FOREST TO TABLE: HOW THE
OLDEST COOKING METHOD
BECAME THE (LITERAL) HOTTEST TREND IN
If there’s one ingredient that defines restaurant cooking
right now, it’s the logs that fuel all those burnished,
smoke, live-fire flavors.
JUNE 8, 2017 BY JULIA KRAMER
My winter smelled of smoke. Night after night, I caught a whiff of burning logs, of fat dripping onto coals, of sourdough toasting and rib eyes charring and knobby carrots blackening over jumpy flames. This scent welcomed me to North Yarmouth, Maine, where chef Krista Kern Desjarlais bakes crackly Montreal-style bagels in a woodburning oven built into the side of her 544-square-foot cottage, the Purple House.
The aroma hit me when I walked onto the patio of Vicia in St. Louis and (unsurprisingly) into a hipster hangout named Campfire in Carlsbad, California. It recurred as a motif among four of the most talked about recent openings in Chicago, whether the cuisine was Argentine (El Che Bar), American (Elske), Mexican (Leña Brava), or Mediterranean (Publican Anker). And it—smoke—was visible through the kitchen window at the start of a $293-per-person tasting menu at Single Thread in Healdsburg, California, emanating from a pile of local almond wood.
It’s funny to call this return to cooking with fire a trend. If it is, it’s certainly the oldest trend in the book. And yet there is no arguing that the burning hearth has of late gripped the restaurant world, seeming to bestow the imprimatur of “serious chef” on anyone who embraces it. Over the past few years, live-fire cooking has gone from the province of backyard barbecuers and homesteader-type chefs (such as Russell Moore of Oakland’s Camino) to a national phenomenon. It’s become de rigueur among casino kitchens in Las Vegas and scene-y restaurants in Miami and Michelin-star hopefuls in Brooklyn. But no one’s saying it’s easy.You can point to Grillworks, the Michigan-based manufacturer whose grills—outfitted with steel crank wheels that look like the love children of a Weber and a medieval torture device—have become chef favorites. The company’s Infierno line, which you’ll spot in kitchens like Coqueta in San Francisco, starts at $29,000. But price aside, the ease of procuring and installing one of Grillworks’ gorgeous top-of-the-line setups has made wood-fired grilling almost as easy as cooking with gas. Not to mention the fact that as chefs spotted the shiny rigs in the kitchens of Dan Barber and Sean Brock, well, who wouldn’t want one of their own?
You can point to Mallmann’s Chef’s Table episode that aired in 2015.
You can point to the fact that the flames just, well, look cool.
Or you can sit down for a tasting menu, alone, as I did recently at an extremely beautiful restaurant in New York City. I was at a “chef’s counter”—the kind of setting that’s intended to create a sense of intimacy with the kitchen. But instead of feeling as though I had a first-row seat for No Reservations, I spent the meal thinking about how antiseptic the whole thing felt. Sure, oysters were shucked and steak tartares were gently tossed and perfectly rectangular slices of crudo were fanned onto plates, but where was the actual cooking? There was a coldness to the experience, a sense that all the sous vide–ing and mise en place–ing and tweezering had somehow frozen the joy, the gustatory pleasure, the hot, messy act of cooking.
The temperature of the hearth at The Dabney is not warm. The giant, extraordinarily well-ventilated fire pit—on which much of the restaurant’s food is cooked—doesn’t emit that snug, cozy feeling you get from your oven when, say, braising a brisket on a freezing day. The heat here is fiercer—scorching, actually, a violent permutation of hot that gets trapped in your cheeks. Standing two feet away from the flames, I feel it in my eyebrows, my forearms, the inside of my eyelids. The chef, Jeremiah Langhorne, seems to be in a more or less permanent condition of rosy-cheeked.
“Cai,” Langhorne says, addressing one of the cooks who mans the fire. “How many water bottles do you go through a night? Twenty?” Cai Lindeman half-smiles, grabs a fresh log from a stash underneath the hearth and shoves it into the fire, scrunching his face into a look of mild irritation as he nears the flames. He draws forward a pile of coals that burn so hot they’re not red; they’re white, glowing with an energy that makes them appear, from a certain angle, nearly translucent. Every so often a hot spark plops onto the kitchen floor, unnoticed, and burns itself out.
Getting that sear from the wood-burning grill at Reynard in NYC Photo by Peden + Munk
When I tell Langhorne about this experience, he nods in agreement. He explains that he’d come up with the concept for The Dabney while executing modernist Southern cooking at Sean Brock’s McCrady’s in Charleston, South Carolina. “You have one cook whose whole night is cooking 20 duck breasts,” says Langhorne of the repetition typical in a high-volume restaurant kitchen. “That’s no way to live. And a lot of cooks are starting to realize that.” With the layout at The Dabney, “the cooks are physically cooking.”
Tom Bayless, the chef of Urban Cowboy’s Public House in Nashville, expresses something similar. For years he turned out tasting menus at Nashville’s fine-dining chef’s counters: first the Catbird Seat, then Bastion. “I wanted to bring it way back down. I wanted to have more fun,” Bayless explains over the phone. “But I still wanted to cook around the people eating.” His solution was a restaurant that’s as close as you can get to sitting around a campfire. “Showing up to work and lighting a fire every day is, for lack of a better word, therapeutic,” he says. “You use way more instinct than trained skill.”
Photo by Peden + Munk
Unlike a sous vide machine or a Pacojet ice cream maker or a deck oven, a wood-fired grill is a sensory experience, not only for the cooks but for everyone in the room. You see the flames. You smell the smoke. It feels like real cooking. And maybe once in a while, it even makes you feel something.
“Imagine you’re at a party with a bunch of strangers, and there’s a fire,” March said, as we stood out on his front lawn between one of his kilns and a flock of mallard ducks he’d raised. “Complete strangers will walk up to the fire, stand close enough to each other that it would be outlandishly uncomfortable in any other environment, and stay there in complete silence for a long time, in total comfort with each other. And then, without any segue or transition, they’ll just start talking to each other, as if they’ve been friends since childhood.” March leaned against the rusty kiln, gesturing with his arms, a consummate actor. “There’s just something about fire.”
Jeremiah Langhorne (in checkered shirt) expedites in front of The Dabney's wood-burning hearth
Nearly every seat at The Dabney fills the minute the restaurant’s doors open, and Langhorne relays order after order to his cooks. Soft butter pools on top of cornbread that’s been baked in the hearth in cast-iron pans preheated to a solid 600 degrees. Sausage-stuffed quail glistens in its fat, the bird’s skin caramelized a deep golden brown from careful management over the coals. Short ribs are glossy to the point of lacquered, their crispness visible. The food at The Dabney is not really rustic, but the primitive hearth lends a guttural, visceral character to all of it.
“We had people who told us we were idiots for doing this,” the chef says, gesturing toward the hearth, which he opted for in lieu of gas lines. You’d be hard-pressed to invent a better poster chef for such an old-fashioned, low-tech cooking technique than Langhorne, with his Colonial Williamsburg–sounding name, love of century-old cookbooks, and penchant for chatting up his line cooks before service about which Virginia farmer sells the best Gold Rush apples and how to make “proper” watermelon molasses. He’s a soul from another era. “This is basically the closest I could get to just cooking food in a pit in the ground,” he explains. Except we’re not in an open field. We’re in the middle of a very busy restaurant in Washington, D.C.
When I ask Langhorne where he got the idea for a woodburning hearth, he reaches underneath his expediting table and wordlessly hands me a copy of Mallmann on Fire, the 2014 cookbook by the Argentine chef Francis Mallmann. In my experience talking to grilling-obsessed chefs, it’s typically only a matter of time before the conversation turns to Mallmann or to Etxebarri. (Chefs consider the latter, Victor Arguinzoniz’s temple to wood-fired grilling, an hour outside San Sebastián, Spain, an essential pilgrimage.) But Etxebarri has been around since 1990, and Mallmann’s been on TV since the ’80s. So why is all this happening now?
When I arrived at the dot marked on the GPS, there was no visible address, just a two-story-high pile of felled trees along the side of the road. As I pulled in to March’s driveway, he emerged from behind that log pile, grinning. “That’s the stuff we send to the restaurants,” he said, walking me toward a barn, half of which was filled with logs, split to precise widths, stacked neatly into four-foot-wide, four-foot-long, four-foot-deep cubes called pallets, plastic-wrapped like turkey sandwiches in a deli case. He gestured to a pallet of ash: “That’s what the pizza places like.” Hickory: “For steakhouses.” White birch: “If you burn it, it smells like root beer.” March stood beside a wall of tools. “I’d never even used a chain saw when I started,” he said. “Now I produce the best wood in the county.”
March grew up in Nova Scotia, went to McGill University, dropped out after a year, then stumbled into an acting agency on his door-to-door sales route hawking fake Rolexes. “They called me a week later and said, ‘We’ve got an audition for you,’” March said. So he went to Barnes & Noble and asked for the acting section: “I got a book on how to act, did my audition, and got the job.” The show was called Northwood, which he described as a “sort of Canadian 90210.” He got into modeling and moved to Milan, where he met his wife, with whom he has two children, ages 17 and ten. The family eventually ended up on New York’s Upper West Side, where March worked at a hedge fund until the economy collapsed.
Sawing logs in preparation for the splitter (left); kiln-dried firewood ready to be packaged and sent to restaurants (right)
Photo by Peden + Munk
March’s expertise lies not just in selecting the wood but also in drying it. It’s a legal requirement that wood be heated to 160 degrees before it’s transported to prevent the spread of invasive bug species. But consumers (especially chefs) demand wood that’s much drier than the law requires. Trees—think about them—are moist, waterlogged, and heavy. Properly dried wood burns cleaner and more evenly. So after the loggers drop off the goods on March’s lawn, the logs are cut into 16-inch-long blocks and then put through a splitter. (This machine is dangerous as hell, something March can attest to with his left thumb, which has been sewn back on.) Those strips dry out for a day or two, then are put into kilns, essentially dehydrators the size of shipping containers. The wood cooks at 260 degrees for two days, powered by a woodburning furnace filled with scraps: “the short bits, the long bits, all the crumbs—that’s our fuel,” March said. The kiln removes about 400 pounds of water from each pallet. “In the wintertime, we’ll actually have our own weather patterns,” March said. “It’ll snow here because we’re producing so much steam.”
After two days, the split logs come out of the kiln “dry enough to just about light with a match,” March said. “Eight years ago, it was amazing to have this incredibly dry wood. Now, if it’s not so ridiculously dry, the [customers are] furious.” The wood rests for another day, then gets wrapped in plastic before being delivered to restaurants, from the West Village pizzeria Kesté to Achilles Heel in Greenpoint.
Because firewood is considered a fire hazard in New York City, restaurants are officially allowed to store only one day’s worth of it outside a secured area, necessitating frequent delivery. But most places get biweekly—not daily—drop-offs, which partly explains why wood has become such a popular design element in restaurants, stacked at entryways and along walls the way old-school Italian-American restaurants used to store wine bottles; if the wood is part of the décor, it’s legal. The delivery to the city is March’s biggest headache—“How do you deliver firewood in a 26-foot box truck in Manhattan without double-parking?” he asked rhetorically—as well as the foundation of his business. Without a shipment of sunflower sprouts, a chef can sub in another green. Without firewood? The most committed live-fire restaurants wouldn’t be able to cook.
When I asked March if he’s ever worked with any difficult chefs, he laughed hysterically. Every restaurant he delivers to expects a particular product, and he’ll spend months working with a chef developing wood to a precise size and dryness. “If we don’t bring them that,” March said, gesturing over to a cube of ash destined for Kesté, “they’ve got an oven that’s going hot, cold, hot, cold, and then their pizza is either raw or burnt.”
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