Fire: A Different Way to Cook


Courtesy of Grillworks

Through thousands of years of science, of labor saving, of PROGRESS, we've succeeded in becoming a civilization lacking everyday contact with fire. This is a loss. A sacrifice of our connection with what brought us here in favor of efficiency and convenience. And in few places is our estrangement from fire more apparent than in our gleaming, modern kitchens.

But this old relationship—truly man's first love affair—can be rekindled without giving up any of the new. The setting for the grand reunion?

That civilized flame is really the canned soundtrack of grilling, lacking personality and certainly possessing no flavor you would want coming in contact with your food.

A grill.

When truly grilling, over live fire—you participate. You're immersed in the process. You conduct a little crackling orchestra of flame to cook your masterpiece. You truly do—it—all. Really, no one can call themselves a champion of organic, local, or sustainable cuisine unless they know how to prepare a feast over the most organic, local, and sustainable heat of all: fire. Natural fire.

To regain your connection with fire you must accept at the outset is that it is your lead player, your set of instruments. You are conductor, it is your temperamental symphony. Your skill set must begin and end with fire management. Try to muscle it and the most expensive porterhouse is rendered forgettable. Make the flame your star and a humble grocery store cut will be talked about for weeks.

One thing to get out of the way—if you're using gas you aren't allowed at the podium just yet. That civilized flame is hardly fire anymore. It's really the canned soundtrack of grilling, lacking personality and certainly possessing no flavor you would want coming in contact with your food.

Skip pressed-sawdust briquettes and practice with chunk charcoal, which is at least recognizable as wood. Stay away from bags vaguely labeled "hardwood" and look for those that tell you what varieties (hickory, oak) you're getting so you learn the flavors.

Get a feel for how long it takes for the charcoal to settle into a cooking bed, and how much heat it will throw off.

No gauges. Learn the art of measuring heat in the seconds your hand can remain two inches from the surface. More than three seconds—too cool. Fewer? Too hot. Take your time. This practice could easily take a full season of grilling. Or two. So what? Savor the process. You're ready for the next step when you find yourself rearranging the coals instinctively. When you linger in front of the grill, eyes glazed, moving one coal an inch to the right, another to the back.

Snag yourself some oak or hickory chips from your local hardware store, or even better from a lumberyard. Try lighting your coals and adding a few chips. Pay attention to how they burn, how much flame they produce, and most importantly to the flavor they add to the fire. Wave the smoke to you. Taste it with your nose. When you're ready, cook over the burning chips and note the difference in the food you've grilled over them.


Courtesy of Grillworks

Each kind of wood you put on top of those coals will generate flame and smoke that tastes different from the others. Prepackaged wood chips are designed to add quick flavor to charcoal or gas grills, and so many printed instructions encourage wetting the wood to produce more smoke. Don't. Add dry chips slowly, allowing them to burn rather than smolder. The flavor developed by a long cook over dry wood is subtler and truer than a dousing in a steam cloud. You're grilling, not smoking.

Practice makes perfect, and lucky for your friends and family these rehearsals, if done right, will look more like a series of sooty jam sessions than practice. And they'll taste wonderful.

Ready for the real thing? Then this is your point of departure from the equipment that has become the U.S. norm. It is a lesson in frustration (or lawsuits) to attempt a full fire on a grill that isn't designed for it—so don't try. But don't run out and buy a wood grill just yet either.

Instead go camping. Use your rekindled relationship with flame to build a killer campfire. Tell ghost stories. Bring a $10 camp grill surface and some top-notch steaks. Grill them over the firewood you drag out of the woods. Let your orchestra completely dominate the stage for once.

You say that this scene isn't a fair comparison with grilling at home; everybody knows the atmosphere, camaraderie, and warmth ... it's just so different.

It shouldn't be.

Fire is a star. Let it make one of you.

Presented by

Ben Eisendrath is the president of Grillworks Inc., maker of Grillery wood-fired grills. Early Grillworks grills were used by James Beard himself, and today their designs are the favored grilling platform for many other live-fire chefs. More

It was a world-cuisine education begun early. After a childhood that began in London, moved to France, then grill-Mecca Argentina, Ben and his family were finally deposited by his journalist and grillmaster father in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Ben studied Environmental Sciences, Literature, and Psychology for his BA at the University of Vermont�where environmentalism joined live-fire passion to form his philosophy of ecological and food-chain participation. Also a technophile from birth, out of college Ben was swept up by the digital wave and ultimately found himself living in Washington, D.C., directing product design at AOL headquarters. But his well-worn, Dad-built Grillery always waited at home, and after his 10-year AOL tour she finally won his full attention. �After all,� Ben says, �you can touch a grill.�

With the company fully reborn, today Ben designs Grillworks grills to be tactile, visually striking tools for amateurs and pros alike. They're now found in restaurants, kitchens and backyards all over the world�and since Ben believes grilling to be a seminal morale-builder, also at the forward operating bases of U.S. troops deployed abroad. The little grill Dad built, called "Magnificent" by James Beard himself, is thriving once again.

Ben writes and speaks about artisanal grilling and travels extensively to ensure his designs best harness the world's open fire techniques. He calls Washington home but still builds his grills near the family farm in northern Michigan.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Confessions of Moms Around the World

A global look at the hardest and best job ever


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open for 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.

More in Health

Just In