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    Playing with Fire

  • Flame grilling gives brands a point of flavor differentiation.

    California Fish Grill
    California Fish Grill Grilled Salmon

    “We use a blend of hickory and other woods to add flavor,” says Sean Kennedy, president of the nine-unit chain. Unlike most open-grill cooking, which is quick, it takes at least two hours for birds to cook on the rotisserie. The chain uses a proprietary seasoning and lets fire do the rest.

    “The flavor of the wood is important, but mostly that is in the smokiness,” Kennedy says. “It’s not a deep smoke flavor like a barbecue or smoker, but enough to make a difference.”

    All kinds of foods can be cooked using flame grilling—even pizza. Ken Reinstrom, who runs the Byrne’s Grilled Pizza food truck in Indianapolis, cooks his gourmet pizzas over propane.

    “You get a light, cracker-like crust and really nicely steamed toppings,” he says.

    Cooking on an open grill is also part and parcel with many ethnic styles of cooking, including Mexican, where meat and vegetables are often roasted over flames. Baja Fresh Mexican Grill still cooks this way.

    “There is a lot of grilling in the Mexican culture and using open flames,” says Roberto Lopez, director of product development for Baja Fresh. “I think it has an advantage of a clean but smoky flavor.” There is no oil put on the food, so “it is so much lighter and provides a unique taste,” he says.

    Cooking over natural gas flames does provide a challenge to the cooks at the California-based chain’s 200 restaurants. They need to make sure the steak is just a bit pink, and that the chicken tenders, fish, shrimp, and vegetables are cooked but not dried out.

    “There is really an expertise in this grilling that our cooks have to learn,” says Jerry de Lucia, director of marketing for Baja Fresh. “They have to be trained over time.”

    Vegetables cooked for fajitas—peppers, chilies, and onions—are fire grilled, sliced, and later heated before going into the entrée. These and other veggies are used in salsas.

    Many Mediterranean dishes are also cooked over fire, and the charred flavors that come from cooking have been part of the preparation at Garbanzo Mediterranean Grill.

    “Some of the thinking is that the open flame is more authentic to the flavors of that region—slightly smoky, slightly charred,” says Marci Levine, corporate chef at the 28-unit, Denver-based chain.

    However, this grilling process, using natural gas flames, is not included at the company’s newer restaurants because flattop grills offer more versatility.

    “As we grow and our menu grows, we are looking to accommodate other core items without changing equipment,” Levine says. “We have a very small line, and we need to make the most of every piece of equipment and every inch of space.”

    Another restaurant company that is eliminating char grilling at its newer restaurants is Fatburger, the Santa Monica, California–based burger chain with 115 locations. Historically, the stores offered burgers cooked on the flattop or char grill. Today, most of the burgers are made on the flattop, while charred burgers are a secret menu item.

    “We call it The Char,” says James Newell, vice president of operations, of the flame-grilled version. “It’s a much different burger. It can be a little dryer, but if you cook it right, you get a good sear at the higher heat, and the fat drops off and out of the way.”

    Still, the window for error is small and is a reason char grills aren’t in new units. Additionally, the grill is a “gas hog, and we have to be respectful of the environment and the cost for franchisees,” Newell says.

    Still, many restaurants are willing to put up with that due to the taste grilling provides.

    “Our specialty is charbroiled,” says Jesus Guzman, quality control manager at eight-unit California Fish Grill, referring to the company’s grilling process that has lava rocks between the natural gas flames and the metal grate. “Sixty percent of our meats are cooked that way.”

    Grilled chicken is also available at California Fish Grill, along with fried fish, salads, tacos, and more. There is also grilled zucchini.

    “The most popular item is the charred salmon, followed by white fish,” Guzman says. The grilled items are available plain or with Cajun seasoning that is brushed on and seared in by grilling. Garlic butter can be added after cooking.

    “It does take a little more attention to cook this way, but it’s worth it,” he says.