A lesson from ancient ancestors: Niklas Ekstedt controls fire.
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Fire in the Belly

Anne McBride - May 2014

The elemental lure of wood, flame, and smoke is drawing more and more chefs to the hearth. And they’re approaching the intense heat with modern and naturalistic sensibilities. Anne E. McBride rubs two sticks together to see what’s happening.

It’s Monday afternoon on a stretch of Mission Street in San Francisco that has only begun to gentrify. Foot traffic is low. AQ and TBD, two sister restaurants next to one another, are a few hours from opening, and a few people are shopping at a deli. Other than the imposing Court of Appeals, the only marking feature of the block is in the air: a strong smell of burning wood rolls down the sidewalk, redolent of campfires after long summer days in the water or glowing fireplaces at the end of a ski run.

But no lake or slope hides on Mission Street; the smell here is the promise of a dinner of charred leeks, roasted lamb, and Carolina rice pudding, prepared in the 10-foot hearth of TBD, which opened last October. Mark Liberman’s menu—heavy on vegetables—is designed to be easily shareable, with small plates like crushed beets with lamb carpaccio and local wasabi; heirloom carrots with sprouted lentils, sesame, and mint; and Dungeness crab with polenta, whey, and mustard. Scallops are cooked on the top shelf of the modular hearth, so that they don’t take on too much of a smoky flavor, while leeks are buried in coals, then served with lightly smoked oysters, salsa verde, and buttermilk. A whole duck, feet and head attached, cooks in the hearth, potatoes bathing in its melting fat. Braises, stews, soups, and baked dishes all benefit from the low cooking temperatures that a hearth affords.

Wood fire, the most primordial of cooking techniques—and perhaps the most sensual—is at the center of some of the most talked about restaurant openings of recent years. Yes, chefs have been cooking over live fire for longer than five years, and those who steered California cuisine to prominence provided it with its first blush of cachet. What’s different this time is the cohabitation in many restaurants between a hearth and a thermal circulator or other implements of the modernist kitchen. And even for chefs who have set those aside and look to fire for what they consider more direct contact between them, their ingredients, and their devices or a way to understand an ancient cooking style, cooking with fire isn’t an anti-technology statement. For the current generation of chefs, fire is simply another technique to master, another challenge.

“It reminds us of a very celebratory way of cooking, generally outside, with a real fun element to it,” says Seamus Mullen of Tertulia in New York City. “And it’s also one of the more complex ways of cooking. It’s both deceptively simple and incredibly complex. It requires a tremendous amount of attention. If you handle it well, you can coax a lot of subtle flavors out of the food, in a way that you can’t do with another cooking element.”

Much of the current iteration of wood-fire cooking isn’t about turning ingredients into smoke bombs. Rather, it’s about technique and subtlety, to impart a flavor that comes through varying exposure to heat and long cooking times. The flavor of live fire is unmatched, say the chefs who work with the medium. “It’s a very natural way of cooking,” Liberman says. “It’s returning back to cooking, and that’s why cooks like it.”

“Fire is the ephemeral spice that you can’t see or sense, but you can taste,” says Mullen. There is meat on the menus of live fire restaurants, of course, but also broad selections of vegetable and seafood dishes. “People are more shocked by carrots than by sausage,” Liberman says. “Sausage doesn’t change flavor from the grill too much; carrots really do.”

“When we opened, people were disappointed when they saw a big fire but a menu that featured lots of vegetables and herbs,” says Russell Moore of Camino in Oakland, California. “Now they have a much better reaction. We don’t shoot for everything to be smoky. If there’s too much smoke, it’s gimmicky. I want my food to be light. I don’t want to hit you over the head. A little restraint goes a long way.”

This more subtle approach also reflects the fine dining pedigree of many chefs who then take the fire route. Liberman, who opened AQ and TBD with restaurateur Matt Semmelhack, is classically trained, with a Culinary Institute of America degree and a résumé that lists positions for chefs like Daniel Boulud, Joël Robuchon, and Roland Passot. Jason French, chef/owner of Ned Ludd and the soon-to-open Elder Hall in Portland, Oregon, is trained in French country cooking.

“We do traditional cooking, but with a modern flair for fine dining, which comes across in a lot of the plating,” French says. “We develop dishes because of ingredients, the weather, what we have. We’re cooking from the hip. The result is a rustic, comfortable feeling, but the flavors are very precise, with salt, acidity, and pungency.” 

TBD’s open hearth, custom-designed by Grillworks, is the longest on the West Coast, Liberman says. Ford Fry’s King + Duke in Atlanta, which opened in late spring 2013, boasts a 24-foot version. In it cooks dishes like smoked fish spread, pimento cheese hush puppies, candied lamb’s belly, coal-roasted onion soup, roasted scallops, and hearth-braised chicken.

Mullen’s grill, which features four shelves that have grilling surfaces of 32 inches wide by 14 inches deep, also comes from Grillworks—the first one of its kind in New York City, he says. The company has emerged as the go-to maker of the new generation of wood-fire grills, present in about 100 restaurants today, with more in construction, says owner Benjamin Eisendrath. His father founded the company as a hobby while he was working in Argentina as a journalist. Inspired by the grilling culture of the South American country, he designed just one model, aimed at backyard and camping users. When Eisendrath took over the company, he decided to expand it in a professional direction. Many of the models found in restaurants are built-in and custom-made, but some chefs also use Grillworks’ standard grills, he says. Installations at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, New York, and Miller’s Guild in Seattle are among the company’s crown jewels.

Frank DeCarlo, who opened Peasant in New York City in 2000, used recycled bricks he found in a five-block radius of his NoLita neighborhood to build his kitchen by hand—a process that took him eight months, he says with much pride. The resulting oven, rotisserie, grill, and coal-burning sauté station each are between four and six feet large; the only non wood–fueled implement is a burner he uses to boil water for pasta.

DeCarlo fell in love with wood fire while cooking in Italy, becoming an authority of sorts on the subject. His cooks—most of whom have been with him for 14 years—and he himself (he’s in the kitchen every night) cook whole suckling pigs and roast their split heads; baby octopus, cuttlefish, or razor clams in terra-cotta vessels; and pasta sauces such as morel and peas or rabbit and fava beans.

“It’s as honest a style of cooking as you can do,” says DeCarlo. “There’s this complete truth in it. That’s what I like about it. You have to understand how to manipulate the heat. It’s really advanced cooking. It’s really sensory.”

French didn’t look for a wood-fire oven when he set out to open Ned Ludd: “If that was the case, I would have built a hearth as well,” he says. But when the perfect space turned out to be a former pizza restaurant with only a wood-fire oven as cooking equipment, it was simpler and cheaper to keep it in place and adjust his menu. He decided that he would cook anything but pizza, however, preparing 18 or 19 dishes a night in the fire for up to 120 covers, such as charred broccoli with potatoes and chanterelles; cauliflower soup with toasted farro and Meyer lemon; and rock cod with root vegetables, leeks, and apples. In December, after five years, French finally introduced Pizza Monday, which features toppings like pork sausage with fennel, olives, mushrooms, and thyme, as well as kale with smoked mozzarella, onions, and burnt honey.

At TBD, Liberman uses oak and almond as his primary woods to handle the bulk of the cooking, spending about $900 a week for one and a half palettes. Chefs typically work with local wood purveyors, who supply them with types of hard woods that range from the widely used oak to maple and birch to handle the bulk of their cooking. Finishing woods are thrown into the fire just when cooking a particular dish to infuse it with a specific flavor; favorite varieties include fig, peach, almond, apple, and cherry. DeCarlo likes to use vines from Long Island’s North Fork vineyards, which vintners sell on the side of the road after the harvest, he says. Wood trimmings are popular, since they allow for a sustainable approach to live fire cooking.

Wood fire doesn’t come with a knob; cooks must rely on their knowledge and instincts. A live fire can reach extreme temperatures in the middle of service, approaching 800ºF.

“When you sauté, there are more tricks you can use. It’s right in front of you,” says French. “Here, you have to wonder if you want the food close to the fire, farther in; you toast and warm items used for garnishes, et cetera. Everything requires a different setup. The temperatures are different. It’s just a different type of intensity and focus.”

Typically, cooks build the fire heavily just before service starts, to guarantee they’ll have the heat they need for the next few hours, and then move the logs and coals around the hearth or oven, depending on the needs of the components they’re cooking. Elaborate grills like those of Grillworks have modular shelves that can be lowered or elevated to move items closer or farther away from the fire. Residual heat can be used to cook more delicate items, like pastries.

“There aren’t many things you can’t do on the grill,” says Mullen. “It’s surprising how many things you can do, from putting vegetables on the rotisserie, to hanging chickens, to cooking fruits inside the grill for a compote, to heating up a hot iron to caramelize crema catalana. The product tells you the best way to cook it, but to execute that on a grill requires a lot of attention and training.”

With limited live fire experience before opening TBD, Liberman visited Ox in Oregon (self-described as offering “Argentine-inspired Portland food”) and Tertulia to see how Greg Denton and Gabrielle Quiñónez Denton and Mullen, respectively, handled the challenges posed. “They both have kitchens in the back, and we don’t,” he explains. “We had to rethink how we develop a dish. We looked at historical cooking, and originally looked at colonial cookbooks, but a lot of those recipes were not very good.”

The physical demands of cooking in a hearth are even greater than those of a more traditional station; not only is there the heat, but most of the cooking vessels are made of cast iron, and lots of wood logs need to be moved from storage to the fire area. Most chefs also will keep a cook who is too green from immediately working the fire when first starting on their line.

“I train my cooks, and it takes a long time to get them on the fire,” says Moore, who worked at Chez Panisse in nearby Berkeley for more than 20 years before opening Camino in 2008. “I look for intuitive cooks. You have to change what you’re doing, based on what’s happening in the fire. It’s harder for some people to work here, and for others it’s just the right restaurant. For people who learned in a more rigid way, with chefs yelling at them, it’s harder. For people who cooked with their grandmother, or cooking outside, it’s easier. We all require taste and hard work.”

“We wanted cooks who had worked in fine dining as opposed to just grilling,” Liberman says. “Everyone who applied here applied at AQ but wanted to do less fine dining so waited for TBD to open.” In total, four cooks rotate at TBD’s hearth.

While this new generation of live fire chefs has moved beyond solely cooking Mediterranean dishes, the region is still an influence, as are Latin America—particularly Mexico and Argentina— and Asia. Moore has long been inspired by his frequent travels to Mexico, while more recent trips to Korea have shown him a completely different way to work with fire, he says. At Tertulia, Mullen cooks in the way that he’s practiced most of his career, he says, focusing on Spanish flavors. DeCarlo cooks food from the region of Puglia in Italy, where he spent years working.

While New York City, San Francisco, and Portland seem to have the largest concentrations of live fire restaurants, they’re found around the country. Sean Brock relies on wood fire for his modern interpretations of Southern foods at Husk in Charleston, South Carolina, and Nashville, while in Denver, Steven Redzikowsky has made his name by cooking over live fire at OAK at fourteenth and Acorn. Abroad, the most famous and notable live fire restaurant these days is probably Etxebarri in Spain’s Basque country. There, Victor Arguinzoniz changes his tasting menu every day, based on the quality of the produce, seafood, and meat he receives. Ingredients like razor clams, large prawns, beef, or mushrooms are cooked over wood fire in simple, rather traditional, preparations that have earned acclaim. In Tulum, Mexico, Eric Werner cooks only over wood fire, in no small part because his restaurant, Hartwood, has no electricity, and has received international attention for the resulting food and atmosphere created in his open-air restaurant.

At Ekstedt in Stockholm, everything served is cooked over wood. There’s a pizza-like oven for flatbreads and breads, a grill, a hearth over which cured meats get smoked, and a 19th century stove typical of what would have been inside a Swedish home at that time, explains owner Niklas Ekstedt. When his cooks seek to give a specific flavor to ingredients, he drops a few chips of the desired wood into chimneys placed in the hearth, for a condiment-like finishing touch.
Live fire cooking is about excruciating heat, logs, metal, and bricks. But it is mostly about finesse and humility. “It would be wildly arrogant to say that I’ve mastered fire,” says Moore, who has three decades of live fire cooking behind him. “I’m going to be learning about fire until I die.”

Anne E. McBride is the culinary program and editorial director for strategic initiatives at The Culinary Institute of America and the director of the Experimental Cuisine Collective at New York University.