Francis Mallmann is the king of outdoor cooking. But he still has work to do.


You spend a lot of time on La Isla gazing at your surroundings: a 360-degree panorama of water surrounded by thick forests topped by jagged peaks and wide ridges with occasional creeping glacial drift. The lake, living up to its name, looks like hammered silver, a shiny surface sometimes marked by a slight ripple. There are welcoming woods everywhere you look, but few actual trails. “You chart your own path,” Mallmann told me, what seemed like a life lesson hidden in pragmatic hiking advice. Geographically, the place is a bit confusing; you are in Argentina, but on a morning walk you might cross the border into Chile.

On the first afternoon Mallmann arrived, surprisingly energetic after flying in from his restaurant in France, we stood in his immaculate, wood-paneled room above the La Isla boathouse, examining a row of volumes – from John Muir to Marguerite Duras. the lover in the original French. He wore red glasses, white sneakers from the British brand tony Church’s, a Barbour jacket and a casual pink cap emblazoned with the word esperanza, or “hope”, which he had embroidered on the top. Mallmann, who loves to sew, once asked dinner guests to write a single word on a sheet of paper; “esperanza” was Francis Ford Coppola’s contribution.

Soon he was standing before a small griddle, one of the countless wrought-iron cooking contraptions strewn across the island, brushing clarified butter, a Mallmann necessity, over an assortment of thinly sliced ​​potatoes, overlapping slightly like a tile pattern. This was paired with grilled steak and, for dessert, ‘crepes’ – pancakes, really, drizzled over the same griddle and topped with Ilolay, a store-bought dulce de leche that is a Mallmann favorite. There were no heated river stones here, nothing hanging over the fire from its famous wire dome, or any of Mallmann’s more adventurous cooking methods. It was relatively simple food that you cook for friends, and it was delicious.

The question that Mallmann often hears from journalists – “Why the fire?” – sends his thoughts back to his childhood, in the Patagonian mountain town of San Carlos de Bariloche. “We lived in a house ruled by fire,” he told me. “It was innate to our upbringing.” There were fires in the kitchen, in the fireplaces, to heat the bath. He and his brothers were rushing to chop wood before the winter snows set in and the timber trucks stopped coming.

The exterior was equally important. “We were literally living outdoors,” he says, skiing, hiking and fishing. There were “mountain priests,” men like Otto Weisskopf, an “almost indestructible” mountaineer who took part in the first winter expedition to the Patagonian ice fields and took Mallmann and his friends on strenuous treks. Mallmann also attended meetings as his father, a renowned physicist, worked with colleagues on models of the future of the world. He dropped out of school at age 13, spending a lot of time at a local cinema that showed art films. “Everything I know,” he says, “I learned from watching movies.”

Mallmann first came to La Isla in the 1980s on a camping trip with friends. He was so taken with it that he decided to build a modest cabin there with his brother. A guestbook, started in 1990, shows early names like Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard. “The fish are too small for him here,” jokes Mallmann.

There was no outside communication with the island until Mallmann acquired a satellite phone in 2004. It resisted the internet for a long time but finally gave in during the pandemic. “So we have the internet now,” he jokes, “and look at me, here on my phone.” (Mallmann is an inveterate, if somewhat repentant, Instagrammer with nearly a million followers.) In another sign of changing times — or at least the demands of his guests — he tested a service from seaplane to ease the rigors of reaching the island.

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