As the Executive Producer of Culinary-TV, I get to attend a number of cooking expos each year to include the National Restaurant Expo, the International Pizza Expo, the International Baking Expo and the Cater-Source Expo. I see and taste a lot of delicious creations but I also see things that leave me asking “Why?”
Just a few years ago, it seemed as if the dining world was poised to drown in a gurgle of futuristic gels, spheres, foams and infusions. These trending cooking fads were innovative, entertaining and sometimes even delicious, but pretty far removed from the sensory experiences most people might associate with food. There seemed to be a huge disconnect. Then in 2016, I was given hope when 80% of the semifinalists for the James Beard Best New Restaurant foods included the words “Wood-fired cooking” on their menus. Wood-fire cooking is roaring back in a big way, and chefs from coast to coast are using this ancient technique to spark some creative flavors in their foods. It was also in 2016 at the International Pizza Expo that I discovered a little company called Fire Within (www.FireWithin.com) which uses these ancient secrets of wood-fired cooking which I believe will bring hope again to the American pallet.
The owner, Ajith Dharma, manufactures his Fire Within wood-fired mobile catering ovens in Colorado where old world craftsmanship meets modern-day technology. These mobile wood-fired ovens are a work of art, of heirloom quality, that can be passed down from one generation of chefs to the next. His entire oven is built around an ancient design which is proven to be efficient and to induce flavor.
Fire and Air – Wood-fired ovens, and the foods produced in them, have been with us since the dawn of civilization. Both have been discovered in the excavations of virtually every ancient civilization. The brick ovens uncovered in ancient Pompeii are in wonderful shape, and could start baking today with only minor renovations. These ancient ovens have a baking chamber made from a thick layer of fireproof brick, concrete and stone. The mass of these ovens acts as a ‘thermal battery’, which slowly releases heat over time. This retained heat can be used to cook batches of bread, pizza, roasts, casseroles, meats and fish. Food such as pizzas and bread can be cooking directly on the ovens hearth; alternatively oven-baking dishes can be placed into the oven. The heat retained will decrease over time so foods requiring different temperatures for cooking can be placed inside as the temperature drops to suit the type of cooking required.
The domed design allows for a range of temperatures within the oven used for different cooking and baking techniques. The signature flavor of a wood-fired oven comes from two sources: #1 is the flavor of a hard wood fire interacting with the food and #2 is the convection that is created within the dome by the vertical stratum of temperatures which allows for a fast cook time and intense flavor. The results – Ancient flavor which can be enjoyed today.
Since my discovery of Fire Within, I have visited the heart and soul of wood-fired cooking across the country. In Libertyville Illinois, I met Chef John Durning who as a banker thought there was a way to have a happier, more fulfilling life. He says that his Fire Within oven has given him a way to reintroduce flavor back to America and he says the intense feedback from his customers has given him a sense of accomplishment. He says his oven is the most popular catering focus of the county and it never gets a chance to cool off.
In Cincinnati, the Metropole Restaurant (www.MetropoleonWalnut.com) uses the primal ingredient of wood-fired cooking by matching their ripping-hot wood-fired heat to a distinctive effect. A prime example: the restaurant’s signature burnt carrot salad, in which they vacuum-seals and sous-vides the vegetables until they’re tender, then chars them on a plancha to caramelize their outsides. The results. . . Ancient flavors meet modern taste buds.
In Conklin New York, the husband and wife duo Mark and Victoria Tedeschi, owners of the Moxie Wood Fired Grill (www.MoxieGrill.com), have a sophisticated cuisine all centered around their wood-fired grill. As a result, Moxie is an unexpectedly chic retreat that people from all across New York cannot get enough of.
On Long Island I met Chef Daniele Messina of Red Tomato Pizza and Bakery (www.RedTomatoPizza.com) who has married his Fire Within oven to his brick and mortar restaurant and bakery. Their authentic Italian flavors are in popular demand and are now shared with the entire community.
In Las Vegas I met with with John Arena, chef and owner of Metro Pizza (www.MetroPizza.com). His entire empire is built on flavor and his Fire Within Oven has become a powerful tool in bringing his signature tastes to the masses.
This year I was invited to attend Fire Within’s Wood Fired University where they teach how to manage, cook and build a wood-fired cooking empire. One of the instructors is Chef Tommy Garnick. He owns 4 of these Fire Within mobile ovens and he is building his catering empire in Denver. As I observed Tommy, I notice that there’s a Zen-like quality to working with fire. It calls for focus. You have to romance the fire and your actions become like a symphony of timing. By design, the ovens tends to roll much hotter than a traditional oven. Tommy uses his time efficiently prepping ingredients during the oven’s warming and cooling phases. While it took a certain amount of trial, error and effort, Tommy has discovered many ways to build flavor in innovative ways. Working with fire seems to be romantic and primal but there’s a bit of a learning curve to it. Where there was a hot spot five minutes ago, now it’s cool from cooking on it. It’s a dance. He shares all of this with the students through intense hands-on experience.
At the same event I also met Chef Peter Reinhart who in my opinion is really the Guru of Bread. In fact, Peter gave a great TED Talk holding a single loaf of bread. Peter was teaching a workshop within the Wood Fired University on the use of ancient grains and some of the newer trends in bread making and pizza dough.
Finally, I met Chef Frank Murphy who teaches Culinary Arts with his Fire Within Mobile Trailer. Frank uses his mobile wood-fired oven to teach his high school students how to run a business and how to prepare meals in their mobile wood-fired oven.
Frank teaches at North Bend High School in Oregon and Peter teaches at Johnson & Wales University, both are great examples of the expertise that Ajith Dharma brings to his Wood Fired University.
The Wood Fired University also includes classes on marketing, budgeting, prep, breads, hors d’oeuvres, salads, cook melting joints of meat, moist and crisp-skinned whole fish, scorched aubergines and breakfast frittatas (just to name a few). You could probably achieve all of this by trial and error but Fire Within’s Wood Fired University takes the guess work out of the equation and allows you to walk away with these talents which are in high demand, all of which are necessary for running a successful wood-fired catering business.
It’s not correct to call this return to wood-fired cooking a trend. If it is, it’s certainly the oldest trend in history. And yet there is no arguing that the wood-fired hearth has of late gripped the restaurant world and taste buds of Americans, seeming to bestow the title of “Serious Chef” on anyone who embraces it. Over the past few years, wood-fired cooking has gone from the province of just a handful of restaurants to a national phenomenon. It’s become “de rigueur” among world-class kitchens from Manhattan to San Francisco and every mouth-watering stop in between. And over that same period, Fire Within has become the #1 Wood Fired Mobile Catering manufacturer in the world. I thank you and my taste buds thank you.
Bill Rogers, Executive Producer
Bill Rogers has a self-awarded Black Belt in Bagels and Barbeque. Bill and his wife, Joanne, hosted the Restaurant Review in the 1980’s on MTV. Culinary-TV airs of Time Warner Cable, Spectrum Cable and Tuff-TV.
Fire Within Mobile Ovens
Moxie Wood Fire Grill