Live-Fire Cooking, So Hot Right Now?
photos by Stephanie Cameron
Common Fire’s igloo-shaped Le Panyol oven, constructed out of white clay from France’s Rhône Valley.
From Japanese robata to Pueblo hornos to Southern barbeques, live-fire cooking methods have been utilized by virtually every culture and cuisine since the dawn of homo sapiens. Nonetheless, in the high-end dining world, fire is currently all the rage. For the past decade, restaurants that feature open kitchens with wood-burning ovens and grills have been spreading like, well, wildfire. Suddenly gas and dials are passé; steaming and sautéing, banal; simple fire-code inspections, gutless.
Food writers have attributed this proliferation to several factors, including a backlash against molecular gastronomy and the influence of renowned fire-centric chefs like Francis Mallmann. A popular 2015 episode of Netflix’s Chef’s Table featuring Mallman further stoked the craze’s flames. The series portrays the Argentinian chef—one of Latin America’s biggest celebrity chefs—as the quintessential man in the wilderness: primal, masculine, romantic. In one scene, he demonstrates how to smoke a lamb, flayed and staked to wooden poles downwind from a campfire, out in the forest of a remote island in Patagonia. Montages of charred meats and vegetables exhumed from smoldering ash and coal triggered viewers’ salivary glands and chefs’ imaginations. That same year, Bon Appétit selected live fire as its “Technique of the Year.” Last year, the National Restaurant Association ranked open-fire roasting as number three on its “What’s Hot” list. And, according to the Tasting Table, half of 2016’s James Beard–nominated establishments for Best New Restaurant contained a wood-fire grill, and eighty percent touted wood-fired dishes. Undeniably, this technique du jour is the restaurant world’s hottest trend.
“No, it’s not a trend,” says Chef Jonathan Perno, as he politely suppresses an eye-roll. We are sitting in the Grand Ballroom at the Los Poblanos Historic Inn and Farm in Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, where Perno has been the executive chef for nine years. “When I was training [twenty-five years ago] we learned how to cook with live fire. Every restaurant I’ve ever worked in has used it in some capacity. How can something be a trend when it goes back to the primordial mindset of human beings?” Perno asks. “Well,” I reply, “haven’t you noticed that more fine-dining chefs are making smoke and fire a central component of their menus and dining rooms? Couldn’t this back-to-basics mentality be a reaction against the perceived pretentiousness of modernist cuisine and tweezer plating?”
Perno, somewhat irritated that I keep presenting fire as something fashionable, humors me: “Sure . . . that’s possible to an extent. Fire is primitive, you can understand it. If you sit down at a restaurant and hear about how a chef is sous-viding this or using liquid nitrogen on that, you’re kind of like, ‘Whoa, how about you just grill me a piece of meat and do it right.’ A smoke machine or handful of wood chips will never duplicate the flavor or heat of fire. [Molecular gastronomy] gadgets, those are the fads, not fire. I’m not a molecular chef, some of my cooks love dabbling in that world and make some really interesting things and I won’t discourage them, but my whole drive is just to source well, and treat those ingredients with the utmost respect because the people who I source from are doing the same thing. I think people are much more willing to come back for that kind of food rather than a bunch of foam and gels that have no meaning on a plate. If it’s on the plate you better be able to eat it; if it’s just there for the visual, you need to rethink the dish.” He concludes, “You have to make your food approachable, and I think fire does that. You are naturally drawn toward it.”
Top left, clockwise: Stephen “Smokey” Griffin at the helm of the blazing oven; fire-roasted broccolini; lamb sausage flatbread.
Perhaps no restaurant in the state currently draws diners into that fire more than the chef’s table at Common Fire in Taos. Here, patrons sit family style just a few feet from the dancing flames of a five-thousand-pound, igloo-shaped Le Panyol oven, constructed out of white clay from France’s Rhône Valley. Chef / owner Andy Lynch conceived of his now year-old restaurant largely around the concept of creating a sense of community by bringing people together around a fire. “Go to any party,” he says, “where does everybody meet up? In the kitchen. Spend time in the outdoors, where does everyone sit? Around the campfire.” Patrons can also connect with the element itself by watching their food being roasted, smoked, and burned (intentionally). Whether you are a cook or a bystander, “fire,” says Lynch, “compels an interaction. We are meant to meet it and ingratiate ourselves to it.”
Learning how to tame those flames is an ongoing experiment in trial and error at Common Fire. While Lynch largely curates the menu, he encourages each of his chefs to forge their own relationship with the fire. He explains that there is a “personal reverb between fire master and fire. Some cook hotter than others, they prefer a more direct heat and a faster cook; others cook cooler, slower. It’s a dance. Live fire beckons intimacy; you don’t get that from a gas range.”
The afternoon that I visit Common Fire, I dine with Lynch in the seat closest to the oven. Lynch is a natural raconteur with a big personality and a gleaming, bald head which makes him difficult to ignore. Yet I can’t help but be transfixed by the hearth’s glowing embers, crackling wood, and appetizing aromas. I lean into the heat; the oven’s current internal temperature is 750 degrees. Lynch explains that beyond the massive oven, the Las Cruces sourced pecan, hickory, and oak woods, or the quality ingredients, what makes Common Fire dishes exceptional is the ingredient of time. “Lots of people have a pizza oven or grill nowadays, if they want a little fire flavor, but what they don’t have is thirty-six hours to simmer a bone broth to perfection. To slow roast meat on one side of the oven while charring vegetables on the other, to bake bread at 6am with 600 degrees of residual heat trapped in the clay.”
The chef on duty, “Smokey” (no, really), brings over slow-braised Kyzer pork and polenta, charred broccolini, and bubbling flatbread topped with house-made lamb sausage, chévre, and oil-cured olives. Everything is excellent; you can taste the fire on the burnt edges of the bread and the time in the succulent pork. But don’t expect to order these exact dishes when you visit, as the menu is constantly changing. “Here,” says Lynch, “you have to always be coming in for the next meal, not the last meal.” Like the unpredictability of flames, Lynch wants to keep his diners and staff on their toes. “You know, we play like fire and we roll like fire.”
Top left, clockwise: Oven at the center of Dr. Field Goods; carne adovada pizza; fire roaring in the horno-style oven.
A more consistent fire-cooked menu can be found at Santa Fe’s Dr. Field Goods. Wood-fired pizzas, roasted Brussels sprouts, charred hanger steak, black mussels fire-steamed in green curry, and baked bread pudding are regularly available, along with specials like smoky mole, caramelized seasonal vegetables, and Dutch babies. “Basically anything you’d cook on or in a conventional oven I’ll try and cook in our oven. I’ve had to get my cooks comfortable with the idea that a wood oven is not just for pizza. I’ll fry an egg in there,” says chef/owner Josh Gerwin. Like Lynch, Gerwin appreciates the ability to slow cook certain dishes, but he also appreciates how quickly food can cook in direct heat. He says wood selection is key. “Oak is the base for the coals; it’s a hardwood so it can burn for a long time. Juniper helps burst the flames and create color and caramelization,” he explains. Gerwin says that wood type is also important because a log’s smoke and ash are not merely the by-products, but ingredients themselves. They can impart flavors that are bitter or sweet, fruity or earthy.
When Gerwin began Dr. Field Goods in 2012, the Santa Fe native knew immediately that he wanted a horno-style oven as the focal point of his dining room. “I take a lot of pride in it because I built it myself,” he says. A bar stands in front of the restaurant’s open kitchen so diners can gather around the fire and feel “a little bit of home.” Like the other local chefs I spoke with, Gerwin denies a rebellion against modernist cuisine as his motivation to utilize live fire. “I just always loved cooking over a campfire since I was a kid. It’s more fun this way.”
Back at Los Poblanos, the property is currently in the middle of a major expansion, which will include a new open-kitchen dining room, boasting a 6-foot long by 3.5-foot deep hearth, where a majority of the cooking will take place. Within the hearth will be multiple cooking stations: a coffee table-sized grate for grilling, a chapa for searing, and three rails across the top to suspend racks of meat, with trays underneath to catch the drippings for sauces. “I’ll be doing a lot of moving things around to find out how this animal works,” says Perno, “because it’s its own beast.”
Perno is enthusiastic for this new phase of the restaurant, and is hard at work testing recipes. He says the essence of what his team has been doing will continue (“local sourcing and representing the Rio Grande Valley corridor”) but the dishes will be about eighty to ninety percent different from what customers have seen before. “One of my favorite new items is the mole. There will always be a pot of it in the hearth. It needs to be cooked for many hours to days at a time, evolving like a good wine or cheese. Then we will feed the mother sauce into a new batch, like you would a sourdough, to create a complex, layered flavor.” While the new menu isn’t exclusively wood-fired (for example, there will be plenty of pastas and fresh vegetables from the on-site farm), Perno promises, “Everything you read that Francis Mallman does with fire, we’ll be doing that.” For the James Beard nominated chef, the process has been “[revitalizing] to some degree, because it’s allowing me to truly utilize all the training I have under my belt. Fire makes you a better cook, I think. I can’t wait to see all the food.”
Perno, Lynch, and Gerwin all point to eating near and cooking with live fire as a source of comfort. Perno posits that in contemporary times of discomfort and anxiety, perhaps people are gravitating more to fire because it is ancient, visceral, and uncomplicated. “Fire-cooked food is the ultimate comfort food,” he says, “something that reminds us of childhood; and that is fine. But as a fad? Nah, I don’t think fire has ever gone away, people are just realizing how much more you can do with it.”
Common Fire, 88 NM-150, El Prado, taoscommonfire.com
Los Poblanos Historic Inn & Organic Farm, 4803 Rio Grande NW, Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, lospoblanos.com
Dr. Field Goods, 2860 Cerrillos, Santa Fe, drfieldgoods.com
Candolin Cook is a history doctoral student at the University of New Mexico, an associate editor for the New Mexico Historical Review, and editor of edible Santa Fe. She spends much of her free time washing carrots and radishes at her husband’s vegetable farm, Vida Verde Farm, in Albuquerque's North Valley. Come check out their booth at the Downtown Growers Market, and follow her farm life on Instagram: @candolin and @vidaverdefarmabq.