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How Two Local Restaurants Are Playing With Fire

From smoking tomatoes to burying cabbage in coals, Brewery Emperial and Vicia are harnessing fire as an effective kitchen tool.

  • 11 min to read

Chefs will be the first people to tell you that it seems silly to say that wood-fired cooking is a trend in the restaurant industry – it is, after all, the oldest cooking method on the planet. Yet in the past decade, cooking over a live fire has been heating up in kitchens across the country. As the wave of using modern gastronomy techniques like foams, spheres and even sous vide has cooled, chefs are seeking the added dimensions of smoky flavor and char that cooking over a live fire can impart.

At The Dabney in Washington, D.C., for example, chef Jeremiah Langhorne became famous for opening a restaurant in 2016 with no gas lines: Almost everything is cooked over a live fire. Langhorne was inspired by Argentine chef Francis Mallmann; live fire, is, of course, essential to Argentina’s cuisine and asado culture. Both Sean Brock at Husk, in Charleston, South Carolina, and Dan Barber at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Tarrytown, New York, also feature wood-fired dishes prominently at their acclaimed restaurants.

Diners can watch the flames jump, sparks fly and smell a pleasant smokiness in the air as fish is seared to order in a screaming-hot pan or an entire goat shoulder roasts above the flames, enhancing an open-kitchen experience even further.

It’s not uncommon, for example, on a cold winter evening, for Andrew Dessert to notice someone hovering at the chef’s counter at Brewery Emperial, holding up their phone to snap a photo. “Dude, go over there,” he’ll say, beckoning the diner into the open kitchen and toward the large brick grill. “Get up there. Ask questions!”

As former chef de cuisine at the restaurant and brewery in Kansas City’s East Crossroads district, Dessert knows that the 8-foot-wide, custom-built wood-fire grill in the open kitchen, which takes up almost an entire wall at the back of the restaurant, is a draw for customers.

“I think people really, really like it,” he says. “You don’t see it too often: It’s different.” Dessert joined the team about six months before the restaurant opened. He and chef-owner Ted Habiger – who was already well-known for wood-fired cooking at local favorite Room 39 and the late, great Café Allegro – only had about three weeks to get a feel for “the grill,” as they call it, before the brewery and restaurant opened in December 2016.

The grill was built by Eddie Rice, a mason who had designed fireplaces before, but never a restaurant grill. The metalwork was built using iron from the original Golden Ox steakhouse in Kansas City (the outdoor smoker is also from Golden Ox). The team knew the grill would need to be used for different types of cooking, varying heat levels and wanted the option to be able to move things around.

“I think that was the influence [for Ted],” Dessert says of the menu. “He was like, 'If we’re gonna have a restaurant, let’s do it right – open kitchen, [with] that [live fire] so that people can sit at the chef’s counter, look in and enjoy themselves.'”

The three-walled brick grill features iron bars across the top, close to the hood and relatively far from the flame; vegetables and other ingredients can sit up there and absorb smoke at a low temperature. On the bottom, a small stack of wood, aided by scraps of newspaper, and hot coals can be moved around wherever they’re needed. There’s a metal firebox, which Habiger likens to a “bottomless breadbox.” It can be set over the grate and closed on the top to get convection-type heat going on both sides of a piece of meat simultaneously.

The iron grill-grates are in a stack of three over burning coals for different levels of heat, although they can also be moved around. The configuration allows for multiple fires to be going in various spots in the grill. The grates can also be easily removed to accommodate, say, a whole hog, or a rotisserie. Dessert can even set a cast-iron spoon on the coals and fry an egg.

Back in 2016, when he was still working to open Brewery Emperial, Habiger admitted that this wasn’t the easiest way to cook in a restaurant. The fire is temperamental; the technique more intuitive. Dessert tends to agree, and he stresses that cooking on the grill usually takes several weeks of training for even experienced cooks.

“You want it like this at all times,” he says, gesturing to the grill, which is crackling steadily. “I couldn’t even tell you temperature – [it’s] instinct, feel. Visually, you can sit there and touch it all day and see if it’s ready or not, but you just gotta know.”

One of the signature dishes at Brewery Emperial is the wood-fired half chicken, which runs on special every Thursday.

When the kitchen crew arrives in the morning, they light the grill at about 9:30am, “throw a couple chickens” on hooks from those top racks and essentially have chickens cooking and smoking all day, “because if we run out, we’re kinda screwed.” The chickens on special are grilled; the ones smoking on hooks are destined for salads and other dishes.

The cook working the grill has to make sure the fire is fed with oak logs, and that the coals and embers are being stoked constantly to produce varying levels of heat and smoke. When a guest orders the whole grilled trout, for example, the cast-iron skillet set on the grill has to be much hotter than for other dishes, or the skin will stick.

“We throw it right on there, skin on – you gotta make sure that grill’s hot, otherwise you’re going to ruin the dish, because you want skin crispy and the rest firm,” Dessert says. “You can tell when whoever’s on the grill messed it up because they sit there and stab at it [because the skin sticks]. ‘Where’s the skin, man?’ You want it to be nice and crispy.”

The fire is finally allowed to die out at the end of the night, but the bricks don’t cool off until 5 or 6am. In a few short hours, it’ll be lit again.

Meat, of course, benefits most from the wood-burning, live-fire grill. Earlier this year Dessert used it to cook a whole hog: He hung it up by its trotters from the top of the grill, removed the metal grill grates, covered the three walls of brick with hot coals and cooked it for about 18 hours, feeding the fire with a piece of wood every once in a while and rotating the pig a few times.

“[We do it] to be different – you gotta separate yourself a little bit,” Dessert explains. “Anyone can use a smoker. Not everybody has the opportunity to use an open wood-fired grill, and we gotta utilize it as much as we can.”

For example, this afternoon, Dessert has a tray of tomatoes smoking on the top rack of the grill at the same time that a row of eggplants for caponata are charring at the very bottom, directly on the coals. Both will end up puréed, but a hint of smoky flavor will remain. The grill is not only a vehicle for heat; its use alone can change the flavor of an ingredient or dish.

“Those are tomatoes for a sauce for [fried] pickles – smoked tomatoes with garlic and parsley, then just purée that up. We let it sit there for an hour or so,” he says. “I could just purée those tomatoes or roast them in the oven, but it’s not gonna have that flavor. I think the smoke represents Kansas City quite a bit. We do a little bit of barbecue, but [the grill] deepens that flavor.”

That flavor, he says, is smokiness, yes, but it’s not the same smoke you’ll find with meat cooked in a smoker or the instant smoke flavor of mezcal.

“The smoker’s obviously going to intensify that [smoke] flavor [more] because it’s 200ºF and you’re just circulating that around,” Dessert explains, “whereas in here, the hoods are pulling up some of that. You’re still going to get that flavor, but not as strong. It depends on what you want.”

Ribs go in the smoker, for instance, and chicken on the grill, but peppers work in both: The hearth actually smokes and dehydrates the peppers simultaneously for Dessert to use in chorizo meatballs or as a chicken rub.

Dessert says he hopes to see even more restaurants in Kansas City experiment with wood-fired cooking.

“I know there’s a few places in Johnson County that do wood fire… I would like to see others in Kansas City,” he says. “It’s intimidating when you first get [into it]: One, it’s hot, [and] two, you [have to] constantly move and go back and forth between the oven. Time management with the rest of your team is the true challenge.”

With practice and experience, Dessert and his team have found success in exploring how to best maximize the grill. Similar experimentation on the tiny rooftop wood-fired grill at Blue Hill New York City is what first captured chef Michael Gallina’s interest in live-fire cooking.

“You couldn’t produce much off of it, but we would just kinda play around and grill some things here and there,” Gallina recalls. When he transitioned to chef-owner Dan Barber’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns, though, that live-fire experimentation flourished.

“At Stone Barns, right when I started working there, we had just got this brand new, state-of-the-art, huge outdoor grill from Grillworks in Michigan,” Gallina recalls. “I loved playing around with it, whether it was filling it up with vegetables or hanging things on top of it. Between Blue Hill and Stone Barns, wood-fired cooking really interested me.”

Gallina and his wife and business partner, Tara, always knew the wood-fired component would be a big part of Vicia, the innovative farm-to-table restaurant they opened in St. Louis in March 2017. They designed their grill located in the restaurant’s covered patio space, complete with a prep station and a grill-side chef’s table.

“We really looked for something similar to a big pit that we could completely cover with coals,” Gallina says, noting the poles up top to hang things from, as well as a stack of horizontal racks to place ingredients closer or further from the flames, depending on the desired amount of heat. The gray-stone hearth was created by Sasha Aleksandr Malinich, who designed Vicia’s sleek space with rustic touches. In the winter, one of the courses on Vicia’s lauded tasting menu is served here.

“It’s a nice break in the tasting menu: You have a couple courses inside, and then we get you up and kinda take you on a field trip out to the grill,” Gallina says. “We have a cook out there interacting with the guests, and it becomes both an educational experience and a fun eating experience. This course lasts for 15 minutes, during which guests have the opportunity to eat something while talking around the table. People really, really enjoy it.”

Gallina feels that the wood-fired hearth is an advantage for the kitchen, despite the training and attention it requires. Its versatility is key, he says, and makes things like Vicia’s grill sauce possible. Root vegetables that are in season, such as beets, carrots, parsnips, onions and garlic, are put on the grill – “We just char the heck out of [them],” he says – and then cooked at a very low heat, overnight, to make a vegetable stock. The stock is then reduced down into “a super sweet and kind of charry reduction that’s really delicious with other vegetables or meats.”

The spent vegetables are later used to make a charred-vegetable mole; Gallina says making the mole over a live fire adds flavor and personality not afforded from a pot cooked over a gas range. “You get that nice roasted flavor, but I think the char adds a whole other dimension,” he says.

Adding that flavor dimension was a big reason the Gallinas wanted to include a live-fire hearth at Vicia. Even changing something like the type of wood – Gallina typically favors Missouri oak, persimmon and cherry wood – can alter the flavor in subtle ways. It’s easier to cook large cuts of meat evenly, as well, without more modern cooking methods and tools.

“There’s so much sous vide now in cooking. Wood fired is simply going back to how we used to cook,” he says. “There are many different types of wood you can cook on and so many different techniques you can use, whether it’s putting vegetables directly in coals, letting things smoke up high or slowly cook. It’s a nice way to cook things instead of sous vide, roasting and basting something. Wood-fired cooking adds a whole other level of depth, with all the smoke and the char.”

However, cooking over the live fire or smoking in the hearth can be especially tricky; Gallina says the team has recently been nailing down cooking larger portions of meat like whole pork legs for grilled ham and whole pork bellies or whole loins, which stay in the hearth at a lower temperature for a longer period. Although grilling is often associated with summertime, Gallina gets more excited about the myriad vegetables they’re able to source during cooler months that can stand up to being totally buried in the embers and coals in the hearth.

“You can do a lot of fun things on the grill in the summer, like zucchini,” he says, “but in winter, you can really cover [the grates] with squash and sweet potatoes and cabbage and really fill it up. A lot of those vegetables tend to be able to hold [up to] shoving them inside the coals and really getting that flavor.”

Instead of just heating the cabbage to soften it, for instance, burying it in coals creates a charred outer shell while steaming the inside. The result is added smoky flavor, as opposed to just roasting the cabbage or slicing it raw.

“Just like the ingredients themselves, there is a seasonality to grilling, too," Gallina says. "In the spring and summer, when produce is tender and delicate, just a few short minutes over the flames or sitting up high to absorb some of the smoke is all you need. When you get to the fall and winter and produce is heartier, you can transition to using the coals and hanging things for longer periods. The difference in the wood from season to season also contributes to the flavor.”

Gallina and his team tend to rely on their farmers, like David Bohlen of Bohlen Family Farms in Perryville, Missouri, to guide the menu: For example, Bohlen has been supplying baby gai lan – Chinese broccoli – that Gallina serves as part of the tasting menu. It’s flash-fried in a bit of garlic oil on the grill and served with a steamed egg yolk vinaigrette. “We take this lightly charred green and dip it through the acidic, creamy, fatty egg yolk, and it makes a really nice bite” Gallina says.

Another advantage to the grill, he says, is that it allows ingredients like the baby gai lan to shine by themselves while pulling out a more complex flavor.

“The gai lan have natural sweetness and these incredible flavors that if you just threw it in a pan – it could be sautéed with a little hot oil, but I don’t think it necessarily brings out all of the best flavors that the live fire does,” Gallina says.

Both Gallina and Dessert agree that some of the best restaurants nationally are focusing on wood-fired dishes.

“I think you’re seeing it all over the country: More restaurants now, more than ever, are doing a lot of wood-fired cooking,” Gallina says. “Whether they’re lucky enough to have one inside the kitchen, or they have a flattop [grill] and then a smaller [wood-fired] setup. It’s nice to get some of that char, even if you don’t love smoke – [and] I don’t think it’s really smoky. There’s so many different ways you can go."

Back in the kitchen at Brewery Emperial, Dessert pokes his eggplants; the skin is black and shriveled, indicating they’re just about ready to come out.

“I think [wood-fired cooking] is a trend; I think it’s become cooler,” Dessert says. “It’s fun, and I think it’s a good challenge for chefs and cooks to try and overcome that fear or defeat it in a sense. And you smell good when you work this station; you smell like camping! It brings me back to my childhood.”

Once the eggplant is charred to his satisfaction, Dessert will peel and chop it, add salt and purée it for a simple take on baba ganoush. Today it’s destined for the charcuterie board at Brewery Emperial, which takes a nontraditional approach – instead of cured meats and cheeses, it features housemade pâté, rillettes, beer sausage, pickled vegetables, Djion mustard, crostini and flatbread. The eggplant is perhaps the most surprising element on the board, as its time on the hearth gives it an unexpected hit of smoke.

“You’re adding another layer of flavor to it,” Dessert says. “[Even] if it’s only one ingredient on the plate [with smoky flavor], we try to get it on there to just add that depth.”

Editor’s Note: Since the writing of this story, chef Andrew Dessert left Brewery Emperial for The Local Pig in Kansas City.

Brewery Emperial, 1829 Oak St., Crossroads Arts District, Kansas City, Missouri, 816.945.9625, breweryemperial.com

Vicia, 4260 Forest Park Ave., Central West End, St. Louis, Missouri, 314.553.9239, viciarestaurant.com

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