the dogs outside, barking at the deer across the lake.
In the morning, I realize Mallmann has misled me. “Let’s take a walk,” he said. This “walk” turns out to be a boat ride to a three-hour hike across Patagonia’s stunningly harrowing terrain. I’m panting along behind him, somewhere between euphoric and light-headed. He hikes with astounding speed. We pass through varied terrain: across spongy orange moss, over downed logs we place across small streams and muddy ditches to cross, and under llao llao — a kind of edible orange fungus that grows on trees. We stop at a river. Thinking this was going to be a light woodland amble, I brought no water. I ask if he has any. Yes, he says gleefully and gestures to the river.
We get back on the boat and head for lunch: fire-roasted beets and a crucified lamb that’s been cooking for nearly a day over the fire, thrashed with aromatic brine. The beast’s body is splayed open, the internal cavity toward the flames so that the heat cooks the meat through its bones. The skin, crispy and salty, crackles like a potato chip. Smoke surrounds us as we eat, swirling ash dusting our coats like snow. We move to the patio outside the main house for dessert and to bask directly in that glorious sun. A wrapped crepe-like cake with fat dollops of dulce de leche and cream is followed by little glasses of amaretto, then mezcal. Mallmann opens a box of cigars and cigarillos. Feeling like one shouldn’t say no to smoking a cigar with Francis Mallmann, I try one, and it leaves a peaty smoke in my mouth.
He shares a philosophy he’d imparted to his daughters, puffing between thoughts. “Never give up your secret. Even if you don’t know what your secret is.” It’s imperative to remain a little unknown, he believes. “You need doubt to love.” I think back to a secret I shared a few weeks ago with my partner on our couch. I watched his eyes peel off to the side in a quiet state of horror.
Mallmann talks about one of his daughters, whose arrival was foretold by an astrologer. “She said to me, ‘In 1999, you will have a daughter, and she will be your mirror. She will show you who you really are. You will have a lot of trouble with her mother — but don’t you ever leave her.’ And I left her. Well, we parted. And the child turned out to be my favorite child. Her name is Allegra. I named her after the daughter of Lord Byron, the poet. Allegra means happiness.” He talked to the astrologer again a year ago. She remembered everything and gave him one last read on what his future will hold: “‘You’re going to be fat and an alcoholic.’” Mallmann elaborates on the ex-wife. “We are great friends. We love each other. I admire her … I’m very good at closing doors gently, not banging them.”
Dusk comes. Mallmann and I sit side by side, legs stretched out on the patio furniture. He draws a wool blanket over us for warmth. Over dinner, he explains how pearl-clutching residents in the Hamptons or Aspen often call the fire department on him during cooking events. But it’s no bother; he has amicable relationships with fire marshals around the world, sometimes sending them polite handwritten letters before his arrival.
We sip coffee together on my last morning. The sun has yet to rise, and a gray-blue fog hangs thick outside. Mallmann tells me he’d have his house in Buenos Aires opened for me, if I’d like, for lunch on my last day before I return to the States. Twenty-four hours later, I’m breathing in the rich amber scents of this town house in a neighborhood called La Boca, the birthplace of tango. The house is narrow and endlessly deep, with red velvet drapes and brown leather walls above glossy black wainscotting. It feels like the Moulin Rouge; I imagine Toulouse-Lautrec’s ghost sketching in the corner. A friend and I drink Champagne and dine on empanadas, fig salad with mint and goat cheese, gnocchi topped with cheddar and dehydrated tomatoes — as chewy and savory as salami.
We are the only guests in the house. Except for the women, of course, that feminine presence that lingers everywhere Mallmann goes. There’s a near life-size figure breastfeeding, a sculpture in frosted glass with sheer fabric hanging from her arms like wings, two harvest goddesses grilling pineapples and chicken over a fire — heads and torsos covered in fruit. In the bathroom: nude sketches signed by Gustav Klimt. Behind the curtain: a mysterious Belle Époque portrait of a woman in pearls and a white lace gown. She has alabaster skin, black hair, and a bouquet of fleshy peonies in hand. She looks coolly ahead, all-knowing, and utterly unknown.
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Sophie Mancini is an editor at Departures. Born and raised in New York City, she holds a degree in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University and has a background as a writer in brand and editorial.
Mark Hartman is a photographer and director based in New York City.
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