Playing with Fire

Chef Mark Hellyar of Momotaro in Chicago crafts flavorful dishes by using the Japanese Robata style of grilling over a slow-burning, white oak charcoal called Binchotan.
Chef Mark Hellyar of Momotaro in Chicago crafts flavorful dishes by using the Japanese Robata style of grilling over a slow-burning, white oak charcoal called Binchotan. Momotaro

For chefs who have mastered the techniques, cooking with live fire ignites flavor profiles.

Cooking with fire is on fire. More and more chefs around the country have gone back to the basics, adopting primitive cooking techniques that can impart unmatchable smoky flavor into different foods and achieve the tenderness and textures that modern equipment can’t always match.

Live-fire cooking, whether inside a restaurant or outside, adds a sense of drama and excitement to the dining experience, and it allows today’s chefs, many who profess a do-it-yourself approach, more control over their cooking and food. Even the National Restaurant Association has recognized the growing popularity of live-fire cooking, naming fire roasting as one of the Top 5 preparation methods for 2016.

Some chefs use wood-fired grills supplied by various manufacturers or outfitted by their own means, while others rely on Japanese-style Robata grills, outdoor pits, and even large smoking boxes that can roast a whole hog at a time. Some use different types of wood, from mesquite to hickory to oak or cherry, while others use a special type of white charcoal or, in some cases, burn embers from a separately stoked fire.

Wood-Fired Ovens and Grills

Chef Cindy Pawlcyn, owner of both Mustards Grill and Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen in Napa Valley, has relied on wood-fired cooking for 33 years, leading the way in California and serving as an inspiration for chefs in other parts of the country. Pawlcyn uses a combination of wood-burning grills and two wood-burning ovens. One of these resembles a pizza oven, with its rounded dome, and Chef Pawlcyn uses it primarily like a Moorish oven from Spain to slow-cook seasonal vegetables as well as meats like suckling pigs, lamb, and duck, which she spices with cardamom and pairs with huckleberries in the winter and peaches in the summer. The staff is trained to control the oven’s internal temperature to around 350 degrees by moving the food around and by working with the oven’s flues, dampers, and its own natural insulation.

While Pawlcyn grills almost all foods on the wood-fired grill to bring out natural flavorings without the need for extra salt or fat, she has found that citrus fruits like Meyer lemons lend a simultaneously fresh and caramelized touch to different dishes. For instance, she squeezes the lemon over roast chicken or uses the fruit to enhance a smoky citrus vinaigrette. When cooking the chicken, Pawlcyn starts with the meat skin side down, on a medium-low part of the grill, to render the fat and to slowly crisp the skin without charring it, which can make the meat taste bitter. Another tip, she notes, is that marinating—even with just salt, pepper, and olive oil—can form a protective layer around foods and help draw in the flavor of the smoke even more.

“You’re really in charge with wood-fired equipment, but it takes a while to get there, just like you have to learn to use an outdoor grill,” says Chef Pawlcyn, noting that she’ll train multiple cooking staff on the ovens and grills in case of absences or other staff changes. Wood-fired grills can be slightly trickier, however, “because you have to really pay attention to your fire,” she says. “A lot of times, new cooks will be so busy cooking that they don’t notice the fire is going out, so cooks have to make sure to keep adding wood.”




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