Live Fire Trend
By Lisa Readie Mayer
Don’t take our word for it. According to Bon Appetit magazine, live-fire cooking is “a national phenomenon.”
This “hot new trend” (don’t tell anyone that it’s been around since the earliest days of human history), is being propelled by several things: the extraordinary flavor of food cooked over a live fire; the romance of building the fire and gathering with others to enjoy the mesmerizing flames and smoky aromas; a desire for natural and authentic food; and finally, the nostalgia and memories connected to the experience.
The resurrection of live-fire cooking, as with many culinary trends, began with chefs. As Bon Appetit points out, “The burning hearth has of late gripped the restaurant world. A wood-fired grill is a sensory experience, not only for the cooks, but for everyone – you see the flames; you smell the smoke. It feels like real cooking.”
But the phenomenon is hardly limited to restaurants; backyard chefs are equally enthusiastic. “The trend is blistering hot all over the world,” says barbecue expert Steven Raichlen. “It’s very big in restaurants, so that’s where many people are first exposed to wood-smoke flavors, and then they want to try it at home.” His latest book “Project Fire,” is a “graduate-level course in grilling over woods and solid fuels” and a follow-up to his best-selling “Project Smoke,” continuing the theme of time-honored, live-fire cooking methods.
Ox Restaurant in Portland, Oregon.
“Around the Fire,” a book by Chef Greg Denton and Gabrielle Quinonez Denton, co-owners of Ox Restaurant in Portland, Oregon, shows home grillers how to achieve the woodsy smoke flavors and theatrical drama of live-fire cooking, often encountered while dining out. They explain how to use every part of the fire – direct-grilling over the hottest section, indirect cooking off to the side and away from the heat, and even roasting directly in the embers – to produce delicious results.
“You will never get that added dimension of smoky flavor with a gas grill,” Greg Denton explains in an interview about the book. Gabrielle adds, “It’s a totally different pace – all about cooking slowly and savoring time together. The fire remains a focal point of the party when the meal is over.”
It’s not just nostalgic Baby Boomers driving the trend; even Millennials are drawn to it. Live-fire cooking over sustainable, solid fuels is in keeping with that generation’s desire for “authentic, clean living,” and a desire for communal connections. According to Millennial-trends monitor Ypulse, the trend is part of the cohort’s rekindled interest in other throwback techniques and pastimes such as pour-over coffee makers, knitting, crocheting, and vegetable gardening, as “a way of asserting control and finding comfort in an unstable world.”
Cool Equipment for the Hot Trend
A Millennial himself, Stebin Horne fell in love with live-fire cooking in his wife’s homeland of South Africa. He says the communal nature of the cooking method, known there as Braai, “brings everyone together,” adding, “Braai is the only common word among all of the country’s 11 different languages.”
Horne is trying to bring the concept to the U.S. with his KUDU grill. The cooking system features a pan to hold a wood fire, and multiple cooking surfaces such as grill grates and cast-iron skillets, that can be positioned at different heights above the heat. “Americans love this communal style of cooking,” he says. “People are realizing technology is a blessing and a curse, and they want to get back to natural foods, fuels and cooking techniques.”
A number of other live-fire or campfire grills have been introduced in the last few years, including the Outdoor Fire Pit Grill from Hitzer, Cowboy Cauldron, OPENFIRE, Blaze Cowboy Cooker, and both Mountain Man Grill and Lumberjack Tri-Pod Grill from Camp Chef.
Of course, kamados, pellet grills, smokers, and charcoal grills all also offer opportunities to enjoy the experience and flavors of live-fire cooking over solid fuels. Experts say the tremendous growth in each of these grill categories is due, at least in part, to the trend. “People are moving back to solid fuel,” says John Kuhns, owner of the Charcoal Rocket, a premium, made-in-America line of charcoal grills. “They know good food and are looking to upgrade to a more flavorful grilling experience.”
Interest in live-fire cooking has sparked the introduction of charcoal and wood-pellet grills and solid-fuel tray inserts by many premium gas-grill manufacturers. It is also breathing new life into retro grills, such as Grillworks, Portable Kitchens, and the Cajun Grill.
According to Gregg Guidry, sales of the charcoal-fueled Cajun Grill grew steadily for years, thanks to a strong dealer base and interest from “hardcore charcoal- and wood-cooking enthusiasts.” But, he says, sales had slumped by 2000, when a large percentage of the brand’s specialty-dealer network went out of business in the wake of competition from low-priced gas-grill imports at Big Box stores. Still, the family-run company continued quietly making and selling the heavy-duty-steel Cajun Grills online, out of their store, Percy Guidry Hearth & Patio, in Lafayette, Louisiana, and at a handful of other retailers in the South.
Cajun Preaux Grill by Percy Guidry, Lafayette, Louisiana.
Super Cajun Grill by Percy Guidry.
But, recently, as Guidry noticed a much broader group of consumers becoming interested in cooking over live fire, he felt the time was right for a re-launch. “People are seeing that cooking over wood and charcoal produces moister, more flavorful food,” he says. “They also understand that cooking with live fire is an event. Gas grills are convenient and they serve a need, but people are becoming more interested in taking their time, kicking back, relaxing in their yard, and enjoying the day with family and friends.
“Some of my best childhood memories are of being in the backyard while my dad was cooking on the grill. That process of lighting the fire, and smelling the smoke and the food, is something people are excited about experiencing again. They want to create those memories for their own families.”
He says he’s seeing a growing number of younger consumers purchasing Cajun Grills and buying into the live-fire concept. “They’ve gone through a couple of ‘landfill grills’ by the time they’re in their 30s and they’re trading up,” says Guidry. “They get it that you have to wait 15 minutes for a gas grill to preheat, which is about the same time to light charcoal, so the convenience argument is not that big of an issue for them.”
This spring, the company started shipping its Super Cajun Grill, an “evolved” stainless-steel version of its original, black, steel model. It also introduced the Cajun Preaux Grill, a souped-up, stainless-steel grill and smoker, with dual, adjustable-height fuel trays, and large, industrial-looking air vents on the front panel lending a distinctive look. The Cajun Preaux Grill series is available on a stainless-steel cart with two storage drawers, or, in a nod to another trend, as a built-in for an outdoor kitchen.
The Fuel Behind the Fire
As the live-fire trend takes off, people are paying more attention to the fuels they cook over. Just as they might want to know how a pig was raised before it became pork chops, and which local farm grew the organic greens for their salad, people want to know about the wood and charcoal they’re cooking with. They are catching on that grilling a free-range, locally-raised, organic chicken over inferior-quality fuel, defeats the purpose.
Meathead Goldwyn, founder and editor of the educational, science-based barbecue website AmazingRibs.com and author of the book “Meathead: The Science of Great Barbecue and Grilling,” voices concerns that some lump charcoals could be made from wood treated with preservatives, creosote, pesticides, fungicides, and other chemicals you wouldn’t want in contact with food. His website shows photos of rocks, metal, PVC pipe and other foreign objects that people have found in bags of cheap, substandard lump charcoal.
“The process of making charcoal is not government regulated or supervised in any nation that I know of, and quality control in Thailand might not be the same as in (the U.S.),” he says.
“Which charcoal and wood you use and how you add it impacts the flavor of your food enormously,” echoes Raichlen.
The notion is gaining traction, and along with it, a desire for quality, traceable wood and charcoal fuels. Last summer Bon Appetit magazine ran a full-length feature called “Forest to Table” about where and how chefs get the cooking woods they use in their restaurants. According to the article, “If there’s one ingredient that defines restaurant cooking right now, it’s the logs that fuel all those burnished, smoky, live-fire flavors.” Did you catch that? Wood is considered an “ingredient.” It matters.
“There is such interest in fresh, natural, and locally-sourced food, and with that comes the need for pure, natural fuels,” explains Ardy Arani, CEO and managing director of Big Green Egg. “As more and more chefs around the world use Eggs in their kitchens, our charcoal has become part of the flavor profile, so consistency from bag to bag to bag is key.” He says the company exhaustively searched, tested and trialed natural lump charcoals before creating its proprietary brand made from oak and hickory wood. “Chefs will often add locally sourced wood chips or chunks to the charcoal – sometimes even at a 50-50 ratio – as an additional flavor element,” he says.
Champion pitmaster, judge on the television show “BBQ Pitmasters,” and manufacturer of pellet grills and smokers, Myron Mixon, says consumers’ growing concerns about the food they consume, where it came from, how it was produced, and what’s in it, should extend to the fuel used to cook it.
“The fuel flavors the food you eat, so it should be all-natural and pure,” says Mixon. He has just introduced the Myron Mixon BBQ Pellets line of organic, sustainably sourced, cooking-wood pellets. “Some companies spray their wood pellets with artificial flavorings, but these are pure, made from organic trees that have never been treated with pesticides,” he says. “It’s all certified organic and we plant a tree for every one cut. That’s important to people. Retailers should encourage customers to vet the fuel they use, and educate them that pure, organic fuel makes a difference in flavor.”
Cooking-wood-pellet producer Smoker’s Dream makes its pure hardwood pellets using a unique water process, from wood sourced locally in Western New York State. It is completely transparent about the wood species in the bag so customers – including a growing number of competition champions – can be micro-specific about the flavor they want to impart.
For instance, the company doesn’t simply offer “apple-wood pellets,” it produces and packages apple-wood pellets according to specific varieties of apples, such as 100% Cortland pellets, Red Delicious pellets, or Crispin pellets. They plan to add McIntosh, Paula Red and Empire apple-wood varieties to their selection.
Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet Quebracho charcoal.
Restaurant and backyard chefs are increasingly matching a wood or charcoal to complement the flavor of whatever they’re cooking, much like they might pick a wine to accompany a meal. In the name of authenticity, grillers also are interested in fuels native to the region of the dish. For example, they might select Pimento Wood Jerk Charcoal sourced from Jamaica if they are making jerk chicken, or mesquite charcoal or wood chips if grilling a Texas-inspired menu.
Last year, Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet introduced a branded line of Quebracho Charcoal, an all-natural lump charcoal that burns exceptionally long with intense, dry heat, and almost no smoke, sparks or ash. The charcoal is made from sustainably harvested, 100% Quebracho Blanco wood, hand-picked, hand-cut and hand-fired in brick kilns in South America.
Quebracho Blanco – also known as “axe-breaker wood” – produces charcoal that is 40% harder than typical hardwood lump, meeting the exacting standards of Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet’s grillmaster Russ Faulk, who declared it “the best charcoal I’ve ever used.”
Others consider Binchotan to be the best charcoal in the world. Also called white charcoal, Binchotan is extremely hard, pure charcoal made from the pruned branches of the ubame oak tree, indigenous to Japan. It is hand-kilned by artisans who pass the technique and stewardship of the ubame forest from generation to generation. The carbonized Binchotan sticks, about two inches in diameter and six inches long, ring when struck together and burn slowly at low temperatures, with very little smoke to alter the flavor of the food.
Burnie 100% natural all wood self-burning grills.
Organic, Sustainable, Alternative Fuels
“Retailers tell us their customers want to buy Green products, especially when the price, quality, and performance are comparable,” says Michael Turnbull, vice president, North America for Grill Green, makers of all-natural charcoals and fire starters made from olive tree biomass. “People care about sustainability.”
According to Turnbull, olive trees are carbon-negative plants, requiring very little water, and are among the oldest trees in the world, living and producing fruit for hundreds of years. Though olive trees are protected plants in many places, making it illegal to cut them down, they must be pruned after every harvest. These fragrant, olive-wood trimmings are used to make high-density, long- and even-burning Grill Green lump charcoal and briquettes. Olive biomass left behind in olive-oil production is used to make Grill Green natural fire starters.
BioPolus Global produces Coconut Charcoal in the Philippines from 100% dried, clean coconut shells. The compressed briquettes are very dense and reportedly burn five times longer than traditional briquettes without smoke or flare-ups. The company also offers Eco Fire Nuggets, tiny pillow-shaped fire starters made of compressed pine-wood scraps and food-grade paraffin. The product is made in Israel and hand-packaged by people with disabilities, with 10% of sales contributed to reforestation efforts.
Many retailers throughout the U.S. and Canada are getting on board the solid-fuel, live-fire cooking trend, and now display a wide variety of natural woods and quality charcoals. They are guiding customers on the flavor profiles of different woods and charcoals and how to pair them with food. They are explaining the importance of using pure, quality, sustainable fuel.
If you’re not one of them, you should be. Live-fire cooking is an exciting trend that’s here to stay. It’s time to ignite the passion in your store.