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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Professional(izing) Home Cooks

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Fine dining, when executed well, is an art. The work is nuanced, complex, and difficult, and when I patron fine dining establishments, I take the craft very seriously. I critique each plate’s execution, the service, and every element of the meal, maintaining high standards and expectations. I know how fine dining restaurants work, because that is my work.

But whatever my fine dining standards, I do not visit my mother’s house and tell her that her salt usage is inconsistent. If my mom cooks, I eat her food, I thank her, and then I urge her to sit down and let me do the dishes. For if I am invited to someone’s home, I just eat. Food isn’t always a serious matter, to be dissected. Sometimes, the beauty in a meal lies in the way it simply brings people together. On my off days, I am probably hungry, and tired of cooking. A home-cooked meal tastes good because of the company, because of the love put into the preparation, or, perhaps simply because someone besides me made it.

However, there is a new breed of home cook, one who takes cooking very seriously. America’s culinary consciousness is growing, with the rise of cooking shows, hip cookbooks, and access to diverse ingredients and diverse cuisines. A serious home cook may never set foot in a professional kitchen, but can still devote time and energy to learning different techniques or reading about the craft. I love watching this trend, because I think that cooking at home encourages healthy eating, self care, and quality social time.

Nonetheless, as a cook, I do not always know how to navigate situations with these professionalized home cooks, with their gear and tools that rival my own restaurant’s. At a recent outdoor barbeque, hosted by the neighbor of an acquaintance, I found myself cornered by the large, enthusiastic host who had appointed himself “grillmaster”. After someone had told him I was a cook at a restaurant in town, he told me all about his techniques, his grill, and how he approaches cooking meat. He obviously devoted a lot of time to grilling at his home, and he was intent on impressing me with the particulars.

I always want to talk about food, so I gladly listened. Our conversation continued deeper and deeper, and I started to offer some of my thoughts on his seasoning techniques and the cooking temperature he had chosen. Immediately, the tone between us shifted- there was a tension in the air, and a defensiveness in his remarks. I became hyperaware of the dynamic between this young woman telling an older man how to cook meat, going against stereotypes and expectations. I changed the subject, going back to safer ground, but I kept thinking about our conversation.

In a professional kitchen, nothing I do is beyond critique. When I put food on a plate, or ingredients in a pot, the chef is peering over my shoulder, tasting spoon in hand. If my salt level isn’t right, I hear it yelled, loudly. If I try to do something differently than I was shown, I am interrogated. If I put one more piece of squash on this plate than I did on the last plate, I am reprimanded in front of everyone. And Lord help me if my sear on this steak isn’t exactly like it is supposed to be every time. Profanities and attacks on my work and character abound, and the only acceptable response is “yes, chef”.

The standards in professional kitchens are ruthless and competitive. I have developed the thickest of skins, being able to listen to criticism and then letting it go immediately. I have developed tenacity and endurance under pressure and literal heat. Those who take insults and criticism personally do not survive in professional kitchens. The work forces you to let go of ego, to let go of being right all the time, because it is impossible. A critique of your food is simply seen as feedback, not personal, because everyone in that kitchen is working toward the eternally unreachable Good Food goal.

At this grillout, while I thought I was offering gentle feedback on the food, the host saw it as personal critique. In some way, I do understand how he was taken aback- after all, I was a guest in his home. I confused a passion for cooking with the professionalism of restaurant cooks. The “restaurant quality” grill that he bought at the store does not also come with a restaurant quality executive chef ready to scream about his steaks. Home cooks may want to professionalize their cooking, but they are not looking to follow the intense, masochistic standards that define fine dining kitchens.

Home cooking is a hobby, a pastime. Why should I hold these cooks to the same standards that I am held to at work? After all, when I am the home cook, on my weekend, even I ignore some of the fine dining rules. Because on my off days, I may be drinking the same wine that I’m using to deglaze the pan, and my steak will not have a perfect sear. And I’m too busy relaxing to listen to any critique of that- can’t we just eat?