Progress does not always connote forward motion. When man discovered how to create fire, civilization (and cuisine) immediately took a giant leap ahead. That was progress.
However, when we discovered thousands of years later that a fire fueled by gas or the heat from a coil could also cook our food, we may have taken a small step backward, at least in terms of flavor.
Of course, on-demand heat in our ovens, stovetops, and propane grills makes it easier than ever for anyone to cook almost any dish they can imagine in their home kitchen. But what have we sacrificed by snuffing out the traditional cooking fire? Apart from Fourth of July hot dogs and Boy Scout overnights, most of us grow up with little association between actual fire and our food.
Just as “organic” and “local” are really just a return to where food came from before factories raised our chickens and canned our beans, cooking with fire is nothing revolutionary. Although live fire may be a hot trend at the moment, it’s one whose staying power will long outlast the flames this little issue of Dish helps to fan.
A handful of chefs around Charleston were cooking with fire long before a bandwagon existed to jump on. Others have more recently embraced the traditional cooking method’s virtues, literally designing their kitchens around the need for a healthy woodpile.
Fortunately, for those of us who salivate at the idea of flames kissing the underside of a sirloin (or a squash), our options are growing by the minute.
Fired Up About History
In 1912, French chemist Louis-Camille Maillard unraveled a process that humans had witnessed since the discovery of fire. When we heat our food (to at least 309 °F, as it turns out), it tends to turn brown. The Maillard reaction explains what happens when a sugar and an amino acid react in the presence of heat, creating the brown layer on a piece of toast, a caramelized onion, or the outside of a T-bone steak.
Although most chefs aren’t concerned with the science behind the process, any cook worth their salt knows how to manipulate it to their advantage. Across the planet, cultures developed their own distinct methods of controlling fire for the purpose of cooking.
In India and central Asia, the tandoor oven remains in wide use for both meats and traditional breads like naan. The Japanese utilize yakitori grills, searing chicken skewers over red-hot charcoal. Newly opened Izakaya Hiro features a yakitori in an open kitchen where diners can watch chef Hideya Ishibashi roast both fish and poultry seconds before they’re plated and served.
Argentina is renowned for its asado, a staple method of cooking beef over fire, while the Southeast United States has developed both simple and elaborate smokers for slow-cooking a pig to perfection.
For a modern chef confined to an indoor kitchen, cooking over an open fire presents a series of challenges. Stoking a bonfire just a few steps away from where high-end entrées are plated makes for a heated kitchen environment. Nevertheless, for some chefs in Charleston, anything other than live fire was never an option.
If You Can’t Stand the Heat
“I can’t remember a day of work in the last 20 years when I didn’t start a fire,” exclaims Red Drum’s owner and chef Ben Berryhill. “My dad used to tease me that if we were out camping and everybody was looking for me, he knew exactly where I was. I’ve always been obsessed with fire, not only for food but for what it can do to metal and wood. It’s an amazing thing — fire is a foundation of life.”
Berryhill’s earliest memories include bonfires on his grandparents’ farm in east Texas, burning away fallen limbs and undergrowth. On a chilly winter day when he was 8 years old, he helped his grandfather slaughter a hog and cook it in the embers of a smoldering brush fire.
“We wrapped it with veggies in big leaves and burlap sacks and buried it in the coals,” he recalls. “That was the first time that I was like, ‘Wow, this is how you cook.'”
Eight years into Red Drum’s existence, Berryhill can boast that he’s likely burned more trees than anyone else in Mt. Pleasant (A note to gasping greenies: All of his wood comes from trees that were already being cut down). A pile of chopped oak behind his restaurant towers nearly a dozen feet into the air, with smaller piles of hickory and pecan wood tucked in its shadow.
Burning all that wood pays off. Standing over Red Drum’s fiery grill, Berryhill points out the hotspots. One corner tends to glow when it reaches 850 °F — that’s where the skirt steak goes. The cooler section handles poultry and fish.
“There are all kinds of heat in play here,” explains Berryhill, stretching a quail’s skin taut over the grill. “You’re conducting heat through the bars. There’s radiant heat just like if you cook something in the sun and there’s convection heat with all the air and smoke moving around the meat.”
It only takes about eight minutes for the quail (a fine specimen from Manchester Farms near Sumter, S.C.) to finish cooking. Served with a quartered link of venison sausage and a small cast iron skillet of jalapeño cheese grits, the fire produces a perfectly crispy skin while leaving the quail’s meat juicy and rich.
That’s the same principle behind the rotisserie chicken at Heart Woodfire Kitchen on James Island. For his debut as a restaurant owner and head chef in Charleston, Glenn Christiansen knew that fire had to be central to his kitchen. His may be the only restaurant in town to feature the holy trinity of fire: a wood-fired oven, rotisserie, and grill.
“Bringing cooking back to a time before modern appliances and kitchen equipment is part of the fun,” says Christiansen, who opened Heart last December. “Cooking over an open flame is just getting back to basics, but it’s also a major undertaking. Basically, there’s a big bonfire going in the kitchen throughout the day. You’re not just flipping a switch or turning on the gas. This requires constant monitoring to get the proper product.”
Nearly every dish at Heart touches a fire at some point in its creation. The restaurant’s success with diners reflects one end of a spectrum emerging in culinary circles across the nation. On one side are the rustic back-to-basics folks like Christiansen, simplifying their cooking processes to age-old methods, while at the same time increasing the manpower required. The other contingent is the molecular gastronomists utilizing advanced technology to simplify a food’s actual chemical makeup into its root molecules.
Without one movement, it’s impossible to say if the other would be thriving. Individual chefs are left to follow their passion and find a methodology that works for them. In Christiansen’s case, it’s all about fire and timing. Heart’s signature rotisserie chicken spends about an hour spinning slowly over the flame, basting itself as fat breaks down, moving through the meat as the Maillard reaction sets in.
“It’s tough to find juicy meat with crispy skin,” he says of the dish, served simple with a choice of cuts (leg, thigh, breast) and sides. “When the stars align and we nail it, that makes me happier than anything.”
Even the humble burger benefits enormously from the oak-fired inferno below it. Utilizing short rib, sirloin, and New York strip double-ground in-house, the hunk of beef is placed on a homemade egg-and-potato brioche bun and served with rich, juicy brown onions and a side of summer squash that’s doused in a Romesco sauce, derived from vegetables and peppers charred in the wood-fired oven and then puréed.
“When you’re dealing with a wood fire, a little bit of ‘burnt’ is flavor,” says Christiansen. “Smoky blending with sweet. It’s hard to replicate the product you get from a wood-fired grill or oven. They take food to a completely different level of flavor.”
Zach Middleton drinks about a gallon-and-a-half of water during a typical seven-hour shift manning the grill at Coast, subjecting himself to the 800 °F furnace for hours on end.
“I’m too old for this. It kills me,” says the 33-year-old sous chef. “I’ve never worked a station in 15 years of restaurant work that’s as hot.” Still, when Middleton serves up a perfect piece of fish, he doesn’t have any doubts that his discomfort is worth the effort. In a simple butter sauce, Coast’s escolar and scamp grouper fillets are the picture of fish done to perfection. Only the atmosphere of a fire-pit on a deserted tropical beach could improve the experience; the fish is cooked just right.
“You get a distinct flavor from the wood that you can’t get from a pan or a gas top,” says Middleton. “It’s very primitive but also complicated at the same time. You’re not just cranking up the gas. Manipulating your temperatures is something that takes time to learn.”
The young chef learned a few things the hard way. When several large groups filled the restaurant in January 2010, the over-worked grill emitted a “big white ball of flames” that entered the hood system, causing the restaurant to fill with smoke and prompting an evacuation. “It basically caught the chimney on fire,” recalls Middleton, who was working the grill when the incident occurred. “We’ve since remodeled the grill to make it a lot safer, adding a vent to shut off the flow of oxygen and a new fire suppression system. Before then, the cook would stand in front of the heat without any kind of protection.”
Chef Michael Scognamiglio experienced a similar moment this April when the fire in his wood-burning oven at Bacco spread into the ventilation system. Although it was extinguished in minutes, it underscores the respect that live fire demands.
After heating his oven to at least 700 °F for pizza and sandwiches during lunch service, Scognamiglio lets it cool to 400 °F for evening service, when he utilizes it for dishes like vongole al forno (baked clams) and a simple plate of roasted olives. In an open pan placed directly on hot coals, the Cerignola and Castelvetrano olives simmer in orange oil, rosemary, and salt, heating just enough to highlight their succulent flesh.
Scognamigilo also uses his oven to roast whole sea bass and vermillion snapper, as well as cooking whole porchettas (roasted pig) stuffed with sausage, herbs, and fennel for special events and catering requests.
“It’s one of the coolest things to do,” says the chef of cooking an entire pig (he’s done as many as four at once). “They cook overnight and the next morning, this beautiful porchetta is cooked and ready to be served.”
Along with Coast and Red Drum, Cypress’ Craig Deihl was one of the first chefs in Charleston to embrace cooking with live fire. His grill, outfitted with a wagon wheel that allows him to adjust the surface level over the embers, is the first of its kind in town, in use since Cypress opened 11 years ago.
“The idea was that any steak cooked over wood is already going to taste better than anyone else’s because it’s cooked on a better source,” says Deihl of his reasoning for making the move to open-fire cooking. “All of our steaks really showcase this grill.”
In the summertime, Deihl likes to highlight his lamb dish, served with a black olive and anchovy oil, Greek yogurt, and souvlaki from the lamb’s shank cooked in Cypress’ smoker. After searing the lamb (sourced from Virginia’s Border Springs) over the grill, it’s finished in a cast iron skillet. The adjustable grill level allows Deihl to angle the pan and fully encompass the meat in melted butter, giving each bite a rich flavor throughout.
Deihl underscores the importance of building a red-hot base of embers. “You don’t want to be cooking as you add wood,” he explains. “If you throw a steak on the grill while a log is emitting that initial carbon, you’ll taste that in your meat. With really green wood you’re going to experience the same thing.”
At Cypress, Deihl’s favorites include pecan, apple, and cherry, with oak and hickory serving as the base. Seasoned hardwood is paramount to a successful cooking fire. Trees like pine and eucalyptus might emit pleasant odors as they smoke, but their soot will overpower and ruin the flavor of anything cooked over them.
Cooking Out Under the Stars
When Nathan Thurston got the offer to head the kitchen at Stars, a new King Street restaurant opening this summer, he knew he’d found a good fit.
“They told me that the focus was cooking over wood,” says the former leader of The Ocean Room on Kiawah Island on the deal-sealing factor. “I was the kid who loved to burn the shit out of a marshmallow and eat the char off of it.”
Stars’ centerpiece is a monster wood-fired grill and rotisserie custom-built to Thurston’s specifications (read his essay on p. 86 for more). According to the chef, it’s the first grill that Texas manufacturer J&R (they also built the grills at Cypress and Heart) has constructed with both a rotisserie and the wagon wheel grill control, allowing careful heat manipulation over the fire and coals. With the grill weighing in at 3,700 pounds, Thurston gets visibly giddy when showing off pictures of the thing unloading on King Street (which literally required stopping traffic for the forklift to maneuver it in the front door).
“It’s an exhibition grill,” Thurston admits. “This is designed to prepare amazing food while putting on a show at the same time.”
The grill’s fire will be visible to guests in the dining room, with whole chickens, legs of lamb, and rabbits spinning on the rotisserie’s skewers. Thurston, however, says he’s most excited about the opportunity for roasting vegetables, from tomatoes to mushrooms, for the creation of sauces, vinaigrettes, and side dishes.
“There’s a small window between grilled and burnt, and if you can find yourself in those parameters, then guests are going to love it,” predicts Thurston. “What’s beautiful about this type of cooking is that it tests your skill from a lot of different angles. You have to understand what kind of wood to burn, the aging process that wood is in, the wet and dry seasons’ effect on the wood, and how to maintain the grill itself.”
Cleaning out a wood-fired grill is a messy task, adding another element of difficulty to cooking with fire in an open, fine-dining kitchen. But to the growing number of chefs who swear by live fire as the best way to cook, the method is worth all of the sacrifices. “You can have all these designs and gadgets in your kitchen, but at the end of the day, this is really about knowing how to start a fire and maintain and position your coals,” says Thurston. “It’s an art form.”
Red Drum’s Berryhill echoes that sentiment, likening a sauté cook to a “rapid fire Speedy Gonzalez,” whereas manning the grill requires developing a careful, methodical sense of timing. “Fire is the heartbeat of this restaurant,” says Berryhill, showing off his arms and hands pock-marked with burns, including a scar from his first day at Red Drum’s grill, dubbed “the Beast.” “I love it. There’s just something primal about it.”
With that Berryhill rips the leg off of a quail with his teeth, soon followed by a hulking forkful of skirt steak.
“This is a really thought-out process of how we can get the most flavor from this cooking medium,” the chef says before taking a bite and letting out his honest-to-God feelings about the food he’s eating. “That’s fucking good.”
Where to Find Ovens Stoked with Wood in Charleston
Al di La
This Italian spot fires up its oven for specialty pizzettes and other nibbles in the bacaro.
From olives to pizza, Michael Scognamiglio puts his oven to excellent use.
The wood-grilled fish is the number one attraction at this downtown favorite.
Craig Deihl has perfected his technique, using a wagon wheel to dial up the heat when necessary on his grill.
These guys started as a mobile wood-fired oven outfit but settled in Park Circle a few years back, serving signature crispy and charred pies.
Chef Kevin Johnson cooks whole fish for the table in his oven, along with plenty of other innovative dishes.
Heart Woodfire Kitchen
The fire is the heart of this new restaurant, which has a rotisserie grill and a big brick oven.
Most everything here gets imbued with smoke from the oven, but nothing benefits from it quite like the cornbread.
Chef Frank Rinaldi turns out nearly 300 pizzas a day from his blisteringly hot Mugnaini oven.
White oak fuels Monza’s massive pizza oven to temperatures as high as 1000˚. A perfect vehicle for crisping up their Neapolitan pizza crust.
Old Firehouse Restaurant
The oven here is mainly reserved for their delicious pizza pies.
The Beast, as Ben Berryhill has dubbed his grill, touches nearly every dish in the place and gives Red Drum its signature flavors.
This wine bar mainly uses its oven for good, old-fashioned pizza pies. Try the coq au vin.
Seasonal, Neapolitan pizzas get turned out of Vespa’s custom Mugnaini wood-fired oven.