The only way to arrive in Garzón, a tiny town in southern Uruguay, is by driving through the countryside’s beautiful sprawling grasslands, where you might pause for passing capybara (South American rodents that look like giant guinea pigs) or a gaucho on horseback rounding up cattle. And there perhaps could be no better introduction to the 200-person village, where you’ll be greeted by multiple dancing fires in the dirt road outside Francis Mallmann’s hotel and restaurant Garzón.
If you’re lucky, Mallmann himself will be there. The celebrity chef has restaurants in Miami, Buenos Aires, Mendoza, outside Santiago and near Aix-en-Provence, but when he’s not traveling, he splits his time between Garzón and his own private island in Argentine Patagonia.
Mallmann’s mom was Uruguayan and his dad was Argentine, so he spent a good amount of his childhood in Uruguay. In 1976, he opened his first restaurant, Nahuel Malal, in Bariloche, a quaint town in northern Patagonia.
“Since those very early days, I used to come to Garzón a lot to do paperwork and permits and so on, and that’s how I met the town,” Mallmann recalls. “I was very young and I thought it was a horrible little town, but over the years I realized it had a lot of charm, and it was in 1999 that I decided to buy this corner and do a hotel and a restaurant.”
A contrast to his grandiose Los Fuegos restaurant in Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star Faena Hotel Miami Beach, Garzón welcomes you with an atmosphere that is rustic, yet still refined. At the entrance, massive clay planters spill over with blossoms and fern-lined shelves frame the doorway. Inside, a burnished antique stove serves as a centerpiece for the lamp-lit dining room with dark wood tables, forest-green furniture accents and white walls hung with a collection of artwork fit for a gallery.
Long before open-fire cooking started trending at restaurants worldwide, Mallmann was a tour de force in South America, known for building massive dome-shaped custom grills to roast proteins and vegetables over flames. His acclaim quickly spread to the rest of the globe in 2015 when he was featured in the first season of Netflix’s Chef’s Table, and he continues to make headlines cooking for Gwyneth Paltrow’s wedding rehearsal dinner and Argentine fashion consultant and designer Sofia Sanchez de Betak’s nuptials.
“Fire is related to my childhood in Patagonia, where I was raised in a house that was ruled by fire: the cooking, the hot water, the chimneys,” Mallmann says. “I started cooking with fire such a long time ago, but I’m still learning so much, every day. It’s so beautiful.”
Uruguay honors the same asado (grilling) traditions of Argentina and Chile, born from the culinary culture of gauchos, the cowboys who traverse South America rounding up cattle, cooking meat on handmade grills and preparing vegetables in the smoldering ashes.
“The culture of the gaucho is quite alike from the south of Brazil to Uruguay to Argentina, and that’s where the language of fire comes from,” Mallmann says. “Basically I didn’t invent anything — I just embraced things that are related to our culture and to the natives of this part of the world.”
Uruguay’s ranching culture is still alive and well; cows outnumber people four to one, and the country produces some of the continent’s highest-quality grass-fed beef. Most crops don’t prefer its dry, rocky granitic soil, but grapes like tannat, Uruguay’s most widely grown variety, thrive in the well-draining terrain.
While Argentina has been extensively celebrated for its bold malbec and Chile is becoming increasingly popular for its elegant expressions of pinot noir, Uruguayan wine — much like its beef — remains largely unknown throughout the world. There are more than 200 wineries in Uruguay spread on the same parallel as Maipo and Mendoza, and only a handful of them export. While many of the bottles made in the region have historically been table wine, the focus is shifting to higher-quality production thanks to Bodega Garzón, which started to put Uruguayan wine on the map when it began producing its own in 2012.
“Uruguayan wine has improved so much in the last 10 years. I think that it’s a path that’s just starting,” says Mallmann, who starred in the first episode of Amazon docuseries It Starts with Wine. “What Bodega Garzón is doing is incredible, and the vineyards are still quite young, so I think there’s a lot of hope for more and more incredible wines.”
Mallmann assumed the role of culinary director at the acclaimed winery in 2017.
“I started [Garzón] more or less the same time [Alejandro] Bulgheroni started planting olives and vineyards,” Mallmann says. “We realized over time that we had many things in common and we could work together and share the romance of wine and food.”
At the state-of-the-art, LEED-certified winery (named Wine Enthusiast’s New World Winery of the Year in 2018), Mallmann oversees the spacious kitchen, where one of his massive dome grills overlooks 600 acres of vineyards. The menu features Uruguayan beef with dishes like grilled rib-eye with Mallmann’s signature domino potatoes, but it also highlights the region’s incredible seafood. The catch of the day is served with roasted butter beans and dashi broth.
And though Mallmann is known for his proteins, his vegetable offerings shouldn’t be missed. Both the herbed sweet potato and grapefruit salad as well as the crispy rice with broccoli, green beans and chermoula were two of the most memorable dishes on the menu.
Beyond tannat, Bodega Garzón produces a number of other world-class wines. (Of its 544 acres, only 153 contain tannat.) Most notably, a mineral-rich albariño, a plush cabernet franc reserva and the Balasto, the winery’s iconic red blend named for the broken-down granite responsible for giving its wines texture and complexity. Though Mallmann prefers the petit verdot himself, don’t expect him to offer any pairing suggestions for his menu.
“I really dislike and don’t believe in pairing,” he says. “I think pairings are for toddlers. I understand them; obviously a steak with a great cab — why not? But I enjoy more challenging things, you know. I like contrasts. I like enemies in my mouth.”
We should expect no less from a chef who wishes he could have cooked for Winston Churchill, whom he admires for his wit and rebellion.
“I love the idea that he had a bath while talking to his secretary,” Mallmann says. “I love disobedience. Without [it], there is no growth. You can embrace many other things, but I think we grow through questioning and saying no.”
That philosophy explains why this world-renowned barbecue champion just finished a vegan book that is set to be released in early 2121.
“I think that in 30 years, we won’t be eating any more meat or fish,” he says. “I really believe that we have to change our habits…or at least change the system, because what we are doing to the seas is terrible.”
Mallmann says sustainability has always been on his mind. One of the reasons he began using a dome for events was because it allowed him to use one ring of fire (and much less wood) rather than seven separate ones. His yet-to-be-named book will feature recipes using only plants and his trademark flame-based techniques. The 64-year-old chef credits his social media followers for opening his eyes to this next culinary frontier.
“I have many young followers on Instagram — very young, age 17 to 24 — who were saying how beautiful they thought my work was, but that they don’t eat it because they are vegans,” he says. “I thought I owe something to all these young people…I think the first step is just being involved and relating to what’s happening in the world. Since I have a very big voice, I feel like it’s time for me to do something about that, and this vegan book is the first thing.”