Cooking with Fire; Cooking over fire with different woods, charcoals, and other mediums have been engraved in our existence for millions of years. It is the common bond of all global cuisines. Chefs today are taking cooking with fire to the next level, enhancing our senses and sending them to new heights.
Harvard anthropologist, Richard Wrangham believes the advent of cooking food over fire, 1.8 million years ago, led to the growth of the human brain and contributed significantly to the evolution of man. We’ve been cooking with gas stoves, induction burners and immersion circulators for so long now, that preparing food over fire almost seems new.
Cooking with fire for any variety of food creates the heightened charred, smoky aroma and flavors guests crave. However, there’s much to consider with this cooking method. Chefs research where different coal and wood varieties come from and the quality of the product. How is the wood aged and dried? Which woods are seasonal? What type of grill equipment and smokers are needed?
Generations of pit masters are at the top of their craft. Today, new young chefs are eager to grill and smoke the right way but with their own added innovation. This creates a parallel in the grilling world, between tradition and innovation. Today, meat isn’t the only food they’re cooking with fire. Shellfish is grilled to impart a smoky flavor, whole fish is served flaming, global style breads and pastries are baked in wood-fired hearths, vegetables are roasted in ash and favorite drinks from the tiki bar are on fire!
FACTS: Here’s what you need to know
- Consumers are driving today’s trends. America has a large diverse population. Many of us are traveling globally and enjoying the flavors and cooking styles of other countries.
- Global grilling over a live fire is growing on menus across the United States. Some of the most popular include Brazilian and Portuguese Churrasco, Korean “Gogigui”, Mexican Baracoa and Argentinian Asado. All are served with sauces characteristic of their countries ingredients.
- Chefs today are taking wood-smoked barbecue, hot ash roasted foods, and wood and charcoal-grilled foods and deconstructing them. The different components are taken apart and put back together in the Chef’s own creative way.
- Live fire prepared food is also served in less traditional preparations. We see grilled, seared and pulled foods in bowls, breakfast sandwiches, vegetarian entrees, appetizers, on salads and desserts.
- Regional cooking styles involve different cuts of meat, rubs, grilling and smoking methods. Prepared with authenticity, they still can be enhanced with ethnic sauces and spices to please today’s inquisitive palate.
- Progressive chefs are fusing the techniques of open fire grilling with the ingredients of regional and global cuisine introducing layers of exceptional flavor. Why not serve grilled ribs paired with Asian dipping sauces or smoked Southern pulled pork and mashed sweet potatoes with mole sauce?
- Chefs are turning kitchen waste into charcoal. Burning bones into charcoal add extra flavor to food and is a chef’s commitment to using the whole animal. Charcoal is also lighter than wood, burns longer and gives off a more even heat. Each type gives a different flavor profile to whatever is being grilled.
- Chefs are using charcoal and hot ash for roasting. Roasting food in embers forces the flavor to the middle. When the outer layer is peeled off, the result is an intensely flavored product. Foods from onions to embed hard-cooked eggs to octopus, corn and oysters are flavor enhanced by slow cooking embers.
THE PROS: What they are saying
- Grilling is a universal language and people are looking for new flavors from Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean and other countries.” Chef John Byme
- “It takes a lot of training and experience to produce a good barbecue. You have to have people who are willing to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it. If the brisket comes out hard do you lower the temperature? Do you wrap it? Those are the kind of issues you encounter.” Chef Alejandro Benes
- “When we first serve the first one of the night and it comes out burning, everyone looks at it. And then every other table orders one. I think you have to cook with fire, but not burn things with it.” Chef Deme Lomas, Arson in Miami on his flaming whole fish
- “The challenge, honestly. As a cook, you’re the only one running that station, you want some measure of challenge- you don’t want to be a robot putting in a digital code.” Chef Krista Kern Desjarlais, The Purple House Bakery on why she bakes with fire.
- “Applewood works really nice, but it burns hotter and faster. The almond wood is the same price, but you get more mileage out of it; it burns a little slower.” Chef John Sundstrom on the best wood for baking
- “The nature of a live-fire means making constant adjustments. Cooks can’t simply apply their fat to the pan and bang out their dishes, over and over and over. They have to pay attention to the fire, to hone in and trust their intuition. They have to be sensitive, engaged and aware. It’s funny, how simple it looks and just how complex it is.” Chef Jay Blackinton, Hogstone on Orcas Island
- “We realized each type of wood carries its own distinct aroma after carbonization, and that the essence was ultimately infused into the dish. We started thinking what if we could carbonize bones, just like wood? Could that become another type of seasoning for a dish? Bone charcoal adds a whole other dimension of flavor during the grilling process.” Chef Dan Barber on turning waste into charcoal.
- “You don’t need a big fancy kitchen, you just need a fire. You must consider the smoke an ingredient; the flavor of the coals is an ingredient. The type of wood imparts flavor kind of the way different oils flavor food. The heat of the coals affects the intensity of the caramelization; how intensely it sears changes the flavor picked up. Also, with live fire, you have more elements that are part of your pantry.” Chef Asley Christensen, Death and Taxes
- “We’re doing beef ribs over the fire that will smoke for 8 hours. We’re doing tomatoes that stay up there for days to compote and get smoky. We’re putting a cucumber dish on the menu that’s cooked over the coals. Depending on the dish, food cooks over the hearth anywhere from 12 hours at the longest to 30 seconds at the shortest.” Chef Christopher Kostow, The Charter Oak
- Cooking over live fire has allowed our pallets to savor the intense depth of flavor in the foods we eat. Using different charcoals and woods imparts distinctive flavors to complement our food even more.
- There are no set rules to mastering the power of the open fire. There’s no turning on an oven and walking away until a timer goes off. It’s taking an enormous masculine way of cooking and making it delicate. A lot of it is our own intuition. It may take a while to master the hearth but we all can do it. There’s still a little caveman or cavewoman in all of us.
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Chef Tony is a 42-year veteran of the food industry and is often known by his peers as “The New Product Guru.” Throughout his illustrious culinary career, he’s earned several notable titles and positions including Acquisition International’s “Most Influential Product Development Expert, U.S.” in 2019.
In 1997, Tony also founded Culinary Systems Inc., a group of culinary consultants that assist with culinary training, restaurant start-ups, concept development, and more. Since then, Tony and his team have generated over two billion dollars in sales for their clients in restaurants, retail, and manufacturing.
The strategic, technical, and culinary skills of Tony and his team can be seen on the menus of national chains, in the portfolio of national food manufacturers, and on the grocery shelves of products produced by major retail companies.