Just a few years ago, it seemed as if the dining world was poised to drown in a gurgle of futuristic gels, spheres and foams. They were innovative, entertaining and sometimes even delicious, but pretty far removed from the sensory experiences most people might associate with food. So it might not seem too far-fetched to think that disconnect might factor into 80 percent of the 2016 semifinalists for the James Beard Best New Restaurant featuring dishes containing the words wood-grilled, smoked and ember on their current menus (and half of the finalists have wood-burning grills, thank you very much). Wood-fire cooking is roaring back in a big way, and chefs from coast to coast are using this ancient technique to spark some creative thinking in their kitchens.
"It's the anti-sous vide, the anti-technical. It's as raw as it gets," Missy Robbins says. Diners at her weeks-old Williamsburg, Brooklyn, restaurant, Lilia, are drawn like moths to her wood-fired hearth, and she's never been more in her element. Robbins spent the early part of her career cooking at Chicago's legendary Spiaggia, which put in wood ovens 30 years ago, and kitchens around Italy where food was cooked quite simply over a wood-fired grill.
The wood-fired grill at Lilia | Photo: Katie Foster/Tasting Table
"It wasn't a thing. It wasn't a trend. It's just how they cooked in the Old World," Robbins says. And while she won great acclaim (including a Michelin star) for her sophisticated Italian fare at A Voce restaurant in the interim, she'd always felt that something was missing. When it came time to open her own place, she lit up at the possibility of making wood-fired cooking the heart of the operation. Drawing inspiration from Seamus Mullen's setup at Tertulia restaurant, which features a chef-culty Grillworks grill, as well as lessons from Francis Mallmann's influential Seven Fires, Robbins centered her new kitchen's design and menu around a semi-enclosed brick hearth. It features a wood-fueled grill, a ledge to hold sauté pans and roast potatoes in 700-degree heat, as well as a rotisserie with which she's just starting to experiment.
"I always had grilled calamari on the menu at A Voce. Now it's 20 times better over wood fire," Robbins says.
But just because the technique is a caveman basic doesn't mean there's not a steep learning curve if you want to master it.
"It makes you more of a conscious cook," Robbins says. "Where a hot spot is for five minutes one time may change. I spent a lot of time before we opened really playing with fire and understanding it."
Jared Bennett | Photo: Courtesy 21c Museum Hotels
While she prefers deploying smoke flavor very subtly throughout her menu, Jared Bennett, the executive chef of Metropole in Cincinnati, wants diners to really feel—and taste—the burn. The restaurant's open kitchen, heavily inspired by Camino in Oakland, features a live fire cage that houses the logs charring to coals for the grill and plancha, provides chips for the smoker and serves as a conversation starter for guests who wander over to see where those heavenly smoke smells are coming from.
Bennett's menu incorporates plenty of modern techniques, which he marries with ripping-hot wood-fired heat to distinctive effect. A prime example: the restaurant's signature burnt carrot salad, for which he vacuum-seals and sous-vides the vegetables until they're tender, then chars on a plancha to caramelize their outsides.
Even drinks and desserts get a kiss of fire in the form of ingredients and garnishes—a smoked pearl onion here, a charred cranberry there. Bennett is also collaborating with a local brewery to create a smoked grape beer to pair with his dishes. After putting so much time and sweat into figuring out issues of timing, wood sourcing and cooking consistency, he wants to make sure his guests know exactly where they're eating—and deliver on the promise of the heavenly wood smoke that wafts out onto the street.
Bennett jokes, "My cooks tell me that when they go home, their significant others will tell them they smell like they slept by a campfire all night!"
Jason French | Courtesy: Jason French
Ned Ludd's chef/owner Jason French just embraces that inevitability as part of the gig at his Portland, Oregon, restaurant. "It's weirdly romantic, like Portlandia-style 'I have smoke in my beard,'" he says. While he admits to being "something of a pyro" since childhood, when he first swooned to the heady smoke of his uncle's wood stove, and worked in roughly 20 restaurants that ran the gamut "from fried chicken shacks to fine dining," it took being semisaddled with a wood-fired oven for him to hone in on his personal signature.
"When we opened in 2008, the building had been a pizza place. We took it over, and my landlord asked what kind of pizza I was going to do. I told him I'd like to do a lot of other things with wood fire. That was the beginning of the Ned Ludd experience. Taking lemons and making lemonade," French says.
The oven is the wood-stoked soul of the place and during service will hold upward of 20 pans in its 750-degree chamber, plus plenty of prep ingredients during its warming and cooling phases. While it took a massive amount of trial, error and effort to streamline the kitchen's processes, French embraces the mental exercise and opportunity to build flavor in innovative ways.
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"There's a Zen-like quality to working with it. It calls for focus. You have to consider your motions and the dish and timing. It tends to roll much hotter than a traditional oven," he says. "And you have to embrace the happy accident."
For instance, when he "burned the shit out of" some Brussels sprouts—and then noticed that tables were ordering a second round. Or when a baked-to-order chocolate chip cookie overcrisped in a skillet on a busy Saturday night and he took it back into the kitchen to sample the goods.
"I tasted it and thought, Oh, my God, that is delicious. Something about the bitterness of the surface char that really elevated the sugars in the middle of the cookie," French says. "But that puts me in the position of convincing diners, 'Please taste this burnt food; it's delicious!' People have really hard-core feelings about burnt food."
Pssst, chef? Pretty sure one of them is red-hot love.
A hot dozen wood-fire restaurants around the country to try:
② Metropole, Cincinnati, OH
③ Ned Ludd, Portland, OR
④ Death & Taxes, Raleigh, NC
⑥ Shaya, New Orleans, LA
⑧ Público, St. Louis, MO
⑫ Bracero Cocina de Raíz, San Diego, CA