Embrace Your History: Lessons From Netflix's Chef's Table
One sure fire way to strengthen your identity as an artist or brand is to stay true to your roots and embrace your history. After all, there is nothing truly original, right? It’s up to us to study those who have come before us, learn from them, figure out what we gravitate towards the most, and use that knowledge to create something new - with our fingerprints on it. Something that hopefully, down the line, others will want to steal from.
In our opinion, no one on Chef’s Table exemplifies this better than Francis Mallmann, arguably the biggest food star in the Latin world. If you want to find him, you’ll have to embark on quite the adventure. First, fly to Buenos Aires, then drive to the edge of Argentina, take a boat and go an hour across the lake, and eventually you’ll find his remote island - La Isla in Lago La Plata, Patagonia. It’s one of the most secluded places on earth.
Whether he’s making coffee atop a wood burning stove, cooking and drinking wine on the lake (like, on a canoe, not a party barge), teaching ancient techniques to his apprentices/gypsy chefs, or smoking Patagonia Lambs Al Asador on wooden stakes over an open fire, you see a man comfortable with his roots. His synchronicity with the environment around him is electric. You can feel it as you watch him go about his day as if he were a part of nature himself - because he is.
Mallmann studied in France, like many other legendary chefs, because he wanted to "taste, touch and use" ingredients that he didn’t have access to. He took the French technique back to Argentina, but soon discovered that it was time to shed the pristine and delicate aspects of French cooking, or “manicured cooking” as he calls it. This was in part thanks to the head of Cartier, who, after dining in his "French" restaurant, took Mallmann aside and told him he didn’t enjoy the meal. In fact, he told Mallmann that he wasn’t cooking real French food.
“In time, I realized that he was right. I wasn’t doing the right thing. I was just trying to copy, exactly, everything that I had learned. I think that that happens in every craft in life. You know, you’re young, you have a master, you want to emulate him - do what he does. But at some point in life you have to turn around and say, ‘I have to find my own way. My own language.' ”
That language was fire.
“Our house was ruled by fire. The heating of the water and the heating system of the house was with fire, and that’s a bit what we have now, here on this beautiful island, is going back to those times of childhood…I’m a cook that uses cooking to send this message of a way of living. I’m always cooking in remote places, in the wild, with fires. So my message is, get out of your chair, your sofa, your office, and go out.”
He continues, “When you cook with fires, when you build a fire, it’s a bit like making love. It could be huge, strong, or it could go very slowly in ashes and little coals. And that’s the biggest beauty of fire - it goes from zero to ten in strength. And in between zero and ten, you have all these little peaks and different ways of cooking with it. And it’s very tender and very fragile.”
Mallmann has since taken ancient cooking techniques from the area and applied them to his modern cuisine. For example, one technique from Cordoba in Argentina involves wrapping a piece of meat or a fish in heavy clay and essentially throwing it in the fire. When the clay gets hot, the humidity of the fish will try to leave that space, but it can’t because it’s completely sealed in the clay. And, from the looks of it, you’re left with the most beautifully moist and flavorful fish imagineable.
Another cooking method he champions is one of the oldest on the planet, called curanto, or Patagonia pit cooking. “I realized that I had to go back, kneel down, pick up all those tools, memories, adventures and experiences from my childhood, and recreate my cooking life with all of that.”
Case in point - anthropologists have found curanto pits that are 12,000 years old. Instead of cloth, villagers used large leaves which covered the food and then buried it, which allowed them to go on their daily errands. There was no trace of smoke or anything; just a hidden treasure of food. They’d come back at night to open it, and have a warm, delicious meal waiting for them. This method leaves all the food incredibly moist and smokey, and it’s something that Mallmann continues today with his gypsy apprentices.
Another advantage of embracing and learning your history is that, like those who came before you, you’ll feel inspired to pass it along to the next generation. Perhaps this is why Mallmann has these apprentices, who either run his secluded lake cabin and restaurants or follow him around the globe. “With my team, I hand them the torch, and I say to them, 'It’s lit. Keep it lit. That's the only thing I want. I won’t be here every day to see that it’s lit but take care of it.'"
And hence, another lesson to all of us: aim for an identity so strong that others want to be around it, because it’s so magnetic and exciting. What could you do that might inspire others to apprentice with you? How strong and authentic would your message have to be?
Finally, Mallmann imparts some advice that every artist or business owner can relate to, and that we should all wholeheartedly embrace:
Thumbnail image from Splendid Table by Peter Buchanan Smith