Wood-fired cooking goes back to early man. You might say that the smoky, delicious flavor from a wood-burning grill is in everyone’s DNA. Wood-fired cooking remains alive and well today. Chefs can — and do — cook almost anything over a flame, from steaks on the grill to paella in a skillet. Restaurateurs continue to cash in on diners’ love affair with the taste and theater of the open-fire process.
Wood-Fired Design Expertise
JME Hospitality, has become an expert in wood-fired grills over the years after designing many restaurants that feature grills and fire pits. “A wood-fired cooking station gives great flavor and, if it’s in the open, great ambience,” he says. “If you go to an open-flame barbecue, the experience is a lot different from a place that cooks menu items in an oven in the back where you can’t see [them].”John Egnor, principal of foodservice consulting firm
Open-fire cooking methods can go beyond a grill, spit or rotisserie. Egnor describes Salt Lick BBQ, with several locations in Texas, which has a large eight-foot pit with a hood over it. Cooks stand at the rim with buckets of sauce, basting the cooking meat. Another location, a soon-to-open steakhouse in Philadelphia, includes a wood-burning grill inside a fireplace that Egnor previously designed. “You have to understand fire brick construction. It should maintain the level of heat coming off the coals,” he says.
The learning curve to producing wood-fired food that pleases the palate starts with knowing the rules when installing a wood-burning grill or pit. “You can pretty much do anything you want as long as you follow the rules,” Egnor advises. “It needs to have a separate, dedicated exhaust system. You also need to store the wood properly. You need something to put the ashes in safely. You need a fire extinguisher close by. All of these things you have to work into your design.”
Q&A With Jeff Lavine, Copper Canyon Grill, Orlando, Fla.
Copper Canyon Grill features wood-grilled steaks, barbeque ribs and wood-fired rotisserie chicken. The wood-fired theme even carries over to the restaurant’s loyalty program, called the Woodfire Club. Jeff Lavine, general manager and former executive chef, discusses the importance and implications of wood-fired cooking in Cooper Canyon Grill’s four locations.
FE&S: How important is wood-fired cooking to your menu?
JL: We are very food centric at Copper Canyon and we love the tremendous flavor you get from wood-fired cooking. About half ourmenu comes from the grill, including a lot of specialty items. It’s visible to our guests so it also adds to the ambience — it’s a sexy little thing!
FE&S: How long have you been cooking with fire?
JL: We’ve had the grill for ten years. It was new when the restaurant was built. It’s really stood the test of time. It’s a six-foot grill and we use it particularly because of its low maintenance. It’s insulated well so it uses less fuel than some.
FE&S: What kind of wood do you burn?
JL: We use white oak, a combination of kiln-dried and green. The kiln-dried burns easily when we start up the fire and the green product provides more smoke. The green burns slower and has more moisture content. It gives that beautiful grilled, smoky flavor you can’t get anywhere else.
FE&S: What about cleaning?
JL: We clean it while it’s still cooling down. There is nothing worse than cleaning a cold grill — you’ll be there for days. When it’s hot, everything brushes off easily. You can clean with simple soap and water and elbow grease.
You should clean during the day as well. If there is a spot of barbecue sauce, clean it before it gets sticky and gummy. You should also remove ash often. Don’t let it build up. The fire needs air to breathe and ash will smother it.
FE&S: What kind of tools do you use for cooking on the grill?
JL: We use professional, high-grade steel tongs and spatulas. We also use a barbecue pick to move the logs around and break them down to coals. You only cook over the coal bed, not over open flame. The logs don’t always break down by themselves.
We also use an industrial size stainless barbecue shovel to remove the ashes. The model of our grill has doors on either side that allow the ashes to fall into drawers for easy removal.
When choosing the grill, hearth or pit that best fits your operation, be sure it is for commercial use.
- Location: Front of the house or back of the house?
- Dedicated venting
- Menu: What items will cook over the fire?
- Wood-fired grill for grilling, spit roasting and rotisserie
- Wood-burning oven
- Open pit (with hood)
- Flywheel grill (adjustable heights)
- Tuscan or Brazilian grill (with a fire cage that holds logs behind the grill surface; coals are raked into the cooking area)
- Look for industrial grade stainless or cast-iron items designed for grilling.
- Skillets, pans, griddles
- Basting brushes
- Gauge to measure moisture level of wood
- Tools to handle logs and rake coals