Human beings like to believe we are highly evolved, wholly sophisticated, technologically advanced, and fundamentally superior both to other members of the animal kingdom and to our own human forebears. And yet, while we’ve managed to develop gas ranges, stoves, and any number of other appliances that can cook foods with the precision and accuracy of a fine Swiss timepiece, there’s something about the sight, sound, smell, and pure cooking power of an open flame that draws us like moths.
This love of fire has been trending in fine dining for four to five years now, and more recently it has trickled down to grocery stores and other mainstream outlets. The appeal is as primal as you’d expect. Live fire brings a sensory experience to cooking; the smell, taste, and visual aspects of grilling are integral to the collective human psyche.
Here are a few thoughts on ways quick serves can capitalize on consumers’ love of food treated with fire.
Learn how to burn
Much of the backyard grilling taking place at lawn parties and beer bashes throughout the U.S. involves no actual charcoal or wood. But while natural gas offers convenience and relatively even heating, it’s the least adventurous of today’s grilling options. Today, many chefs are using distinctive charcoals popular in various global cuisines to lend their creations a distinctive smell, appearance, and flavor. And the results can be phenomenal.
Take, for instance, binchotan, a Japanese charcoal that the Washington Post has described as producing “virtually no flames and no smoke but generates the kind of hellish heat imagined in the pages of Milton or Dante. … [H]igh-carbon binchotan [is] kilned Japanese oak that burns hotter than seasoned oak in your typical wood-burning oven.”
Binchotan is hard like a baseball bat, it burns hot and clean, and it’s having a moment, as are other regional variants, such as Thai-style charcoal—a long-burning, clean, and natural alternative to briquettes—or charcoal made from rambutan fruit wood, which burns slowly and delivers a particularly pleasing mild, smoky flavor to whatever it touches.
Everything is fair game
There are certain foods we all can agree benefit from grilling, including red meat, poultry, pork, most fish, game, and other proteins. But today, chefs and consumers alike are subjecting just about any imaginable meat or vegetable matter to the searing heat of the grill.
It’s a trick that adds extra caramelized flavor to unlikely foods ranging from spinach, avocado, and carrots to legumes, chickpeas, romaine, eggplant, broccoli, cauliflower steaks, tomatoes, any kind of fruit or bread, pizza, and lots of pastries. Grilled bread is particularly effective at delivering the smoky, satisfying flavor people crave without subjecting all the elements of the sandwich to the same intense heat.
Take a trip to the Mediterranean
Mediterranean cuisines from Israel to North Africa to Southern Europe offer excellent options for grill enthusiasts, particularly when it comes to meat, fish, pita, flatbreads, and vegetables. The distinctive charred qualities of grilled or smoked eggplant, grilled meatballs, or grilled tofu can impart interesting, adventurous flavors to your customers’ selections and expand the geographical reach of your menu with the addition of just one or two interesting items. Operators might take a cue from Philadelphia’s Zahav, where the Chicken Shishlik is served with sumac, charred onion, and fava beans, or from Seed in Brooklyn, which offers a grilled eggplant salad tossed with red bell peppers, olive oil, herbs, and garlic.
To this point in this column, I’ve focused exclusively on horizontal grills, but I’d be remiss if I were to neglect the many virtues of vertical grills and rotisseries, which are the primary means by which we get our shawarma, gyros, doner kebabs, and other spit-roasted meats. The popularity of this vertical convection-cooking method helps explain the massive popularity of churrascarias and Brazilian rotisserie restaurants, where, as Barbecue Bible author Steven Raichlen notes, “spit-roasted meats, or rodizio, rule.”
“Horizontal or vertical, spit-roasting is a compelling grilling method for many reasons,” Raichlen writes. “The slow rotation promotes steady, even browning and crusting, [and] the process is both mesmerizing and tantalizing.”
It’s ironic in a way that we continue to associate the world’s oldest known cooking method with some of the most exciting food trends, but this indeed is what’s happening. As everyone from white-tablecloth chefs to the employee behind the counter at your local grocery store continues to grill everything under the sun, it stands to reason that the technique has much more to offer than quick serves have been able to exploit.