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.”
While Chef Pawlcyn is able to store wood in a shed behind her restaurants, space constraints can force other chefs around the country to be more creative in finding ways to keep their wood dry. Tom Colicchio’s Heritage Steak restaurant in Las Vegas, for one, uses a humidity-controlled display case set alongside the back wall of the restaurant—it serves the purpose well both from a design and a functionality standpoint.
Wood-fired cooking also comes with certain ventilation and fire-suppression requirements, so Pawlcyn reminds chefs of the need to work within their respective state and municipal codes. For some restaurants, manufacturers will create custom-built wood-burning grills with special features such as overhead racks for slow-smoking meats, sausage, bacon, and vegetables, and lower racks where foods cook at higher temperatures, causing the smoke to rise.
Outdoor Live-Fire Cooking
Stephen Barber, executive chef of Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch in St. Helena, California, takes the primitive cooking method one step further. While he uses wood-fired grills in his kitchen, the outdoor-cooking experience at Farmstead uses a range of live-fire implements.
Barber starts with a feeder fire to burn down the wood to coals, which he’ll continue shoveling underneath the different cooking implements. To do that, he builds a fireplace using cinder blocks stacked into chimneys and affixed with a grate at the top where he stacks burning logs, allowing the embers and coals to fall down and be collected. “We learned from the barbecue experts in the Carolinas that the best way to control heat is to have a lot of hot coals ready,” says Chef Barber. “It’s a really fun way to cook. Who doesn’t like playing with fire? This is primal stuff.”
For a makeshift smoker-grill, picture an open-air igloo: Barber stacks cinder blocks 5 feet high, affixes the grill with grates, and builds a smaller square next to it where he’ll add the hot coals so the smoke can draw into the main grill like a fire box. He uses that to smoke salmon, whole hogs, and other meats and veggies.
Barber has even mimicked the Argentine asado method of roasting whole lamb on metal crosses. “We’ll butterfly the lamb and rub it with chimichurri overnight as a marinade,” he says. “Then, we’ll figure out where the wind is coming from and put the cross in the ground with the wind facing it, and build a low, crackling fire in front of it so the smoke drifts over to the lamb and slowly cooks it.”
International Smoking Techniques
Chef Aaron Brooks of the EDGE Steakhouse at the Four Seasons in Miami has adopted a culinary technique from Cuba that uses a specialty smoker box. The rectangular-shaped compartment is great for roasting a whole lamb and even a whole hog up to 100 pounds. The pig gets clamped in a back-to-back grate similar to a fish-grilling grate, while hot charcoal briquettes are set on a grill over the top to allow smoke to filter down into the aluminum-lined box.
In the case of roasting a hog, Chef Brooks injects the skin with a brine, then slow-roasts the pig at low temperatures for a few hours, turning it the last hour skin-side-up to crisp the skin. He scores it throughout the process to allow the fat to render back into the meat. Traditionally, the cooked meat is chopped up—crispy chicharrones and all—and served with rice and plantains. However, Brooks likes to make mini sliders out of the meat, served with a mustard mayo and onions slow-cooked with oregano, thyme, vinegar, and lime juice. For the lamb, he’ll make tacos by shredding the meat off the bone like carnitas and serving it with a salsa verde, fresh radishes, and tortillas.
In Chicago, Chef Mark Hellyar of Momotaro relies on the Japanese Robata style of grilling, which uses a slow-burning, white oak charcoal called binchōtan. “The charcoal can easily get up to 800 degrees or even 1,000 degrees, but it’s a dormant heat so you won’t see flames flaring up,” he says. Most often, he cooks with yakitori-style Japanese kushi (skewers) on the grills.
For the restaurant’s angel prawns, he’ll stuff the bellies with red chilies, salt, and yuzu peel, grill the shrimp for about 6 to 7 minutes, then serve the skewers with a Japanese shichimi pepper sauce and compound butter made with homemade red yuzu kosho, a spicy Japanese condiment. Another popular skewer is the chicken negima: chicken thighs marinated in a dressing of shio koji, a fermented rice seasoning, along with shishito peppers that are grilled with Tokyo scallions, which are more similar to baby leeks in taste and size. And, most recently, Chef Hellyar added a marinated sawara fish skewer, which is milder in taste than its mackerel sibling but meatier and fatty enough to caramelize over the grills. He serves this skewer with a citrusy kumquat and Japanese-peppercorn sauce.