How To Cook With Fire
That the Argentine chef Mr Francis Mallmann has never used a microwave will come as no surprise to people who saw his bravura performance on Netflix’s Chef’s Table. Sure, the 61-year-old may be the most famous cook in the southern hemisphere and, yes, he spent a fair chunk of the late 20th century working in Parisian restaurants, but Mr Mallmann is a dyed-in-the-wool eccentric with a taste for the romantic. You are as likely to find him operating a Zanussi as you are to find a whale operating a power shower. He prefers earthier means of cooking. He likes the crackle of wood and open flames, as any of his 352,000 Instagram followers (including avowed fan Mr David Beckham) can attest. He now has restaurants in Uruguay, Argentina, the US and, as of last month, France, where he opened Château La Coste in Aix-en-Provence, all of which use open flames to cook.
You don’t need to cross the Channel (or the Atlantic) to try his traditional Patagonian fire cooking, however. On 29 July, Mr Mallmann and his fire pits will come to The Grange country house in Northington, Hampshire. The chef has teamed up with Krug champagne to produce Krug Festival – Into The Wild. There will be Krug, there will be music and there will be lots of ribeye with chimichurri.
On the eve of the festival, Mr Mallman reveals his five tips for the perfect flame-grilled steak.
Choose the right meat
“To make good food, you first need good produce. To do that, you need some information about the animal and you also need to use your eyes. Then you need to get a good cut. I prefer a ribeye. The best type comes from bigger animals. If you ask for steak from a one-tonne cow, it will have better marbling in the meat. Those lines of fat through the meat mean a better flavour. Next thing to find out is if the meat has been aged. And I don’t mean dry aged. I prefer meat that has been hung up in a cold room for 21 days in its whole form. You get a better flavour if the animal isn’t broken up until it has been hanging for that amount of time.”
Get the right wood
“It is important to get really good-quality wood. It must be dry and it must also be a type that produces very hard charcoal. The wood will vary depending on where you are in the world – in Argentina, quebracho or algarrobo; in the US, mesquite; in Europe, certain oaks work. The reason why this is so important is because cooking over flames requires a relatively stable heat for a relatively long time. Put simply, you need stuff that will give you red embers that last long enough to cook properly for a long time. On flames, you also need a steady heat. This is incredibly important or your meat won’t cook evenly.”
Know your timings
“I never use a meat thermometer. I know young chefs do and I understand why, but, to me, I think it is better to go with instinct and eyes. Timing is always very important in cooking, but it is all the more important when you are cooking on flames. You can’t simply put the meat on the flames for an hour and just pop back a couple of times to check it. You need to have an idea of the heat and how long it is going to be before your meat is overcooked. It is essential to know when to withdraw the meat from the fire. You want to get that nice crust on the meat, so you want the wood hot, and you don’t want to mess with it, or you will damage the crust. The question is, how do you know when to do that? By experience. There is no way to know until you try it yourself. I could write a book about this subject, but it wouldn’t be as useful as figuring it out yourself.”
Concentration is key
“You have to be constantly observing when you are cooking with fire. You have to have the concentration and, of course, you need patience. Patience is a very potent thing. What I do involves fires that burn for 16 to 18 hours. We start at maybe 1.00am the night before we will serve our food. My chefs will be constantly moving around looking at the flames. Though I allow myself a comfortable chair and lots of coffee, I will still be staring at the fire, trying to read what is happening with the wind. Is it moving the fire around? Is it making it hotter? You are looking at the potential of the embers. You are looking at how it is sizzling. Is the meat contracting because of too much heat? One surefire sign that your meat is medium is when the side furthest from the flames seems to bleed. To me, if it is bleeding, then it is a sign that it has been overcooked.”
You need good company
“Cooking this way can take a long time, so it’s important to have someone with you when you are doing it. Who wants to spend hours cooking alone? Get a glass of wine and someone to talk to. I am absolutely convinced that if you have good company and are in good spirits, the food will end up more delicious. This is a gaucho Argentine cowboy custom, to some extent. I say to some extent because they can also be very silent men. If you join four of them for lunch, they will tell some jokes or play guitar for a while, but then they can become very silent. They enjoy silence and are used to it, but that doesn’t mean you have to.”
Illustrations by Mr Nick Hardcastle