By Greg MoragoMarch 24, 2017 Updated: March 26, 2017 10:15pm
Fire is Alex Padilla's newest plaything. At the Original Ninfa's on Navigation, the chef slides a metal pan closer to his brick oven's hissing flames. Above the mix of cherry, apple and walnut wood, the purple octopus tentacles he's cooking shudder, blister and darken.
Padilla smiles: "Everything tastes better. No doubt about it."
All across the U.S., chefs are falling for live-fire cooking, using stoves, grills and broilers that burn wood or charcoal — equipment that can easily cost between $25,000 and $80,000. At much-praised restaurants such as Lilia in New York, to Husk in Nashville, to the flame-master show at Camino in Oakland, Calif., live-fire cooking is all the rage.
Previously, Ninfa's world-famous fajitas had been cooked on a gas-fired grill. Now, at last, they're sizzled over wood, on the five-month-old grill stove next to the brick oven. "I've been asking for this for ten years," says Padilla.
When Liberty Kitchen at the Treehouse opened in October, its kitchen boasted a 15-foot-long live-fire grill with grates and cooking surfaces perched directly above glowing coals of mesquite charcoal and hickory wood. "We're moving away from being restaurants cooking with electric and gas," said Lance Fegen, culinary director for the F.E.E.D. TX Restaurant Group, which owns Liberty Kitchen. "We're going to cook with fire — open coal cooktops that grill, sear, bake, and broil."
Chef Hugo Ortega, who has been cooking with wood fires since opening Hugo's 17 years ago, insisted on wood-burning grills and hornos (domed ovens) when he opened Caracol in 2014, and also at his new Xochi in January. Without smoky embers, Ortega would not be able to create wood-roasted oysters in mole amarillo, or charred octopus, or fire-crisped tlayudas (large, toppings-laden Oaxacan tortillas, which resemble pizza). At Xochi, the live fire toasts chiles for mole sauces. It also turns corn tortillas into black ash. Added to fresh masa, that ash creates a smoky, dark tortilla.
Cooking with live fire puts new demands on a chef. It's riskier and less predictable than cooking with gas, and it leads to the odd sight of chefs feeding the flames like a ship stoker or the town blacksmith. "You have to almost become an expert on how to burn wood and make coals," said Ortega, who recently received his sixth nomination for a James Beard Award.
"It's going back to the basics," said Kate Krader, food editor at Bloomberg Pursuits, who covers high-end restaurants and chefs. "For chefs it's thrilling and a reminder how cooking like that is elemental."
Chef Ronnie Killen agrees. "It's almost a primitive style of cooking," said the owner of Killen's Steakhouse, Killen's Barbecue, and Killens' Burgers in Pearland, the new Killen's STQ in Houston. "It's meat, man, and fire. It's how it all started."
At STQ, Killen uses a wood-burning grill, made by J&R Manufacturing in Mesquite, to sear steaks, lobsters, corn, and vegetables. It is, he says, a "modernized primitive cooking."
Patrons, not just chefs, seem to appreciate the fire's dramatic presence. At State of Grace in River Oaks, a seven-foot custom-made "hearth" is the theatrical heart of the restaurant. Almost all the restaurant's dishes pass through it, and seats at the chef's counter, which offer a front-row view of the hearth, are coveted.
"When the whole thing is rolling, it's shock and awe," said executive chef Bobby Matos. "There's flames, fire and heat. You'll go home smelling like smoke every day, but it's one of those things that if you have one, you never want to go back."
Of course, a fire-breathing beast must be fed. Each day, State of Grace's hearth burns close to three-quarters of a cord of pecan and oak.
At Brennan's of Houston, the restaurant's wood-burning stove, installed last year, chews through $300 live oak and pecan every months. But chef Danny Trace considers it money well spent.
"It puts us more in touch with the food as something we can control," Trace said. "Right out of the gate, it added so much flavor to the food and worked some real Creole magic. The flavor is like nothing else."
But wood is hardly a restaurant's greatest live-fire expense. At Coltivare in the Heights, chef Ryan Pera feeds mesquite to a Josper Charcoal Broiler Oven, a Spanish-designed Cadillac of cookers, as well as a Josper pizza oven. The most basic Josper model can cost $20,000.
It's worth it, Pera says. The oven "gives a beautiful, light charcoal flavor. It's not smoky, but just enough. It's like the commercial version of a perfect Weber. Everything we put on there tastes great."
The chef is so high on the Josper broiler oven that he insisted on having one at the new restaurant that he and business partner Morgan Weber will open later this year in EaDo: "It's the best piece of equipment we've had," he says. "It's never broken down. It's completely efficient. We're never opening another restaurant without a Josper."