Out-of-this-world food revives work-starved town

By Colin Barraclough
Globe Correspondent / October 24, 2010

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GARZÓN, Uruguay — This village, a half-hour drive inland from José Ignacio, was once a thriving waystation linking some of the country’s largest cattle ranches. Residents began to drift away when its mill closed in the 1960s. By the 1980s, the population had fallen to 170.

Today, Garzón is experiencing an improbable renewal as a gastronomic hub and second-home retreat for South America’s elite. Unemployment has plummeted and former residents are returning, while stores selling antiques and ceramics have opened on the tiny plaza.

The recovery can be attributed almost entirely to Francis Mallmann, a celebrity chef from Argentina. Five years ago, he opened a restaurant in Garzón’s 155-year-old general store, converting its storage vaults into a hotel, and employing 21 local youths.

Mallmann, 54, has since revamped the village’s disused mill as a cultural center to showcase Uruguayan music, film, and dance. He bought and refurbished several houses as luxury summer rentals and persuaded influential friends to do the same.

Born in the Patagonian ski center of Bariloche, Mallmann worked at a series of Michelin-starred restaurants in France, where he rode the ’80s nouvelle cuisine wave with aplomb, becoming the first non-European winner of the International Academy of Gastronomy’s Grand Prix de l’Art de la Cuisine.

By the decade’s end he had moved on from complex, French dishes in favor of the bold and simple. He returned to South America, championing the meats, fish, and game of Argentina, which he cooks over crackling flames.

Mallmann has owned a string of successful restaurants in Argentina, Uruguay, and the United States, including Patagonia West in Westhampton Beach, N.Y.

At Restaurant Garzón, he built an Inca-inspired oven, in which he updates classic Uruguayan and Argentine dishes, such as rib-eye steak with roasted potatoes and chimichurri sauce, sea bream with spinach, and roasted piglet. One simple dessert is a lone orange, crisply roasted and lightly scattered with fresh rosemary.

Opening an upmarket restaurant in downbeat Garzón might seem like a gamble, but it’s not the first time that Mallmann’s projects have broken ground. He chose a graffiti-splattered corner of La Boca, Buenos Aires’s dockside neighborhood, to set up Patagonia Sur, a velvet-and-satin den ranked by local food guide Guía Oleo as the Argentine capital’s most expensive eating place.

Garzón needs no tourist hordes to sustain its recovery. All it requires is a handful of deep-pocketed visitors to do what Mallmann has done: escape the razzle-dazzle of modern life to fall in love once more with simple pleasures.