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Hearth & Home January 2017

Francis Mallmann in his “kitchen.”
Photo Courtesy: ©2017 Michael Evans.

Forward to the Past

By Lisa Readie Mayer

Wood – Fire – Smoke – Meat – it’s basic, it’s primitive, it’s the next hot trend in outdoor cooking.

Cooking over a live, wood fire may be the world’s oldest cooking method, but it wasn’t until Francis Mallmann released his 2009 book, “Seven Fires: Grilling the Argentine Way,” that Americans began to rediscover the technique again in earnest. Mallmann, who has been called “the king of fire” and is the biggest culinary rock star in South America, reminded us just how cool it is to tame fire, heat and smoke to create a meal that is extraordinarily flavorful. It’s next-level grilling.

Unlike most barbecue trends, this one started in Europe and South America before gaining traction in the U.S., according to Karen Adler, cookbook author and owner of Pig Out Publications, a wholesale distribution company for barbecue-related cookbooks. It was embraced here first by restaurant chefs; today a growing number of them are cooking over wood in open hearths, including celebrity chef Curtis Stone in his just-opened “Gwen Butcher Shop & Restaurant” in Los Angeles.

“Many of these kitchens are open to the dining room, so people see the wood-fired grill and say, ‘Wow! That’s cool!’” says Michael Gerard, owner of Wildwood Ovens & BBQs, makers of residential and commercial wood-fired ovens and Brazilian rotisserie barbecue systems.

Wildwood Ovens.

In fact, Bon Appetit magazine declared live-fire cooking the “Technique of the Year” in 2015, noting wood-fired grills are now “must-haves” in restaurants and are “filling dining rooms with the unmistakable soundtrack of crackling embers, the mesmerizing glow of licking flames, and the seductively smoky flavor that only burning hardwood can impart.”

Besides restaurants, Gerard says consumers’ exposure to wood-fired cooking during international travel to places such as the UK, Spain, Italy, Japan, Argentina and Brazil has also helped to spark interest in the U.S. “They see it in action and taste the flavor benefits while traveling and say, ‘I want to try this at home,’” he says.

Gerard notes that, while the bulk of his business is on the commercial side, his residential sales have grown by 25 percent each of the past few years. “Our customers are very into food and cooking and are looking for high-end, bespoke products for their homes,” he says.

A rush of cookbooks on the subject, and exposure on TV shows, have helped to advance live-fire cooking as the next frontier in grilling and barbecuing. In “Man Fire Food,” one of the hottest shows on the Cooking Channel, host Roger Mooking travels around the country visiting home cooks, pit masters and chefs who cook amazing food over the wood fires they build in everything from campfire rings to custom grills and smokers. The show, in its fifth season, has captivated viewers and catapulted Mooking to celebrity status.

Francis Mallmann and his live-fire techniques were featured in an episode of “Man Fire Food,” and on the hit Netflix documentary series “Chef’s Table,” which profiles the most acclaimed chefs around the world.

Why the Interest?

“Part of the appeal is interacting and engaging with an organic fire that you have to manage, versus pushing a button or turning a knob,” says Russ Faulk, grill master, chief designer, and head of product at Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet. “Grilling with wood creates incredible, smoky flavors, but there’s also something very primal and satisfying about mastering a live wood fire.”

Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet’s Gaucho Grill.

Indeed, the experts say live-fire cooking is being embraced because it’s so low-tech and elemental – an antidote of sorts to our high-tech, digital, bells-and-whistles world. Gerard, who expands the definition of live-fire cooking to include both charcoal and wood, says that, in addition to the better flavor profiles and crusty textures live-fire cooking provides through higher temperatures and a kiss of smoke, an equal part of the allure is the interaction with the fire.

“In this technology-obsessed era, the technique is about getting back to the basics,” Gerard says. “People are embracing minimalism.”

Chris Papageorge, outdoor specialist at Atherton Appliance in the San Francisco area, says his customers are turning to low-tech, live-fire cooking as a de-stressor in their high-tech, high-stress lives.

“A lot of our clients work in the technology industry and they deal with touch screens and innovation all day,” he explains. “Their work life is so chaotic they want simplicity in their home life. They really don’t want all the technology added to grills. They appreciate the old-fashioned simplicity of live fire, the basic controls, the connection of the flame to the cooking process. They also like being engaged in the action – it’s like a live-action movie in the first person.”

The concept may be simple, but mastering the process takes some practice. Mallmann explains it in his book “Seven Fires” in this way: “Cooking with a wood fire is like going on a first date. It’s something that you look forward to with great anticipation and a little anxiety…In a way, every time you cook over wood outdoors, you’re starting fresh in a strange kitchen.”

He says outdoor temperatures, wind and weather conditions, as well as the seasoning level of the wood, are all factors that change the game slightly each time.

“I believe the ability to cook meat over a wood fire is inborn in all of us,” he adds. “But perfecting your sixth sense for grilling… takes time. It’s a skill perfected over the course of hundreds of Sundays conducting a backyard symphony of meat and heat.”

Hundreds of Sundays? That sounds like music to retailers’ ears; imagine the amount of wood, grills and accessories you could sell to fuel those practice sessions!

Stephen “Ruff” Ruffatti might know. His Ruff’s Barbeque Shoppe in Golden, Colorado, is dedicated to cooking with solid fuels, selling only smokers, kamados and pellet grills. He says the trend has been growing steadily for the past 10 years, but he has seen it really take off during the last three years.

He says his customers often first come in to buy wood chips and chunks to use on their gas grill, or take a cooking class to get their feet wet with cooking over wood. “But they eventually get the bug and buy a wood grill,” he says. “Once they taste it, they’re convinced it makes the best food and is the best way to cook.”

Faulk says Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet has promoted the concept for a long time through its hybrid grills that convert between gas, charcoal and wood fires. But, he says, the company’s newer Gaucho Grill is the epitome of live-fire cooking.

An Argentinian-style grill, the wood-fired Gaucho Grill controls heat intensity with a 30-in. spoked wheel that raises and lowers the cooking grate in proximity to the fire. The grill, priced starting at $20,000, has a gas-assisted lighting feature and a chain-driven, height-adjustable, motorized rotisserie.

While Gaucho Grill customers are “all in” when it comes to live-fire cooking, there are less expensive ways for customers to embrace the trend. Adler says charcoal grills, smokers, kamado cookers, pellet grills, pizza ovens, campfire cookers, and any other appliance fueled by wood or charcoal are all good options. “An open-style charcoal grill would be a good place for consumers to get their feet wet,” she says.

Papageorge will be putting more emphasis on live-fire cooking in his two locations this year. In addition to hybrid grills from Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet, he’ll be adding a prominent display featuring an open-hearth, wood-burning oven from Wood Stone Home that can be installed indoors or out.

“It looks beautiful with a tile exterior and I think it will generate a lot of excitement among customers in the showroom,” he says.

Wood-fired pizza ovens are the most commonly known live-fire appliances, according to Gerard, but he says the name is too limiting. “Pizza only scratches the surface of what wood-fired ovens can do,” he says. Thanks to three types of heat involved in the process – radiant heat from the dome, conductive heat from the hearth floor, and convection heat within the oven – cooking temperatures can reach to nearly 1,000 degrees.

“Amazing flavor develops through carmelization at extremely high temperatures,” he says. “It’s great for roasting vegetables, developing a nice crusty sear on meats, so many things.”

OPENFIRE fire pit grill.

The OPENFIRE fire pit grill is one of the latest products devoted to the technique. It was “selling like crazy” in Slovenia before it was introduced to the U.S. market last summer, according to Kevin Dusold of importer Bimex Corp. At its core, it’s a wood-burning fire pit, but with fry pan, grill grate, Dutch oven, kettle, or other cooking attachments suspended above the fire, it becomes an open-hearth grill.

“There’s a growing fascination with wood-fired cooking,” says Dusold. “It’s not an experience that can be duplicated on a gas grill, or really even a traditional charcoal grill. The warmth of the fire, the smell of the wood, the dancing flames, the delicious food, all combine in a way that it becomes a lifestyle, not just a way to cook.

“OPENFIRE is a practical, affordable and accessible way for consumers to create this experience and to try at home what Roger Mooking, Francis Mallmann, and other restaurant chefs are doing,” he says.

Selling the Concept

Dealers need to gain some proficiency in the technique so they become the go-to authority and can coach customers through the process of building and managing the fire, and offer cooking tips. Manufacturers can be a good resource for product training, as are books and YouTube videos.

The first and most important lesson, according to Gerard: “Too much wood smoke is not a good thing.” He says it’s best to let the wood burn down to form a coal bed, or if using charcoal, to let it ash over. “A little more wood or herbs can be added to the fire near the end of cooking to ‘season’ it,” he says. “You use the wood smoke like any other type of seasoning.”

Faulk says it helps to set up the grill with a combination of direct and indirect heat, so you can “sear and slide” from direct high heat to the indirect area to finish cooking. “The indirect section also acts as a ‘safety zone’ where food can be moved if the fire is too intense.”

One of the most common consumer questions, according to Faulk, is what kind of wood to use and where to get it. He says small, split logs are preferred for cooking fires; chips and chunks do not produce enough heat on their own for cooking, but can be used to supplement a charcoal fire for added wood flavor.

He suggests that dealers contact any local orchards to buy their fruit tree prunings, then bundle and resell them in the store. He says untreated oak, maple, hickory and other hardwood logs can be purchased in bulk from local firewood suppliers and repackaged in smaller quantities for resale.

Retailers promoting live-fire cooking also have opportunities to sell natural charcoals, firestarters, and accessories such as long-cuffed grilling gloves, long-handled grilling tongs, fireplace tongs for moving logs, coal rakes and shovels, tripod cooking stands, rotisseries, cast-iron Dutch ovens, campfire cookware, and more.

Adler says there are lots of great books on the subject, too, offering not just great recipes and how-tos, but coffee table book-style photos that romance the cooking fires. She recommends “Seven Fires” by Francis Mallmann, and his follow-up book, “Mallmann on Fire.” She also suggests “Around the Fire – Recipes for Inspired Grilling and Seasonal Feasting from Ox Restaurant” by Greg and Gabrielle Denton; “Wood-Fired Cooking: Techniques and Recipes for the Grill, Backyard Oven, Fireplace and Campfire,” by Mary Karlin; “Smoke – New Firewood Cooking” by Tim Byres, which won the 2014 James Beard Award; and “Michael Chiarello’s Live Fire,” the celebrity chef’s take on open-hearth cooking.

“People want to shop in places that offer the latest outdoor cooking techniques and interesting accessory products,” says Adler. “If books like these are attractively displayed face-out with sauces, rubs and other gadgets, people buy them. Barbecue retailers are really missing out on a nice profit center if they don’t provide books for their customers.”

Likewise, Faulk says, “Dealers who emphasize live-fire cooking have an opportunity to sell a second grill and to see a lot of repeat fuel and accessories business.”

Now it’s up to you to create the spark.

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