Flavor by Fire

There has been a big resurgence of wood fire cooking on the culinary scene in the last few years. As noted by Kat Kinsmen in her article Burn Notice, “80 percent of the 2016 semifinalists for the James Beard Best New Restaurant feature dishes containing the words wood-grilled, smoked and ember on their current menu. Wood-fire cooking is roaring back in a big way,” Kinsmen points out some culinary trends which became popular with “futuristic gels, spheres and foams” lack the sensory experience that comes with more traditionally prepared foods.

“It’s really about the type of wood,” says Boone’s grill cook, Patra-Gay Forbes, “in Jamaica we use log wood and pimento. Especially with the pimento you really get the flavor of the pimento seeds in everything you cook.” Patra-Gay is from Jamaica where she got her degree and level three grill certification at Heart College of Hospitality.

To stoke our fire here at Boone’s we get a mix of hardwood from Hawke’s Firewood out of Phippsburg, Maine. Patra-Gay was quick to answer when asked what her favorite type of grill is, “I prefer wood over gas fire or French top, more flavor from the wood grill.” As for her favorite dish to grill here at Boone’s “I like doing the swordfish, because when you put it on the wood fire it gives it really nice charcoal marks.”

Most culinary professionals and consumers agree wood fire grilled equals enhanced flavor. Part of this highly sought-after flavor comes from the wood itself as Patra-Gay has observed in her years grilling in Jamaica and here at Boone’s. The hardwood we fuel our fire with imparts a subtle, smoky flavor. Between the charcoal marks from the raw heat of the wood-fire and the smoky infusion of flavor, wood grilled items showcase a pleasant depth in taste and texture.

There’s even some science behind the unmatched flavor of wood fire grilled food. Put on your Bill Nye the Science Guy lab coat, because we are talking about chemical reactions as something called the Maillard reaction kicks in. While the Maillard reaction occurs with several different cooking processes it requires either high heat (a wood fire grill’s claim to fame) or many hours to occur. On a molecular level the Maillard reaction refers to a chemical reaction between proteins and sugars in food, an effect similar to caramelizing. The Maillard reaction results in an irresistible onslaught of new flavors and aromas and is visible in the fragrant browned surface with those desirable charcoal lines.

Not only does a wood fire grill create the perfect environment for the Maillard reaction to occur, it facilitates a cycle of increased flavor infusion as the drippings from the food hit the fire, turn to smoke and return with a new depth of flavor to the item being cooked. While wood fire cooking has likely been practiced for close to two million years, it is nothing less than an art. Our grill cooks at Boone’s are responsible for maintaining the fire throughout service, adding logs as necessary. The reality is a wood fueled fire is unpredictable. Our grill cooks must constantly adapt as hot spots over the fire change. Their craft and hard work pay off with some of our favorite meals to serve here at Boone’s.

Photo: Patra-Gay Forbes, Grill Cook at Boone’s Fish House & Oyster Room

Resources:

Chicago Tribune

LA Times

National Geographic

New York Times

Serious Eats

Tasting Table