We are hard-wired to be drawn to the smoky, charred and blistered. Deep in our cerebral cortexes, we flash back to mastodon steak in a cave dancing in reflected firelight. We have Proustian memories of campfire s’mores. Wood-fire cooking is perfect for September’s gathering sweater season.
Sometimes, the best trends go back to basics. And what could be more basic than cooking with fire? So, while the foams and gels of molecular gastronomy, the sous vide craze and other chem-lab culinary techniques have not exited the professional kitchen, flames from wood are having their comeback moment.
Consider this: Fully 80 percent of recent semifinalists for James Beard Best New Restaurant featured dishes containing the words “wood-grilled,” “smoked” or “ember,” noted the website Tasting Table. Here’s a sampling of hotel restaurants where fire rules the kitchen.
Greenville, North Carolina
The first thing you notice, even before the local art, is the come-on-in-y’all aroma from the wood-fired oven that is the hot heart of Villedge Wood-fired Kitchen and Bar. It’s an approachable dining experience that changes with the seasons, but staples such as wood-fired, dry-rub chicken wings and flatbreads rule. One current option: Pitt County hot, brown flatbread with pulled chicken, hoop cheddar, Carolina white barbecue sauce, tomato, applewood bacon, fig balsamic vinegar, tossed greens and apple.
Brooklyn, New York
Lest you think cooking with fire is just for arrrrrgh-y Fred Flintstone types, Reynard, Wythe Hotel’s upcycled Williamsburg factory building, thinks otherwise. Sure, it has wood-roasted skate or grass-fed steaks, but it also revels in vegan-friendly fire cookery. See savory starters such as warm, wood oven-roasted olives and a main of blistered zucchini draped in chickpea puree, wilted blossoms and crispy sunflower seeds. “Gourmet camp cooking,” gushed The Wall Street Journal.
Metropole exec chef Jared Bennett at 21c Museum Hotel Cincinnati likes to start with familiar ingredients, then play with fire. A good example from his artistic and seasonal menu is burnt carrot salad (with avo, pickled onion, feta, cilantro and toasted pumpkin seeds). He loves to show what fire and creativity can do for the bounty from the region’s sustainable farmers and producers. To wit: coal-roasted Kentucky silver carp (with wheat berries, celery root, snap peas and turmeric-almond milk).
Tom Colicchio’s Heritage Steak uses three varieties of grills in an open kitchen, including the familiar charcoal type, to send sensory frissons to his diners and bronze his steaks. “There’s something inherently wholesome about cooking over an open flame,” the Top Chef judge says. “It preserves the integrity of each ingredient and enhances natural flavors.” His menu, too, flares beyond red meat—to a 2-pound lobster Thermador with shaved fennel and mustard greens, for instance.
Huntington Beach, California
Breakfast, lunch and dinner—it’s all done on a 1,624-pound beast called an Infierno 96 at Tanner’s, which is the SoCal baby of Nate Tanner, vice president of food and beverage at Pacific Hospitality Group. His inspiration, he says, was friends gathered around a beach fire. But it’s not that simple. “You have to get the coals just right, the fire just right, the mix of wood perfect to create the right amount of heat and smoke that will ultimately give the best flavor to the food you cook,” he says.