Trial and error can lead to happy accidents when it comes to playing with fire.
Consider Jason French’s experience at Portland, Oregon’s Ned Ludd. When the head chef moved into the space eight years ago, the kitchen was equipped with only two burner plates and an Italian brick pizza oven.
One night, French took his eyes off a pan of Brussels sprouts and charred them black – but sent them out anyway. To his surprise, the server returned for a second order prepared the same way.
Today he puts the fire to everything, from chocolate chip cookies and creamed collard greens to crispy whole trout with charred leeks, a dish so popular he can’t take it off the menu.
Chef-Owner John Manion figured out the best approach to cooking with fire after researching Argentine parrilladas for El Che Bar in Chicago.
Instead of purchasing a brand name, higher-priced option, he installed wood-fired flat top grills (“chapas”) and height-adjustable grills that put the flame to most of the menu, from Scamorza cheese to oysters and thin cut pork chops.
The rig was built with a simple steel oven on the side that the cooks use for roasting and smoking vegetables. Sweetbreads also found it as a springboard for flavor. Whole lobes are soaked in milk brine and then roasted over a low fire for two hours until they’re caramelized. After portioning, they’re seared on the flat top and plated with crunchy pickled market vegetables.
“You have to make it work for your kitchen so it’s not always a one-size-fits-all approach,” Manion says. “Kitchens were great in sharing information. Do your research and you’ll be that much further ahead.”