Wood brings two distinct elements to the cooking process: heat and flavor. So not just any old logs will do. The right wood helps chefs achieve the tastes and temperatures they're seeking, working as a not-so-secret ingredient in some of their most beloved dishes. That's why many are so particular about what wood they use to fire up their grills, hearths and ovens—and why they go to great lengths for top timber.
Before he even opened Kith/Kin in Washington, D.C., executive chef Kwame Onwuachi wanted Jamaican jerk chicken on the menu. In order to attain the traditional flavor profile, he knew he was going to have to source very specific wood. "They say that if you don't smoke it over pimento, you can't call it jerk," he shares.
So he found a vendor in Jamaica to ship him the kindling he needs to power his smoker. The results are palpable. "It adds a warm spice note," he says. "We have run out of it before, and you can taste a difference when we use mesquite or applewood instead."
Using the wood is a win-win for Onwuachi. "I like giving a little bit to Jamaica's economy; it's a point of pride for me," he says. "Me paying $20 for a bag of wood goes a long way out there."
At Brass Heart in Chicago, chef Matt Kerney has a penchant for fig wood's distinct flavor, so he often obtains it locally in the late summer and early fall from Seedling Farm. "I use it anywhere you'd normally use mesquite or applewood," he says. "It adds a great fruity note to the food with a subtle smokiness."
Looking to add a subtle spiciness to sausage and pulled duck, chef Nathan Richards of Cavan Restaurant and Bar in New Orleans starts smoking the meats over pecan and hickory woods, and then finishes them over flames powered by staves from Tabasco barrels.
Chef Tim Love keeps a quartet of woods on hand at Woodshed Smokehouse in Trinity River, Texas to power his three smokers, two rotisseries and two grills. Hickory lends a bacon-y bite and ruddy hue to beef brisket and lamb; pecan incorporates nutty notes into poultry, game birds and pork; oak is a workhouse, complementing any protein with its mild smoke flavors; and mesquite's sweet and earthy elements are well suited for bolder proteins, such as lamb and duck.
Nearly half the menu is cooked over wood at Poggio Trattoria in Sausalito, California. Whether he's spit roasting a leg of lamb, grilling porterhouse steaks, firing up Neapolitan pizza, smoking lobsters or charring radicchio, chef Benjamin Balesteri uses regionally grown white oak from Bear Bottom Farms in nearby Richmond. The custom cut logs offer him the perfect balance of big, smoky flavors and high temps that can easily hit 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
To create such intense inferno, dry wood is key. Balesteri wants his logs well seasoned (dried out), so they only have 20 percent moisture content. "If the wood is too moist, it doesn't burn right," he says. "It smokes, it flutters and you don't get hot heat."
The amount of water left in the wood can also drastically impact a wood's impact on a dish's flavor profile. Pitmaster Franco V of New York City's Holy Ground, a subterranean speakeasy specializing in barbecue, sources oak, cherry and maple wood from a farm in New Jersey. The loggers there split and season wood for three to six months in open air, which leaves the wood with moisture content of around 25 percent. "This is ideal for achieving a great smoke flavor when cooking meat," he says. "When wood is seasoned by drying it in a kiln, that brings the moisture content of the wood down below 20 percent, which takes away from the smoke's ability to impart flavor into the meat."
As open fire cooking becomes increasingly popular in some of the country’s hottest restaurants—from Washington, D.C.'s Maydān and The Dabney to Campfire in Carlsbad, California and Chicago's etta—chefs are now just as likely to have a wood guy on speed dial as they are to have a heritage-breed pig farmer or a forager.
Though chefs have learned a lot about how to use the right wood to dial in performance, while dialing up flavors, there's still an element of unpredictability when literally playing with fire. "Sometimes there are issues that are just beyond your control," says Balesteri.
It turns out the most primal cooking method in the world—two million years old by some estimates—still has room for refinement.
Long hours, high pressure and facing the heat on a hot stove are common, but these dynamite chefs show they have what it takes to power through and get to the top.