The main house on Francis Mallmann's La Isla private retreat in Argentina

Celebrity Chef Francis Mallmann Has a Private Island in Patagonia — and You Can Stay There

On a private island in Patagonia's stunning Lago La Plata, chef Francis Mallmann serves the unexpected: vegetarian cuisine

It took almost three days to reach La Isla, celebrity chef Francis Mallmann's private island at the far-flung western edge of Patagonia. The journey required two flights to get from New York to southern Argentina's port city of Comodoro Rivadavia, followed by a six-hour drive along empty dirt roads and, finally, a boat ride across Lago La Plata, on which I weathered the freezing temperatures in a full-body waterproof suit. By the time the speedboat pulled up to the dock of the 15-acre island, I was delirious with exhaustion, my face and toes numb from the cold. But 10 minutes later, after being escorted to my cabin — a cocoon of warmth filled with cozy furniture — my discomfort melted away.

The contrasts of that first day in Mallmann's secret hideaway put me in a state of relief so intense it bordered on rapture. For the next several days, that bliss never wavered — not even when it sunk in that, on this trip, Argentina's grill-obsessed chef would not be serving a single morsel of meat. For the past four years, the man best known for his succulent steaks and seared salmon fillets has been working on what is perhaps his most radical project to date: a vegetarian cookbook.

"I think that, in the next twenty years or so, no one will be eating meat or fish," Mallmann told me. The declaration made me pause mid bite, as I gripped a tower of avocado, tomatoes, and lettuce sandwiched between two crispy potato Rösti in disbelief. For a Brooklyn chef to make such a decree is one thing, but for a native of a country whose national identity is so intrinsically tied to the consumption and export of red meat? That could start a small riot.

A view of the kitchen and chef Francis Mallmann preparing vegetables at his retreat in Argentina
From left: inside the alfresco kitchen at La Isla; Mallmann prepares vegetables. | Credit: Javier Pierini

Mallmann went on to explain that his daughters, his Instagram followers, and the young prodigies in his restaurant kitchens have all helped him to recognize the environmental impact of meat. "I started to receive hundreds of messages on Instagram saying, very respectfully, 'We love your work, and by the way, we are vegan. Can you make more recipes for us?'" he explained. "For them, I decided to write a cookbook."

Once he got started, his entire outlook began to shift. "It's like you have a rose in a vase and it's getting old, and one of the petals falls, and you touch it and suddenly they all fall. For me, it was like that: my rose collapsed in my fingers, and my point of view has been changing ever since."

Such a revelation might have spelled career catastrophe for some, but Mallmann has always thrived in the face of change. As a child of the 1960s countercultural movement, choosing the less conventional path is something that comes naturally for him. "I'm quite good at disobeying," he said with a laugh, "but it hasn't been easy."

Two photos showing a vegetable dish and blue and white tableware on display at chef Francis Mallmann's retreat in Argentina
From left: Vegetables cooked in hot ashes; French tableware lines the shelves in the indoor kitchen. | Credit: Javier Pierini

Like many chefs, Mallmann started his career chasing Michelin stars in French kitchens. But by the age of 40, he had abandoned fussy fine dining for cooking outdoors over an open flame. While everyone else in the culinary world was experimenting with molecular gastronomy and other gourmet trends of the day, he was perfecting the art of grilling and writing his first cookbook, "Seven Fires."

In 2003, when he opened Garzón, his countryside restaurant and hotel in the then-little-known Uruguayan village of the same name, everyone thought he was crazy. But that risky move proved to be visionary. His laid-back retreat, which focused on simply cooked local ingredients, became so popular — luring celebrities, food critics, and hungry travelers from around the world — that it single-handedly put Garzón on the tourist map.

With the launch of his cookbook "Green Fire" next month, Mallmann might not exactly be at the forefront this time around, but his embrace of vegetarian cooking is no less a statement, especially to his meat-loving fans. The book is packed with beautiful images: Mallmann tying vegetables onto a dome frame set above leaping flames; the chef and his team eating alfresco next to a fire; and mouthwatering stills of each of his 75 recipes, including a beet, lentil, and avocado salad with crunchy rice and artichokes a la plancha with lemon confit and toasted almonds. The book is also infused with Mallmann's endearing — and often theatrical — musings about what he calls a celebration of "the magic that happens when vegetables and fruits are transformed by flames, coals, and smoke."

Scenes from Francis Mallmann's plant-based retreat in Argentina, including a chef at work grilling vegetables, and a sliced-vegetable dish
From left: Vegetables dangle above flames and cook on the grill; a dish of slow-roasted sliced vegetables. | Credit: Javier Pierini

Mallmann's shift to vegetarian cooking coincided with another new passion: developing La Isla. The chef discovered the island while traveling in 1986 and, over the course of nearly two decades, slowly built a simple log cabin at the edge of a small cove. The cabin was famously featured in a 2015 episode of the Netflix series Chef's Table, in which Mallmann catches a fish, wraps it in a thick layer of clay, and cooks it rescoldo-style, in hot ashes.

About seven years ago, Mallmann began constructing three additional cabins on the other side of the island, a 10-minute stroll from his main house. This time, he went for a more modern design, with black corrugated-metal façades and large windows that frame vistas of the lake and the surrounding ancient forest. He also added a main structure, which has a kitchen, a dining room, and a living room, and filled all the new spaces with his favorite books — among them Gabrielle Hamilton's "Prune," "The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou," and Rabbi Nilton Bonder's "Our Immoral Soul: A Manifesto of Spiritual Disobedience." Argentine painter Sergio Roggerone's watercolors line the walls. The custom black metal lamps and the extra-soft linens in the bedrooms were chosen by Mallmann himself.

Chef Francis Mallmann’s private island on Lago La Plata, in Argentinean Patagonia
Chef Francis Mallmann's private island on Lago La Plata, in Argentinean Patagonia. | Credit: Javier Pierini

When La Isla first opened in 2017, bookings were capped at a handful per year and came mainly through Mallman's personal connections and word-of-mouth referrals. This year, he has begun welcoming two exclusive-use reservations each month, hosting no more than a dozen guests at a time for weeklong stays that might more accurately be described as gastronomic nature retreats.

Despite the expense — a six-night buyout is $66,000 for six people — Mallmann has made little effort to glam up the experience beyond the creature comforts of the accommodations, preferring instead to maintain the sense of adventure I felt on my long journey to the island. "A lot of people won't come because I didn't build a helipad," he told me. "But I asked around and environmentalists told me that the birds and animals will absolutely hate the noise, so I made the decision not to allow it. One of the true luxuries of La Isla is the silence." Solar panels have recently been installed so there isn't even the sound of a generator, and interruptions from the outside world are virtually impossible since Mallmann refused to bring in satellite dishes or landlines.

Of course, the greatest distraction at La Isla is the food — not only eating it but also watching it being made. Lunch might take six to eight hours to prepare, and while Mallmann still offers his guests sustainably sourced fish and meat, the stars of most meals are indisputably the plants. Late one morning I sat at a wooden table on a bench covered with a worn floral tapestry and watched three young chefs carefully hook pineapples and cabbages onto metal wires and hang them over the fire. Eventually the produce became creamy, soft, and smoky. Beets were baked in coals and then smashed on a massive griddle and drowned in olive oil and vinegar. I ate them in a delicious salad with goat cheese and slivers of toasted almonds. One chef sliced tomatoes and eggplants almost as thin as paper, stacked them together, then cooked them for hours, periodically lashing them with olive oil and sea salt. They were served with a flurry of lemon zest in what is the most refined take on ratatouille I've ever had. I made a note to bookmark this recipe in my copy of "Green Fire."

A guest room at a retreat in Argentina
One of three new guest cabins at La Isla. | Credit: Javier Pierini

Guests often have the luxury of watching Mallmann himself prepare their meals; he teaches them about his techniques as he works his magic on the grill. On the first day of most group stays, he likes to sit with his guests around the fire for its entire life cycle, from first spark to ash. "It's an age-old ritual, and there's something deeply meditative about staring into the flames," he explained. "The fascination with sitting around and cooking with fire has to do with our collective human memory of ancient communal traditions. It slows you down."

Those fireside chats aren't just a chance to watch a master at work; they're also an opportunity for Mallmann to share his new mission. "If I get smart CEOs from Silicon Valley, they can sway their peers and make an impact," he told me.

In the next few years, Mallmann will magnify his own impact by opening "one or two" vegetarian restaurants in Europe. At 66 years old, he is only at the beginning of this next phase — just another pivot in a career filled with twists and turns. "There is a change coming in my life, and I still don't know what it is," he said. "I'm not saying that I'm going to stop serving steak, but I think that day may come. I'm thinking — really thinking. We have to change."

Chefs preparing a meal in the waterside open-air kitchen at a Francis Mallmann property in Argentina
Chefs prepare a meal in the open-air cookhouse. | Credit: Javier Pierini

Bookings for La Isla can be made through satopiatravel.com. In addition to full-property buyouts, a limited number of single cabins are also made available for $14,200 per person, all-inclusive, for seven nights.

A version of this story first appeared in the April 2022 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline Seeds of Change.