On Cooking With Fire

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Growing up, I never learned how to make a fire. My family, led by my outdoor-adventure-adverse parents, didn’t camp. I didn’t learn how to roast skewers or s’mores over a campsite fire. Even though I grew up in a small town, attending country bonfires on cool summer nights, I stayed close to the fire only to avoid mosquitoes. I never gathered logs, or kindling, or offered to start the fire.

On some level, I thought of it as men’s work. It was the gangly teenage boys poking the embers with logs, or dousing our shoddily-made fire with lighter fluid, who seemed to be having fun. It was always someone else’s responsibility, someone else’s pursuit. I didn’t want anything to do with fire, because I was afraid. To me, it was hot, seemingly unpredictable, and dangerous.

Then, I started working in professional kitchens. And my relationship with fire changed.

It began when I first started working the “hot” portion of the line at my first restaurant. There was a standard setup for cooking the hot entrees: an open-flame grill with an attached flattop, stacks of ovens, and a long set of stovetop burners for sauté pans. Everything was burning or flammable. There were a lot of amateurs working in this particular kitchen. Things caught on fire, often.

The cook who loses his or her mind and makes jerky, panicked movements when flame is involved is certainly going to ruin some food, and possibly jeopardize other cooks. I had to learn, bit by bit, how to keep calm and see the flames as something I could control. I now work with a game plan for every potential type of kitchen fire, because I’ve encountered most of them. My fingers dance nimbly around open flames, flipping seared potatoes in the scalding hot pan. Small flare-ups of dripping fat from grilled meats don’t make me flinch anymore. And flaming sauté pan fires are quickly and efficiently put out. Flames became familiar, a part of the job.

When I moved to my most recent kitchen, my relationship with fire changed again. At this point, I was not an inexperienced cook. I knew how to cook steaks, and fish, and chicken. I knew how to do all of that, in sauté pans, and over a gas-controlled grill.

But this restaurant centered around a real, bona fide, wood-burning oven. It is the kind of oven where you stack wood logs in the corner, build a raging fire, and then maintain coals hot enough to cook with, over a 5-hour dinner service. You cook with heavy cast irons and sizzling metal platters, raking coals and flipping logs to maintain a balance between steady heat and growing flame.

By the time I started to work the wood-fired oven station, I had already been at this particular restaurant for months, calmly holding down the sauté stations. I was doing well, and I felt confident in the kitchen.

But I did not know how to start a fire.

I avoided the wood-fired oven for a long time, acting as though I wasn’t interested. There were some blustery, “veteran” cooks in the kitchen ahead of me, all men, and they were happy to work the oven. I stayed where I had experience, where I worked with the kind of flames I was familiar with, and where I didn’t need to compete. I cornered myself for months, avoiding that fire.

Eventually, staff turnover, sous chef encouragement, and self-candor forced me to the wood-burning oven. It was not a comfortable transition. I cooked bad food; I made mistakes with my plates. I blew smoke into my eyes, burned off all feeling in my hands, and sweated gallons every night. And as I have done with most other things, I put my head down and reminded myself, “fake it ‘til you make it”.

I got to know the fire. I learned what worked to start the fire, how to coax that initial flare into an enveloping flame. I started to grasp, intuitively, how to design the airflow to my advantage. I learned by touch which logs burned brightly and which logs burned slow. I grew startlingly accurate in my ability to toss logs into stacks in the back of the oven. I learned how to shovel coals, and flip individual logs, giving myself useful surfaces and pockets of heat to cook my meats and fish.

And I started to appreciate the beauty in cooking with fire- I was responsible for feeding the beast, for starting and maintain the source that I used to cook all of my dishes. Instead of gas burners, turned on with the flick of a handle, or a flattop grill, mysteriously warmed from below, my cooking method was tangible. I could see it. I had to work for it. I had to maintain it. I was feeding the fire, and the fire was feeding the work that I was doing.

I am no longer scared of fire. I love the smell, the visual, and the incomparable taste it gives food. I lament the lack of an open flame in my tiny city apartment, and I approach a campfire with the affinity of an old friend. I feel self-assured, standing in front of the oven, knowing that I have overcome my own limits and fears about fire. Cooking with fire rewards confidence, and experience. In working with fire in kitchens, I have developed both.

A fire also requires patience, upkeep, and plenty of oxygen. In facing our fears, I think we thrive on the same.

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