Keeping the Home Fires Burning: Operators are On Board with Solid Fuel Cooking

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Some say the love of fire is a primal instinct; others simply find it a comforting way to cook. But there’s one common thread with people who gravitate to wood-fired cooking — they love what they do.

Andrew Richardson, executive chef of CinCin Ristorante in Vancouver and author of the new cookbook CinCin: Wood Fired Cucina, says he’s been passionate about wood-fired cooking throughout his career. At CinCin, he had an opportunity to pursue that passion when it came time to replace an aging Forno pizza oven. “I saw it as an opportunity to breathe new life into the menu, so we replaced it with a wood-fired system from Grillworks.” The Argentine-inspired six-foot-wide appliance, which cost approximately $27,000, has become a centrepiece of the kitchen, he says.

The system has an oven unit with a stainless-steel front and heavy brick at the back that provides the space to burn the wood. Vents at the base allow air to flow through. As the wood burns down, it drops under the grill, so food can either be placed in the oven box or on trays over an open flame.

“Wood-fired has become the heart and soul of our menu,” Richardson says, adding that more than 90 per cent of the dishes have an element of wood firing.

Depending on availability and menu items, Richardson uses apple, birch or alder wood. “The flavour that comes through with apple and birch is very nice and because they are harder woods, they burn longer. The embers last longer, as well, and create a nice glow for cooking meat and fish. Alder is more combustible, making it ideal for situations when you need high heat fast.”

He says cooking with wood is also healthier. “It’s very simple because the flavours imparted from wood are quite incredible. You just need some vegetable or sunflower oil.” There are so many facets when it comes to working with a wood-fired appliance, he adds. “I can put root vegetables and onions in the coals and leave them overnight. Sometimes we smoke fish and vegetables. At times we use a bit of charcoal to maintain the fire through busy periods.”

While the ventilation was already in place for a wood-fired oven, he says the restaurant had to substantially upgrade the extraction system. Training staff involves a considerable learning curve, Richardson says. “It takes quite a bit of learning to work with fire. It’s always different. Some days the wood is damper and harder to light; other days it’s dry and highly combustible. It’s not like you can set it at 375° and walk away. You have to watch it and work with it all the time.”

Chef Jonathan Gushue has also found his calling with a full-on wood-fired menu at The Berlin restaurant in Kitchener, Ont. He discovered cooking with wood in 1994 when he was in Japan. “That was my first exposure to using solid fuel. After that I just kept experimenting.”

Gushue says every dish — from seafood and shellfish to soups and poultry — has a wood-burning element. “It seems everything lends itself to a grill. When we get mussels, oysters, squid or mackerel, the results are amazing.”

He loves the versatility of wood-fired cooking. “Everything reacts differently compared to a pan or conventional oven. There’s a lot more to it, because you need to find out the effects of chemical reactions of the wood and meat or fish. What’s interesting is that the heat is very direct, so you can move something two or three inches to the left and the temperature will drop 300°.”

His 48-inch Grillworks has movable shelves and a 24-inch split grill. “The shelves can be really anything. The hearth is the more important part because it provides a proper place to build the fire.”

His woods of choice include apple, cherry and peach. The key to working with wood, he says, is planning ahead. “You have to be organized in advance because you can’t just turn it on. It takes a lot of organization.”

While he likes his Grillworks, he says he has seen a lot of innovation in appliances, especially in the southern U.S., where wood-fired cooking is a long-established art. “There are some people out of Texas who are doing great grills, including units you can pop in and you don’t need a hearth.”

Stewart Roberston, owner of Crown & Anchor, a Toronto-based catering business, had to head south to get his hands on the wood-fired smoker he uses at catering events and farmers’ markets. Since starting his business three years ago, he says he’s had fun learning about wood flavours and what goes with certain meats.

His vertical unit came from Stumps Smokers in Georgia. “The beauty of working with wood is that it teaches you thermal dynamics and using air to fuel fires. I started seeing these vertical smokers at barbecue competitions. When I saw the one I wanted, I knew it was the best for portable use.”

By the time he took care of the exchange and shipping, the smoker cost $5,500. The cabinet weighs around 500 lbs. and has all the necessary accoutrements for moving it around, including D-hooks for strapping it down and all-terrain wheels. It also features an all stainless-steel interior, while the outside is double-wall steel construction filled with military-grade steel wool. “Even it if runs 12 to 15 hours, it’s barely warm to the touch,” he says. “That meant a lot since I’m often in parks where kids are around.” Greg Brown, owner of Woody’s Burgers in Toronto, is hanging his competitive hat on wood-fired grilling in the QSR space. “Very few people do that in quick-service because of the cost,” he says. A low-end gas grill can be as little as $700, while the grills he has in his two locations (plus three others he takes on the road for his corporate catering business) are $10,000 apiece. Add to that the cost of implementing a separate exhaust system and the added fire-suppression system requirements and costs easily double. Brown sources his appliances from Aztec Grill in Texas. Between the two restaurants, he estimates he uses four cords of wood every six weeks for an average monthly cost of approximately $800.

Since the staff members are not trained chefs, employees have to go through extensive training, he adds. “Even if we have a person from a culinary college, they don’t have a lot of experience on grills like this. With this type of cooking, you’re only a second away from a grease fire if you do it wrong.”

Brown admits there are days he wishes they were using gas-fired grills instead. That said, he wouldn’t have it any other way. “It’s simply better food. We get to do a lot of things customers like.”

Volume 49, Number 9
Written By Denise Deveau 

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