So often modern trends these days aren’t so much about inventing new techniques and styles, but going back to the roots and traditions. Cooking with fire falls under that same category – be it in the asadores of Basque country or the most in-demand restaurant in Singapore.
For chefs like Mauro Colagreco (Mirazur) or Florencia Abella (Ekstedt) it comes naturally, digging into their Argentinian heritage, where cooking whole animals on live fire is much more common than fine dining where they both ended up, him in Menton and her in Stockholm.
For others, like Dutch chef Joris Bijdendijk, the fire has never been part of his food culture but has always dreamed of working with this raw and authentic method of cooking.
In October Joris Bijdendijk, the leading force behind the culinary renaissance of Dutch cuisine, added Wils to his Michelin starred Rijks restaurant. Unlike Bijdendijk’s fine dining setup in the Rijksmuseum, Wils, named after Jan Wils, the architect of the nearby Olympic stadium who back in 1928 brought the Olympic fire back to Amsterdam, is more casual, with a welcome kombucha instead of champagne and kitchen that organically spreads out into the dining room.
It’s also a place where Bijdendijk is able to live out his long-held dream of owning a place where everything would be prepared on an open fire. The heart of Wils is the fireplace and oven which is a replica of Bijdendijk’s father’s oven, one which he learned to cook on when he was a kid. They also added a grill and a bread wood oven. “Cooking on an open fire is a lot more difficult but gives a great taste,” he explains. “I love authenticity and craftsmanship and this style of cooking is back to basics and that’s exactly what we wanted for Wils. We could have chosen to bake our bread in an electric steam oven, but deliberately chose the traditional method. Not because this is the best way to bake bread, but because we really love our craft and because we want to give that experience to our guests.”
Bijdendijk admits the Dutch don’t really know much about this style of cooking, especially in a casual setting with refined dishes. “If you tell a Dutchman that we have opened an open fire restaurant you immediately get the reaction: “a steak house!”. This is also the reason that we have not put beef on the menu,” he smiles.
Last January, Colagreco opened his first-ever restaurant in Florida, Florie’s, where he showcases both his love for Mediterranean cuisine and his Argentinian background, focusing on fire-cooking techniques. At Fleurie’s the team uses both stone hearth oven and a rotisserie, similar to what they use at Mirazur, but also a yakitori grill, tandoor oven, and spit-roasting (“à la broche”). And many of these techniques Colagreco learned travelling around the world and observing different kinds of ways to use the fire. Inside the hearth oven, he prepares the dish of eggplant and mozzarella or his specialty pizzas, wagyu beef with red bell peppers is done yakitori style, beef ribs are prepared à la broche, and lamb shoulder is roasted inside the tandoor.
Niklas Ekstedt has been a household name in Sweden even before he opened Ekstedt in 2011, but he really hit home with this restaurant where the entire menu is prepared solely on fire. As he says, he loves to play with fire and the primitiveness of it that he finds very Nordic. At Ekstedt, there’s no electricity at all, even the lighting isn’t electricity-powered. The focal point the massive fireplace where the scorching flames just slightly lick the oysters in bubbling bone marrow – Ekstedt’s signature dish since the very beginning.
There’s more grills and rotisseries in the kitchen, but they are especially proud of their 19th-century wood oven they found at a flea market. Back in the days, every Swedish summer house used to have one, but most people nowadays don’t use it anymore. For Ekstedt, it’s the perfect representation of the two things the restaurant is all about – fire and tradition.
The menu is divided into different types of preparation – ember baked, charcoal, blackened, juniper smoked, hey-flamed and wood-fired oven. Ekstedt studied extensively Sami techniques of salting, smoking and ember cooking to put Ekstedt on the very top of restaurants who are working exclusively with fire. Last year he appointed Florencia Abella as a head chef, an Argentinian who had worked in Spain, Piedmont and Japan before moving to Stockholm. For Abella a post at Ekstedt reconnected her with her Argentinian roots – even though she has never worked in a kitchen with live fire prior to Ekstedt.
"Working with fire is extremely interesting – and challenging. As a chef you want to give guests a certain consistency, same plate for everyone - with fire that's really difficult to maintain. But it's also what makes working with it so interesting".
When I ask how many times she burnt herself, she bursts into laughter. "Funny you ask – in all this time at Ekstedt not even once, but I always burn myself at home, because I tend to think that after working with fire at work home stove is really not hot at all. Turns out it is".
Asador Etxebarri (Atxondo, Basque Country)
Etxebarri is an institution both when it comes to Basque cuisine and when it comes to mastering fire and heat. It’s a beloved place because of its simplicity, minimalism, total rigorousness when it comes to the quality of ingredients – and because of what chef Victor Arguinzoniz is able to achieve solely by coming up with a self-developed system of grills that he adjusts height-wise depending on the ingredient, be it a tender txipiron, just slightly smoked sardines or a succulent txuleta. Some are just licked by fire, others are smoked, some are seared and the aromas change also depending on which wood Victor uses for which ingredient.
At Etxebarri, there is no theatrics, no chandeliers, no orchestrated service, no complex and detailed plate descriptions. It all comes down to pure essentials – kokotxas in pil pil sauce, one gigantic Palamos shrimp, a lump of home-made buffalo mozzarella, smoked caviar, juicy gooseneck barnacles.
There is no mask, no cover-ups, no flowers to decorate the dishes, it’s all very basic and extremely tasty, with different levels of smoky aromas.
Elkano (Getaria, Basque Country)
Elkano is another Basque institution, a very low-key, unpretentious place that has become chefs and food writers favorite because of its genuinity, impeccable preparation, but mostly, because of chef Aitor Arregui’s immense knowledge of the sea and Bay of Biscay where he scouts for best possible seasonal seafood, be it squid, spider crab, lobster, sardines or, of course, the famous turbot. There’s a reason why this Getaria native is called the sommelier of the sea – just hear him talk oh-so-emphatically about the breeding grounds of lobster, or the migration paths of mackerel or the collagen that makes up his pil-pil sauce for kokotxas. And if you’re still not sold, you will be by the time you get to the turbot and all the different parts of it.
There’s really no secret ingredient when it comes to preparing Elkano’s turbots, out on the parrillas in front of the main entrance, it all comes down to Aitor’s knowledge of the produce and treating it as little as possible, just enough to keep all its natural moist and to whip up a pil-pil sauce right there at the table, after dissecting the fish and serving the juicy white pieces of fish on guests’ plates. When Aitor speaks about (sea) terroir and yesteryears when Basque sailors were preparing fish on parrillas right there on the deck, he isn’t just selling his food, he is bringing poetry, history and complex study of marine life into a restaurant that would in any other hands be just another coastal seafood place more. With Aitor, it becomes the temple of the very essence of Basque cooking.
Don Julio (Buenos Aires)
Don Julio, opened in 1999 by Pablo Rivero, the son of livestock producers from Rosario, has in recent years quietly positioned itself as South American darling, a rustic, gritty place everybody seems to love. The best parrilla in Argentina, hands down. Unlike the Basque asadores the star product here (and practically the only one) is meat. Steaks, in particular. Loads of it, all prepared in a traditional Argentinian asado way, on massive, 110-square-foot grill that dominates the spacious dining room.
All the beef at Don Julio is from grass-fed cattle from the Pampas, and matured for at least 3 weeks. Chef Bienvenido "Pepe" Sotelo then prepares all the meat on the traditional “V” iron grill, using all parts of the cattle, sweetbreads, liver and heart included, all just lightly seasoned and never smoked, so that the true essence of meat really comes through. The house cuts and best sellers though remain rump steak and tenderloins. Also the sides are just fire-roasted vegetables, depending on the season, be it peppers or zucchinis, just brushed with olive oil and oregano.
Burnt Ends (Singapore)
Photo Simon Pynt
There’s charred eel on toast, smeared with bone marrow, there’s smokey grilled chicken neck, there is the gigantic langoustine with kombu beurre blanc, leeks with truffles and there’s huge flatiron steak with burnt onion and bone marrow. Everything at Burnt Ends screams hedonism – that’s because it is.
There’s no restraint with Dave Pynt’s grilling, and everything is far more opulent than at Basque veterans that Pynt counts as his mentors when it comes to mastering charcoal, fire and adjustable grills. But everything is also incredibly tasty, done to perfection, so no wonder the table at Burnt Ends is probably the hardest one to score in all of Singapore.