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Playing with fire

The history of the human race has been unequivocally shaped by the knowledge and ability to cook food over a flame. Today, a few fearless men are proving that it’s still possible to be a renowned chef and renounce electricity and gas

For our earliest ancestors, their first encounter with fire must have been a terrifying experience. There is a clap of thunder, followed by a bolt of lightning, which strikes a tree, setting it ablaze. In no time at all, the blaze threatens to destroy every living creature. The situation is out of control.

And “control” is the magic word here. The fact that we had learnt to master this otherwise highly destructive force played a major role in enabling the human species to develop faster and further than any other. It was learning to cook our food on an open flame that helped us to stand on our own two feet and become Homo sapiens. Animal protein in cooked form is much easier to digest. It was this that allowed the human brain to grow. We learnt to think, feel and differentiate. In other words, the history of the human race has been decisively shaped by the knowledge of how to cook food over a flame.

At Niklas Ekstedt’s restaurant you feel you’re in a hut in the forest. Photo: Anders Fredriksén, Per-Anders Jorgensen

In recent times, chefs of world renown have rediscovered this age-old connection. In Oakland, California, in the legendary restaurant Camino, Russell Moore has been cooking over an open fire since 2008; ditto, Joshua Skenes at the Saison in San Francisco and the Argentinian chef Francis Mallmann at the restaurant 1884 in Mendoza and at Los Fuegos in Miami.

That said, when it comes to using this old/new method of turning the raw into the cooked, there is no one quite as hard-core as the Swede Niklas Ekstedt, owner of the Ekstedt restaurant in the heart of Stockholm. “Apart from the coffee machine and the ice cream maker, you’ll not find another electrical appliance in my kitchen,” says Ekstedt. Thanks to the highly popular cookery TV programme Niklas Mat, he is known by practically everybody in Sweden.

“We don’t use any electricity or gas or coal. We cook exclusively over an open fire, just as the human race has done since time immemorial. In fact, here in Sweden you don’t have to go back that far at all: what we’re doing in our restaurant is what everybody was doing right up until the 1920s. My grandparents cooked their stews in a pot that hung over an open fire. It was only after the Second World War that the electric cooker became the norm. In my view, that represented one of the biggest cultural shifts to take place in Scandinavia,” he explains. “The traditional way of cooking disappeared from the collective consciousness within the space of ten years. That was the reason why I wanted to use this traditional method, and only this method, in Ekstedt. A very pleasant spin-off is that at our restaurant you always feel a little as if you were eating in a hut in the forest. And that’s not only because you can hear the fire crackling and smell the smoke.”

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Russell Moore from the restaurant Camino has written several books on open-fire cooking.

“All other forms of cooking bypass the actual fire itself in some way: with a barbecue, you don’t start grilling until the flames have gone out; with firebricks, you first warm them and they then slowly give up their heat. All we do here is to light a fire and then work directly with this element. The heat this generates — that’s our capital. Put a piece of fish in a cast-iron pan, hold it over the fire and you get a fantastic taste experience. The fish is enveloped in heat and smoke. That means you automatically get a delicate smoky aroma that gives the whole thing a delicious tang!” says Ekstedt, who is working his four fire pits, wood-fired oven and smoker.

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Fire is more than an open flame. The ash of the outer skin of charred vegetables gives a delicate seasoning. Photo: Re printed with permission from This Is Camino by Allison Hopelain and Russell Moore with Chris Colin. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Photography: Yoko Takahashi, 2015

The Michelin Guide has awarded the restaurant one of its precious stars. “We’re all absolutely thrilled,” Ekstedt confesses, “particularly as what we do is much simpler and much lighter than what you get in most other starred restaurants. And it also demolishes once again the idea that cooking on an open fire is extremely limited and means having to make all sorts of culinary compromises. Of course we steer clear of the kind of modern Nordic cuisine that’s largely based on cooking at a constantly low temperature. We can’t control the heat well enough for that. Anyway, all wood burns a little differently, depending on whether it’s perfectly dry or maybe still just a little damp.”

Moreover, as all “open-fire chefs” know, fire is more than just a hot flame. A fire also creates smoke and ash, and a chef can make great use of both of them. Gently smoking lobster and crab in a smoker gives them both a fantastic aroma. The same is true of avocado. And tomatoes develop an incredible sweetness when they are slowly dried over a fire.

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Francis Mallmann of restaurant 1884 has identified seven kinds of fire. Photo: Francis Mallmann

As Ekstedt explains, “When we’re cooking vegetables, we produce our own incredibly aromatic ash. We put big vegetable pieces — it works great with leeks — very close to the fire until the outer skin chars. That creates amazing ash, which is a great seasoning that we can then use to flavour our scallops. You can also mix the ash with sea salt, which gives you an incredibly aromatic seasoning salt that is grey-black in colour. Anyway, everything we make here tastes a thousand times more exciting than anything cooked sous vide.”

But, we might well ask, if cooking on an open flame is so brilliant and so easy, why on earth did anyone ever go to the trouble of inventing the electric oven?

“There a two minor problems,” Niklas Ekstedt concedes with a smile. “First, you don’t have the same temperature control as in a normal oven. And then there’s also the macho factor. Chefs already have kind of a macho image. When you see these guys moving around intrepidly among the flames the whole evening, then it just reinforces this preconception. But that’s nonsense! We don’t need machos in the kitchen. I want to see gentle, sensitive and thoughtful people here.”

Text: Hans Kantereit