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Chefs on Fire | It’s back to the oldest trick in the book: cooking with an open flame

Written by Melissa Pasanen on . Posted in Taste of the Landscape

Photographed by Andrew Wellman

This article appeared in the Winter 2013-14 edition of Vermont Life magazine. It will be available online for a limited time. To subscribe and have full access to Vermont Life, click here.

After a flirtation with high-tech culinary tools that facilitated precise trompe l’oeil creations and guaranteed evenly cooked food with the touch of a button, chefs have come home to the oldest technique there is: the direct interplay between fire and food. Around the country and here in Vermont, an increasing number of restaurants are using indoor wood-fired grills and ovens to put out smoke-kissed food with that inimitable lick of flame. Cooking with wood delivers food with an honest simplicity, the chefs say, although it requires more skill to manage than one might expect. It’s a little bit wild and exciting, but also fosters a warm and welcoming restaurant ambiance. Vermont chefs relish the challenge — and the flavors. As Eric Warnstedt, chef-owner of the new wood-fire-focused Hen of the Wood in Burlington, says, “It just feels like the right way to cook here in Vermont.”

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Chef-owner Eric Warnstedt works the wood-fired grill at Hen of the Wood in Burlington.

At Hen of the Wood’s second location, which opened this fall in downtown Burlington at Hotel Vermont, chef-owner Eric Warnstedt and his team designed the whole menu and restaurant around the wood-fired oven and grill that anchor one side of the dining room. “Almost everything will be touched by fire,” Warnstedt says. “You’ll walk in the door and you’ll smell the wood and you’ll smell the food. I’ve wanted to do this forever.” They slow-roast the restaurant’s namesake mushrooms with house-cured bacon in the oven and dangle legs of lamb over the grill to drip their aromatic fat into pots of beans, while whole onions melt into lush softness tucked into the embers. “Smoke is an ingredient,” says chef de cuisine Jordan Ware, noting how even carrots simply roasted in a cast-iron pan over coals absorb the soft edge of smoke and require little other seasoning. Whole wild calamari are grilled directly on the grates, while tender, young chickens, known as poussins, are herb-brined before they head into the masonry oven; even wood-roasted apples star in desserts drizzled with brown-butter caramel and crème fraîche. “I think it’s the best way to showcase our food and to showcase what we like about Vermont food,” Warnstedt concludes.

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Chef-owner Stephen Sawyer works the grill and rotisserie at Table 24.

When Stephen Sawyer returned home to Rutland five years ago to start his own place after building a solid national resumé in corporate hospitality, he created Table 24. By choosing to center his kitchen around a wood-fired grill and rotisserie, Sawyer purposefully built an identity for his restaurant that represents comfort food. “It’s not pretentious,” he explains. “It [evokes] childhood memories of campfires and holiday barbecues.” Table 24 sticks largely to classics like juicy rotisserie chicken (offered as an entrée, or on a sandwich or salad) and slow-roasted prime rib, which both gain from the added layer of subtly infused wood smoke. His freshly ground chuck burger benefits from the grill as much as pencil-thin asparagus, while wood-fired mushrooms lend a smoky whisper to his risotto. “I love the versatility of it, the simplicity of it,” Sawyer says, while also acknowledging that cooking with wood requires significant investment in training and equipment. Table 24’s hallways are stacked with kiln-dried wood from Pittsfield. “You have to learn that you can’t cook over flame; you have to cook over heat, and you can’t let the smoke overwhelm delicate ingredients like fish,” he says. “It is a commitment.”

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A batch of butcher-tied legs of lamb at Nika.

In a cozy, subterranean spot on Burlington’s Church Street, Nika (the new concept from the owners of Three Tomatoes) has dubbed itself  “a wood-fired gathering place” and chef Dennis Vieira takes the restaurant’s original pizza oven far beyond Italy. The oven now roasts everything from large cuts of lamb and pork to whole chickens and lobsters. When the fire has subsided to a smolder, Vieira shuts the door on cured pork belly for house-smoked bacon and whole fish, which become smoked-fish rillettes. “You can do so much with it: not just the oven, but the whole deck and the hearth,” Vieira says. Fat eggplants nestle in the coals until they collapse, ready to be scooped into a softly smoky baba ghanoush. Potatoes sizzle in duck fat with shallots and herbs at the edge of the oven. Vieira even heats a brand in the fire to put the caramelized sugar seal on crème brûlée. Compared to high-tech culinary tools, Vieira says, wood fires don’t come with a step-by-step instruction booklet. Every wood delivery affects the fire, he explains, changing how hot and how quickly the fire burns. “It’s up to you to fire that wood, keep it going, control it,” he says. “We say it’s primitive, which it is, but there’s a lot of technique to it.”

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Wood-roasted, line-caught cod and Delicata squash with wilted kale and caper aioli at Worthy Kitchen.

Like its South Royalton sibling restaurant where burgers are cooked year-round on a wood-fired grill, Worthy Kitchen in Woodstock is fueled by fire. “That subtle hint of wood smoke in the air gets your appetite going,” says Worthy Group co-owner Dave Brodrick. “People are so drawn to the fire.” At Worthy Kitchen, the California-crafted, 3,500-pound wood-fired oven has been named Frank. “The smell, the glow, the warmth all remind me of when I was a kid sitting at our family camp in Waitsfield in front of the fireplace,” says chef Scott Liberty, who has come a long way from when he used to heat hot chocolate and toast bread over that fire. Frank and his minders are busy from early in the day to late at night. They smoke-roast trays of tomatoes to sauce their wood-roasted meatballs; slow-cook large hunks of meat like porchetta and beef rib roasts, as well as pâtés made from the restaurant’s featured whole local animal of the week; put a golden sear on fish and crisp up crumb-topped macaroni and cheese. The oven plays a role in every layer of the Worthy ’wich — a “fork and knife” open-faced sandwich — from wood-toasted bread to wood-roasted vegetables and meat and, finally, wood-melted cheese. “Especially in Vermont,” Brodrick says, it’s a cooking technique and tool that “really fits.”

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Executive chef Neil Solis mans the grill at Guild and Company Steakhouse.

Watching chefs tend the huge wood-fired grill and rotisserie is a key part of the dining experience at South Burlington’s Guild and Company Steakhouse; even if you happen to be seated with your back to the open kitchen, the tantalizing sizzle and smoky aroma will find you. Chef-partner Phillip Clayton says he knew he wanted a wood-fired grill from the first discussion of adding a steakhouse to the growing roster of Farmhouse Group destinations. “Between the light char and the caramelization, it creates a flavor you just can’t fake,” he says. “It’s as important as the beef.” In addition to the hand-cut, locally sourced steaks, much of the menu visits the wood fire from dry-rubbed, spit-roasted chicken wings to grilled wild shrimp or whole fish spinning slowly in the rotisserie baskets. Vegetables are not left out: every afternoon the grill is covered with sweet onion slices and mushrooms for the house vegetarian burger, and seasonal vegetable sides also pay a visit. But the wood-grilled steaks are the star. “When you source real food that was produced nearby and butchered nearby, it just completes the circle,” Clayton says. “It just feels more real.”

Melissa Pasanen

Melissa Pasanen

Contact Melissa Pasanen at mpasanen@aol.com and follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/TasteofVermont.

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