It’s back! Once the preserve of the first summer barbecues in the country, wood-fire cooking is back in the limelight – including in our cities.
Anytime, anywhere, from bistros to fine dining, enthusiastic chefs and foodies of all persuasions are opting for this ageless (or almost) method of cooking. And it is not hard to understand why!
Back to Basics
In the wake of Covid, we are in need of reassurance. And this is where traditions play a role. When it comes to food, this fundamental trend is expressed in France through the celebration of classic dishes, from hearty home-cooking to fine-dining and… cooking methods as old as time. A recent report commissioned by TheFork, an online restaurant booking platform present in 12 countries, confirms this: "The return of cooking over fire, which is very primitive, reflects our interest in age-old know-how." Which is not exactly surprising. Our mastery of fire dates back to the Paleolithic era – to around 500,000 years BC. What is more, and contrary to popular belief, fire was not the focus of fratricidal struggles, but drew people around it!
A Variety of Tools
If wood fires are enjoying a comeback, this is also thanks to the proliferation of useful products and accessories. For example, high-performance charcoals, such as Japanese binchotan, whose exceptionally long burn gives off no smoke or unpleasant odors. In Paris’ 1st arrondissement, the chef of Charbon Kunitoraya has opted for the charcoal of his natal prefecture: Kochi, on which he cooks blue lobster, Bresse chicken pieces, and other dishes. The Big Green Egg is also one of the must-haves of the moment. Originating from the USA, inspired by the ovoid clay ovens of East Asia, and made from ceramic developed by NASA, this cooker can be used to grill, sear, roast, simmer, smoke, and more, expanding the field of possibilities for chefs who are never short of ideas. One such chef being Francis Mallmann, who heads up several establishments, including a popular restaurant at Château la Coste near to Aix en Provence. This renowned Argentinean chef likes, for example, to cook fish in a wood-fired oven – albeit on terra cotta tiles for crispier skin…
A Certain Know-How
An opportunity to reiterate that behind every tool is a cook, amateur or pro, and therefore a technique to master. And therein lies the beauty of wood-fire cooking. "I learned to cook with an oven, a thermostat, probes – nice and easy. But with a wood fire, all bets are off, there is something unpredictable about it," says the chef of Brasserie Dubillot, located close to Paris’ Marais district, in an interview with French newspaper Libération. Bourdonnais veal cutlets, Salers flank steak, and even skate wings all go on the embers. "I want to cook everything that way and also try my hand at cooking with ashes, for example celeriac. There’s lots to explore, even if you do have to focus. "
From Starter to Dessert
And it is not his fellow chefs who will contradict him! Throughout the world, they are playing with fire like never before. Anything goes! In the Basque country, at Elkano (one Michelin star), hake kokotxas – which use the lower parts of the fish head – and whole flounders are grilled over a wood fire to attract gourmets of all persuasions. In London, another Michelin-starred establishment, Brat, also uses this technique to add smoky notes to its cheesecakes. In Paris, at Braise, the first green asparagus of the season are seared on the barbecue, squid are sautéed over the flames, prime ribs of 30-day dry-aged Blonde d’Aquitaine beef are cooked over a wood fire… Proof that our passion for this mode of cooking will continue to burn for a long time to come!