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Hearth & Home April 2019

The Gaucho Grill from Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet.

Sell The Romance!

By Lisa Readie Mayer

Live fire cooking – meaning grilling over solid fuel, preferably wood – is the hottest trend in the barbecue industry. When you see a parade, get in front of it.

Theatrical. Romantic. Dramatic. Sensual. Inspiring. No, we’re not talking about the latest Oscar-nominated movie. These are some of the words that chefs, cookbook authors, and ordinary folks regularly use to describe cooking over a live, solid-fuel fire.

The technique is primal performance art. The act of building, lighting, and taming a wood or charcoal fire is theater; the flames and glowing embers are part of a mesmerizing dance set against a soundtrack of crackling wood and sizzling meat juices. This is a social event and the entertainment is communal cooking. Friends and family gather around the fire pit or open grill to prod the coals, baste, and flip, and enjoy the smoky aromas and camaraderie.

Indeed, cooking over a live fire is more about the experience than about getting dinner on the table. That experience – which includes enjoying the unparalleled flavor of the food – has ignited a trend around the world.

Can’t Start a Fire Without a Spark

Rekindled interest in this ancient cooking method can be traced to 2009, when Francis Mallmann released “Seven Fires,” a book on the Argentinian style of open-fire cooking. Proclaimed “the most interesting chef in the world” by Esquire magazine, Mallmann lives in Patagonia and owns multiple restaurants around the world specializing in live-fire cooking. He is the eccentric, free-spirited, spiritual leader of live-fire cooking fanatics, and is credited with inspiring the burgeoning obsession with the technique.

"Seven Fires" by Francis Mallmann.

In 2012, Roger Mooking started spreading the live-fire gospel further with his Cooking Channel show “Man, Fire, Food.” The popular series profiles chefs, home cooks, and food joints that prepare amazing food over open fires.

More books on the topic fanned the flames. In 2014, Mallmann followed “Seven Fires” with “Mallmann on Fire: The Romance of the Grill,” and Tim Byres’ cookbook “Smoke – New Firewood Cooking” won the James Beard Award. That same year, food historian and archeologist Paula Marcoux released “Cooking with Fire…Rediscovered Techniques and Recipes that Capture the Flavors of Wood-Fired Cooking.”

But the trend really caught fire with the masses in 2015 when Netflix debuted its celebrated documentary series, “Chef’s Table,” and featured a segment on Francis Mallmann. The program follows Mallmann at his remote cabin in Patagonia, filming him cooking food over fire, and savoring the results with family and friends around his table. The romance and sensuality of the technique was captured in gorgeous cinematography that inspired legions of home cooks to give it a try.

Francis Mallmann in his "kitchen."

One of them was Derek Wolf. He says seeing the show was “love at first sight” and it inspired him to grill skirt steak with chimichurri sauce on the fire pit he and his wife received as a wedding gift. That dinner led to Wolf starting an Instagram account called “Over the Fire Cooking,” where he shares his live-fire cooking adventures through photos, videos, and recipes with other like-minded grillers. Turns out there are a lot of like-minded grillers.

His Instagram now has nearly 650,000 followers and has blossomed into a full-fledged live-fire empire that includes a blog, website, and online store selling grills, accessories, and other gear for open-fire cooking. The Millennial-aged Wolf, who says he never learned to cook prior to his come-to-fire epiphany, has since collaborated with big-name brands such as Weber, Char-Broil, Arteflame, Williams Sonoma, and Cowboy Charcoal. Last year, he even hosted an all-day, live-fire cooking festival called Fire Fork Feast on a farm in Nashville, including chef demonstrations, workshops, product expos, and tastings.

Wolf may be the extreme, but he is definitely not alone in embracing live-fire cooking. In fact, the trend had gained such a following that, in 2015, Bon Appetit magazine named it the “Technique of the Year.” Interest continues to escalate. Today, in addition to backyard enthusiasts, many of the country’s – indeed, the world’s – top chefs have adopted the trend and now feature wood-burning grills in their kitchens.

OPENFIRE fire pit grill

“The world’s oldest cooking method has become one of its newest culinary quests,” says renowned barbecue expert, author, instructor, and hall-of-famer Steven Raichlen, whose latest book, “Project Fire,” released last year (with forward by Francis Mallmann, incidentally), is devoted to the technique.

“While there is nothing novel about wood-burning grills in restaurants (Wolfgang Puck and Alice Waters have used them for decades), what is new is the zeal of the chefs using them, the variety of equipment now available, and the growing number of American home cooks who are forsaking gas and charcoal to master the ancient art of grilling over a wood fire in their backyards,” says Raichlen in a pre-Independence Day feature he wrote on the renaissance of wood-grilling for The New York Times last summer.

While Raichlen extolls the wide variety of charcoals available for live-fire cooking, he calls wood the ultimate grilling fuel. The reason, he says, is because wood yields “a dry, hot fire of 1,000 degrees or more, which caramelizes proteins in meats, and plant sugars in fruits and vegetables,” and also imparts “distinctive, fragrant, and flavorful smoke.”

Raichlen’s book does a deep dive into many live-fire techniques, including direct and indirect grilling, spit-roasting, and wood-oven cooking. Raichlen also espouses grilling directly on the coals, a.k.a. “Caveman” style, a technique he says yields amazing results. He also recommends “ash cooking,” which involves nestling whole, sturdy vegetables such as potatoes, onions, eggplant, peppers, and corn directly in the embers to cook.

“Solid-fuel cooking is big,” he says. “It’s graduate-level grilling that’s driven by flavor. People want that wood-smoke flavor. They are exposed to it in restaurants and they want to try it at home.”

Sales Opportunities

Manufacturers are making that easier than ever to do. Though live-fire grilling can be accomplished in the simplest fire pit, or even a basic charcoal kettle grill, companies now offer live-fire specialty grills in a wide range of price points. At the top end of the spectrum is the Gaucho Grill from Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet, an Argentinian-style wood grill with gas-assisted lighting and a 30-inch wheel to raise and lower the cooking grid in proximity to the open firebox. (Of note: Kalamazoo’s grillmaster, chief designer, and head of product Russ Faulk just released a beautiful new book about live-fire cooking called “Food + Fire,” with recipes described as “big-flavored food, alive with primal flavors of smoke and fire.”)

The Wood-Burning Fire Pit BBQ Grill
from Hitzer.

Grillworks wood-fired grills – called the “gold standard” by The New York Times – are inspired by Argentinian parrilla grills, and feature cooking grids that are height-adjustable via a crank-wheel system. Enormous and pricy, Grillworks’ commercial grills are the choice of professional chefs for restaurant kitchens, but smaller, residential models are available.

Hitzer offers the Wood-Burning Fire Pit BBQ Grill, an Amish-made, heavy-duty, portable fire pit with a rotating arm attachment that can suspend a grilling grid or hang a pot over the fire. The KUDU Open Fire Grill is based on a South African braai system with a series of swing-arm cooking surfaces that can be positioned above the live wood fire in the base. The cooker can also convert to a fire pit.

Unique, circular, live-fire grills from companies such as Arteflame and OFYR are equal parts fire pit, grill, griddle, and sculptural artwork. The grills feature a wide swath of flat cooking surface surrounding the wood fire in the center, and are designed to emphasize social grilling. Arteflame even makes replacement grid inserts for kettle grills and kamados, turning them into open-fire, fire-pit grills.

The OFYR grill draws a crowd.

Hybrid, multifuel units such as Kalamazoo’s signature Hybrid Fire Grill, and Summerset Professional Grills’ American Muscle Grill, can cook with a live charcoal or wood fire (or just gas when time is tight), and offer convenient gas-assisted lighting. Likewise, solid-fuel insert trays from Napoleon Grills, DCS, and other companies, enable live-fire wood or charcoal grilling on a gas grill. In fact, any charcoal grill or kamado can become a live-fire appliance.

Myriad accessories also are available to supplement the sale of a live-fire grill, pizza oven, or fire pit, and keep customers returning to the store for repeat purchases. Of course, consumable fuels such as charcoal (including specialty varieties such as lump, quebracho, binchotan, and coconut-shell) and woods (including logs, chunks, chips, pellets, and planks, in species such as oak, mesquite, hickory, pecan, alder, fruit woods, and more) bring people back most often.

But there also are opportunities to sell charcoal chimneys, electric starters, hot-air lighters, and solid starter cubes, as well as waterproof charcoal cans, coal rakes, ash scoops, grill gloves, and more. Accessories such as freestanding cooking grates, Tuscan grill grids, planchas, cast-iron skillets, pizza stones, rotisserie spits, Dutch ovens, tri-pod campfire systems, wood planks, salt slabs, cookbooks, and more, can help people experiment while pursuing their live-fire passion.

The Arteflame Classic 40.

In fact, a library of new cookbooks on the subject is due out this spring. They include “Food and Fire” by Marcus Bawdon, “Live Fire BBQ and Beyond” by Wendy O’Neal, “The Flavor of Wood” by Artur Cislar-Erlach, “The Backyard Fire Cookbook” by Linda Ly, “The Ultimate Wood Fire Oven Cookbook” by Genevieve Taylor, “Smoke Wood Fire” by Jeff Phillips, among others.

Karen Adler, owner of Pig Out Publications, a distributor of books about outdoor cooking, including the aforementioned, says live-fire cooking, “can be a unique attention-getter for retailers and attract customers who want to push the envelope.”

But selling the concept of live-fire grilling, and the equipment it requires, is different from selling more traditional grills and smokers. It’s not about emphasizing lighted knobs, digital controls, Wi-Fi apps, lifetime warranties, and Btus, but rather about bringing people together. Sell the experience and romance of live-fire cooking, get customers excited about creating fun family times and great memories, and you’ll boost sales.

The DCS Series 9 Grill with charcoal smoker tray.

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