Sometime in the past century, kitchens became laboratories and simple tools became boring; cooking came to necessitate elaborate gadgetry, and specialization ran rampant. At the extreme side of things were the gastronomical experimentations being done across the nation from New York City’s WD-50 (R.I.P.) to Chicago's Alinea. But in the home, too, we’ve long been obsessed with the hot, new thing, whether it’s a refrigerator-stove hybrid from the ‘50s or George Foreman’s Lean Mean Fat-Reducing Grilling Machine that has dominated our countertops since the mid-‘90s. Throughout all of this, though, the backyard grill has remained ubiquitous, with diehard grill-heads insisting on the tastiness imbued by flame and coal. Quite a few restaurants have carried this torch, too, but in a more holistic way, cooking food sometimes directly in a fireplace powered by little more than burning wood.
One such restaurant is Oakland’s Camino, which has been steadfast in its devotion to fire even as the style of cooking’s trendiness has come and gone over the years. Since opening in 2008, Camino’s cooking has been labeled as open-fire, or live-fire, or maybe even campfire cooking. The restaurant’s co-owner and chef, Russell Moore, insists on simply calling it, well, cooking. This makes sense when one sees the restaurant’s no-frills setup, which involves a kind of fireplace that Moore and his team accessorize depending on what exactly they’re cooking. Vegetables, for instance, can sometimes be cooked in clay pots that are snuggled into the fire. Or, the food can be cooked directly in the coals. (Onions and peppers specifically; but beets? Not so much. Moore insists that a beet cooked in coals tastes like ash.)
Talking to Moore, it becomes clear that the appeal of this style of cooking — whatever you want to call it — has nothing to do with the showmanship of the flames, or, as he puts it, how “macho” it might seem. “The goal of my cooks is to figure out the best way to cook the thing we're trying to cook,” he says. And, though he never explicitly says it, the fire seems to be best suited to this thanks to the freedom provided by its lack of constraints and the adaptability of his kitchen’s setup, one that he had a strong hand in designing. A fire, in its ability to cook literally anything, is the opposite of an ultra-specific kitchen gadget, and requires a kind of flexibility that Moore embraces to the point of not really even working from recipes.
“I don't like recipes. I don't like temperature gauges,” he says. “For me, that's not a real fun way to cook. When I'm cooking, I'm more engaged with the fire.” And engagement is what this whole thing is about. To hear Moore talk, for instance, about preparing a fish stock, it becomes clear that he’s replaced recipes and procedures with an intense knowledge of how to build, maintain, and utilize a fire throughout a long night of cooking. In an industry where high-concept is sometimes prized more than anything else, cooking with fire, as Moore tells it, is refreshingly practical.
“We might make fish stock, so we put a big pot in the fireplace right when we build the fire because we don't need coals for that sort of pot. As coals develop, we take the stock off and rake the coals out, and we might put grill grates down to grill some of the fish that's going in that. Sometimes we might grill the vegetables that go into the stock, and we'd do that the night before. I'm thinking about saving the fire and using all the heat from the fuel that we can.”
Still, it’s fire’s very adaptability that seems to make it suitable for home experimentation — all one needs is an appropriately ventilated space, or a yard. (Moore suggests against buying one of the popular, overcomplicated takes on Argentine and Uruguayan grills, which, with their incessant gadgetry, kind of fly in the face of the minimalism of cooking with fire. What’s more, these things are largely for restaurant use.)
As far as what type of wood to use, Camino uses primarily wood from orchards (cherry in the wood-burning oven, almond in the fireplace) for maximum sustainability, so, for those eager to cook in flames at home, long-burning, readily available wood is the priority, rather than trying to hone in on a wood that releases some particular fragrance or that might add to the flavor profile of whatever you’re cooking.
Moore, for what it’s worth, is wary of saying that one thing should be cooked this way or that, but he does say what he’s found works best for him. For example, he cooks a whole fish more slowly, “maybe wrapped in leaves,” while a fillet of fish will be grilled more quickly. Also, he prefers cooking in coals, rather than straight-up flames, to make sure your food tastes great. "Grilling over flames gives a really sooty, kerosene flavor,” he says. Another misconception about cooking with fire? “Not everything has to be burnt,” he says, laughing. Oh, and patience is key.
“Everything about the fire is a little bit slower. To make the fire right, it takes a few hours.” So, if there seems to be any recipe or procedure to cooking well with fire, it’s this: relax, experiment, and learn to utilize the fire for what you want to cook. Moore doesn’t veer into new age lingo when discussing his preference for fire, but as mindfulness and meditation come to dominate the workplace, it only makes sense that something as seemingly Zen as flame cooking should dominate a restaurant and, if one is so lucky, the home.
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