While humans have been cooking food over an open flame for thousands of years, it’s only been recently that many Bay Area restaurants have started to showcase how scrumptious hearth-style cookery can be.
At three-month-old TBD, practically everything on the revolving seasonal menu is smoked, grilled or charred on a massive hearth that takes center stage of the restaurant. Owner Matt Semmelhack says that the eatery’s concept was based on the question, “What can you do with wood fire?” It’s campfire cuisine gone gourmet with dishes such as a griddled corn cake topped with smoked mushroom escabeche, and charred octopus with kohlrabi and green garlic puree.
While TBD may be the latest entry into the flame, one of the pioneers of the rebirth of caveman cooking was Jackson Square’s Cotogna. The little sister to adjoining Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star restaurant Quince, the bustling establishment features an intimate chef’s table with a hearth that’s lit by two to three pieces of dry, well-seasoned local almond wood. Although the menu is dotted with delicious-sounding rustic Italian dishes (like lasagna al forno), order an item that was in contact with an open flame. Think beyond your typical grilled dishes to vegetables slowly charred in embers, three-inch-wide steaks cooked to meaty perfection inches from the flame and adorable little squab so plump and succulent your mouth waters as you smell its skin come in contact with the smoke. “Cooking with fire is exciting and primal,” says Cotogna chef and owner Michael Tusk. “It’s an opportunity to apply different techniques using ash, coals and smoke that produce a vast spectrum of incredible flavors.”
For self-proclaimed pyro, restaurateur and chef Charlie Hallowell of Oakland’s Penrose, the hearth is enjoyable because it’s unpredictable. “To me, there is a real appeal of having a big hot fire that’s essentially out of your control,” he says. “You have to be totally present. There is no down time. You can’t go on autopilot. I tell my cooks that they always have to be engaged. When you’re not cooking food, you’re managing the fire. When you’re not managing the fire, you have to cook food.”
Hallowell doesn’t see open-flame cooking as a trend, but more of a renaissance or return to our roots. He cites Northern California’s love affair with local farmers as a reason why the style is popular now. “I love simple things that are simultaneously mundane and complex,” Hallowell says. “The farmers grow the food, and we cook it over heat. As long as we’ve been cooking food, we’ve been doing this.” Highlights from Penrose’s hearth include a juicy rib-eye steak with chimichurri and flavorful lamb kebabs.
Chef and butcher Ryan Farr, of San Francisco’s April-opening 4505 Burgers and Barbecue, agrees with Hallowell on one basic level: Cooking with fire is about simplicity. “What we do is 100 percent straightforward,” Farr says. “It’s simple food. It’s slow-cooked, smoked sliced meat.” Although many people believe barbecue is complex, Farr disagrees. “Eating barbecue is about a community. It’s simple comfort food that’s enjoyed in a meeting place with other people and that’s what we hope to do with our restaurant,” he says. Instead of an open hearth, 4505 will have one of the city’s few open barbecue pits inside of the restaurant. A specially created burn box allows Farr to create all of his own charcoal from local hickory, fruit and cherry wood. The coals will be poured directly into the pit to enhance the meat with as much smoky goodness as possible.
Photos Courtesy of Julia Spiess and Paige Green