Playing with fire

Jim Banks considers the evolution of open-fire and charcoal cooking, demonstrating how the oldest culinary process is still rife with innovation

Cooking began with open fires, when humans realized some food tasted better after exposure to heat. Now, the sight of flames in a restaurant is part of the theater of dining out, a flash of authenticity in increasingly high-tech kitchens.

For diners, the thrill of an open flame in the kitchen adds to the atmosphere, particularly when open kitchens are becoming more common. It creates a deeper connection with the chefs and their art. And cooking over an open fire lends that smoky aura to the food, which is a firm favorite for many diners.

“It is the original cooking – the first thing that humans did,” says Paul Bartlett FCSI of KitchenSolutions Consulting based in Baltimore, Maryland, US. “Charcoal cooking is a bit of a refinement and some people like the flavor, though wood-fired and gas-fired pizza ovens produce the same flavors. But there has been a renaissance of open-fire cooking. Everyone loves to see it.

“The pandemic has seen a lot of outdoor activity, so many people have chosen to have social gatherings outside with an open fire,” he adds. “Open fire is great for quickly searing meats or vegetables which are then finished in a different way, and it is very versatile, as well as being very efficient if you are a good cook. You have to be a good cook because using an open fire it takes more skill than working with combi ovens. Open fire is a differentiator – it says we have real cooks.”

Authentic flavors

The flavor and the performance are all part of the theater of cooking, which is no less important than service in the diner’s mind.

“Generally, when I end up specifying this type of equipment the discussion is driven by the visibility of the kitchen and the show the chef wants to project,” says Ted Doyals FCSI in Dallas, Texas, principal at Ricca Design Studios. “The other aspect is authentic flavor. We do a lot of traditional Mexican food and chefs want the wood or coal-fired flavor.”

“Investors want things in the restaurant that will keep customers coming back, and fire is like an advertisement,” says German foodservice consultant Frank Wagner FCSI “The flavor and the performance of the cooking process are the important factors.

Innovation in an ancient art

Open-fire cooking is the same in principle as it was thousands of years ago, but it has not been immune to innovation. Cooking with the naked flame has branched off into charcoal cooking, which offers a different level of control.

Purists lean towards wood-fired cooking and are comfortable with wood as a fuel source because they know how to manage it to get the quality they expect, but it is a dying art form,” says Todd Griffith, VP of sales at Marra Forni. “Wood-fired is sexy and it has ambience – a mystique that gas doesn’t have – but it brings a lot of challenges, so many operators end up converting to gas, which is the trend.”

Gas-fired brick ovens can reach and hold a set temperature with the touch of a button, whereas wood-fired ovens require a high level of skill. “A brick oven is really just a fireplace, and it is much harder to maintain a constant temperature with wood,” Griffith adds.

“Wood-fired pizza ovens have not changed much over thousands of years,” adds Wagner. “But people want food cooked as quickly as possible, so there is some development, though traditional cooking methods don’t change much as they are often part of the culture of an area or country.”

Traditional appliance, modern technology

That said, the Josper range of charcoal ovens and grills have become something of an industry standard, as they work at high temperatures, smoking and grilling simultaneously.

Harrison charcoal ovens are also known for their robust design and their ability to give chefs control over fire as a means of cooking.

“Brick-oven cooking is a larger market than ever,” says Griffith. “They are the second-oldest cooking appliance known to humankind. The Romans were building them 2,000 years ago. In fact, we build the ovens the same way, almost, as they did 2,000 years ago, but we have taken this traditional appliance and integrated modern technology to make them easy to clean, efficient, user-friendly and consistent in terms of product. We have also eliminated the need for extensive training.”

Marra Forni has introduced a new level of control, as can be seen in its RT model, which features an internal rotator and a touchscreen interface. It also has an engineered exhaust designed into the body of the oven, so the eyebrow hood many other models require is no longer needed.

“Many customers have traditionally used conveyor ovens, but the rotator is just a round conveyor, which means just one operator can work the machine rather than two – someone feeding the product in and another pulling it out,” says Griffith. “The rotation speed and the temperature can be set precisely to deliver the desired result, but operators just load and unload, which means less work and less skill involved than with a static oven.”

Marra Forni is also working on a digital interface with bluetooth and cloud technology as the next step in control, and has created a new stackable electric deck oven, recognising that there is a growing mandate for electric cooking, especially in the US.

UK manufacturer Charlie Oven has also taken an innovative approach to the principles of charcoal cooking with its highly versatile workhorse for both home and professional use. “Open fire is dramatic and Viking-esque, and it has a theatrical element,” says Tara Quick, the company’s co-founder and CEO. “It is very primitive but it is about drama. Our ovens are fast and easy to use, with few moving parts, and are great for outdoor spaces in hospitality.

“You can cook either way – with closed ovens or open fire – and get similar results, so you have to choose what aesthetic you are going for. The look and feel of open fire is dramatic, but our product is a different kind of dramatic. You can see what is inside when you open it and you can use it open too.”

Science and art

Though simple in principle, cooking with open flame or charcoal still requires a high degree of experience and knowhow. “It needs a lot of chef skill and that is a challenge,” says Doyal. “It is not like a combi oven. It is not for the entry level employee to deal with and chefs must understand the process.”

Quick, however, has found that trials with experienced chefs have sometimes resulted in them choosing to switch from open fire cooking to the Charlie oven. “With open fire it is harder to manage the flame because fire consumes oxygen and the level of oxygen is hard to control,” says Quick. “In a closed oven you have more control over the heat. Also, charcoal is a precious resource, so you get more value by cooking in a closed environment, which uses around 45% less fuel.

“In terms of change over time, I think the godfathers are people like Josper, the most iconic grills and in most prestigious culinary operations,” she adds. “Our oven has a large food chamber, a big cooking area, so we have not changed the technology, but the style is designed for use in today’s kitchens.”

Open fire and charcoal cooking are here to stay but there is room for innovation. As kitchens become electric and as more focus is put on health and wellbeing in the kitchen, both styles will have to adapt. The key will be to marry the theatre and flavour of ancient cooking methods with the demands of the modern foodservice industry.

Jim Banks