Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, our family would gather together at weekend barbecues in the summer. Fire, then, was almost like a piece of furniture. It was a way that we gathered people, it was a way to commune around food. It wasn’t until I began to travel and cook with different people and cultures that cooking with fire became an honoring of this primal element.
When I was twenty, I lived in Nepal and India. I would sit on the banks of the Ganges River in Varanasi and just watch the fire for hours. The Hindu funeral rites of cremation at the Ganges River were emotional — there's a lot of sadness involved, but also this relief.
Fire was used in different ways in ceremonial cooking, too. The char and flavor of the street food in India and Nepal was something I wanted to keep going back to. It drew me in. To watch the people cooking was almost like watching them dance with fire. It looked effortless, intrinsic. That was the beginning of the spark. While I was there, experiencing all these new flavors and spices, I thought, This is what I really want to do.
Before moving back to the States, I had been living, cooking, and traveling through Australia for the better part of six months. Most of my vivid memories in the outback are based around a fire: food cooking over it, stories being told. I loved the way my clothing smelled after a night around the ring — dusky and warm, sweet yet deep. These smells permeated the food we ate. They danced into my hair and swirled up to the moon, following our laughter out into the night.
Something struck me while staring at the stars under the open sky near Uluru one night. It hit me hard and drew me fully into the craft.
Back in the States, I took a job with Marsha McBride at Café Rouge in Berkeley. I worked my way from the garde-manger station to the sauté station and then to the grill. The days would begin by lighting the wood: at first, a slow burn, then an abundance of smoke, the catch — a few hearty breaths blown on the sparks to encourage ignition. I would carry on with my prep tasks, setting up my station, washing greens, cutting steaks, all the while watching the fire out of the corner of my eye. I’d listen to it, I’d feel the heat of it against my back, and it would talk to me, tell me when it needed to be moved around, when it was gasping for air, and when it needed more fuel. It was a relationship, a conversation in the quietest, truest form.
Fire in cooking can alter the nutritional aspect of food, coax out sugars from starch, deepen flavors through the Maillard reaction, add smoke, and penetrate an ingredient with heat all the way to its core. By cooking food, we ward off disease and bacteria. Heating breaks down collagen in meats, making them more bioavailable for the body. Heat can also soften cell walls in some vegetables, causing them to release sugars, starches, and lipids into a matrix of minerals that our bodies are ready to utilize for energy and repair.
As the days went on at Café Rouge and I began to understand the fire more, I gained a deep respect for it. It calmed me in the busy moments and woke me up if I took my attention away for too long. I learned the hot spots, the cool zones, when to rush in, and when to back off.