Channeling their inner cave-cook, chefs are turning away from gas
lines and sparking up something more primal. Woodfire cooking is lit,
driving concepts and open kitchen designs.
It’s blazing up rotisseries, grills, hearths and brick ovens, imparting the wild flavors of smoke and char to dishes you might have thought couldn’t take the heat.
But wood fire can be tricky, and whether you inherit an old tiled brick pizza dome or install a new double door hearth with gas assist and internet connectivity, each oven comes with its own learning curve. Any chef who has cooked with fire—and has the burns to prove it—will tell you there’s no short cut to taming the flames.
Before you fire the first order, spend time getting to know its sweet spots, its heat retention capabilities, and when to tamp or stoke the fire. Once you grasp the ways of the fire, you can cook just about anything.
Find the Sweet Spots
Knowing where to position your food and wood in the oven is critical to avoiding unhappy accidents. Executive Chef Fernando Darin of Ray’s & Stark Bar in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art stages his fire in the middle of the oven to maintain the roughly 850-degree temperature that produces the ideal char on his pizzas. Too close to the oven’s mouth and oxygen will spike the temperature. It’s also the right spot to char his multicolored cauliflower, which he serves with sweet potato puree, grapefruit, crushed candied walnuts and date vinaigrette ($15).
Nearby at ROKU, Executive Chef Roger Lee marks a temperature gauge between 380 and 400 degrees for delicate dishes such as miso baked cod ($24). The fish is marinated in three varieties of soybean paste before it is positioned as far from the embers as possible, roasting low and slow for about 15 minutes. “If you cook it quickly it doesn’t get as flaky and delicious,” he says.
Gather Around the Fire
Different ovens require different tending protocols. In St. Louis, Chef-owner Mike Randolph maintains hot embers at all times in the 8-foot, custom-made hearth at Publico. Two doors down at Randolfi’s, he keeps a 900-degree fire in the pizza oven, where seasoned cast iron pans make a good medium for transferring the heat of the oven floor onto delicate proteins like scallops. The extra work, vigilance and cost of the wood comes with a built-in added value to his customers.
“It pays itself back not only in the flavor the wood imparts on the
food,” he says, “but the fact that every customer who walks into either
of these restaurants very clearly sees the time, love and effort we’re
putting into it.”
The appeal of a wood-fired oven is also evident at Shaya in New Orleans, where its blue tiled pizza oven that does little more than bake pita occupies prime real estate in the middle of the dining room. Chef de cuisine Zachary Engel says the restaurant couldn’t operate without it.
During the build-out of the restaurant, giving up the table space was debated. “It would have been a huge mistake because it’s such a focal point. People are automatically drawn to it,” Engel says. The pita is free, however, it sells as an occasional, but profitable special. Kebabs el Babour features a meatball stew with pita baked atop the bowl, a sort of Israeli pot pie ($14 to $16).
Don’t Sleep on the Embers
Throughout service at 21 Greenpoint in Brooklyn, New York, the roaring 900-degree oven cranks out pizzas, large steaks and whole fish. During down time, Chef Sean Telo puts it to other tasks. When the restaurant opens, the prep cooks light the fire and close the lid, which creates an intense smoker that produces a smoked olive and taleggio butter for the bread service. When the fire dies down, whole potatoes with seaweed are cooked in the embers, New England clambake style. Once cooled, they’re cooked further in duck fat and seasoned with creme fraiche, turmeric and lemon for a warm potato salad ($10).
Chef Chris Coleman of Stoke in Charlotte, North Carolina, hits extraordinarily high temperatures with his oven, which features a gas assist that makes starting the fire a snap and ensures it never drops below 650 degrees. The consistency allows for slow roasting larger cuts of meat such as lamb shoulder, chicken and pork shank. When the fire dies, his cooks sweep out the ashy embers, mixes in cornmeal and covers 10 dozen eggs with the mixture. The eggs bake in a 200-degree oven for eight hours.
“When you pull it out, the white has caramelized so when you open it up it smells like roast chicken,” he says. “The yolk is still yellow and creamy, almost like a fudge.”
It’s that kind of result that makes the heat, soot and flames all worth the effort, he says.
Mike Sula is an award-winning writer who travels the world for wood-red cooking.