I’m old enough to remember when backyard barbecuing meant briquettes: uniform charcoal pillows that suburban dads in novelty aprons would douse with too much lighter fluid. Even today, the smell of charcoal burning somewhere in the neighbourhood is one of summer’s most evocative aromas.
While you wouldn’t know it by the number of products touting their connection to charcoal – everything from toothpaste to bagels – charcoal for cooking is on the wane. According to industry trade group Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association’s most recent figures, gas grills currently outsell charcoal 58 per cent to 40 per cent.
“Most people now are more comfortable using a microwave then they are using a fire pit,” is how chef Kate Chomyshyn puts it. “Realistically though, cooking over fire and coals is what made us human. It’s part of our nature and while it might seem intimidating, it’s something we should really tap into.”
Die-hards know that nothing compares to the quality and flavour of things grilled over good old-fashioned charcoal and even more so over an open fire. While home cooks might prefer the convenience of gas, in professional kitchens, fire is ascendant.
Chomyshyn, for example, in partnership with her husband, Julio Guajardo, and restaurateur Grant Van Gameren, is opening Quetzel in Toronto this summer. It is one of three about-to-open restaurants in the area that will use coals and live fire for all of its cooking, along with David Chang’s highly anticipated Kojin and chef Hidde Zomer’s Flame and Smith in Prince Edward County.
Meanwhile, Todd Perrin, the chef and owner of Mallard Cottage in St. John’s, Newfoundland, is in the process of turning his restaurant’s outdoor space into a charcoal fetishist’s fantasyland. So far, he’s installed a classic spit roaster, a Texas style smoker/BBQ combo, a standard grill pit lined with fire bricks and bristling with grills, two yakitori grills and an Argentinian asado-style fire pit.
“It’s far simpler to cook with fire than people think it is,” Perrin says. “Everyone thinks it’s a pain in the arse compared to going out and turning on the gas. But with the new kinds of equipment and techniques and charcoal that are available now you can fire up your Weber and get it up to temperature just as quick as you can get your propane BBQ up. It’s never been simpler than it is now.”
Simpler, and with many more options than just briquettes, as well.
Most serious charcoal enthusiasts are partial to hardwood lump charcoal, typically made from oak or maple, but producers now are marketing coals made with everything from coconut husks to olive pits. Japanese binchotan charcoal, however, is considered the ne plus ultra, and producers charge prices to match – more than $100 a kilo for the best stuff.
For traditional Japanese yakitori, binchotan coals are a must, and at places such as Zakkushi in Vancouver, the extra expense is worth it for the quality of the product. Manager Tsubasa Hyodo explains: “Binchotan has amazing heat retention at a really high temperature. It can get up to 1,000 C because it’s nearly all carbon. You get this really clean product with almost no odour or impurities, just the flavour of the thing you’re cooking.”
It was a meal at Zakkushi that set chef Andy Ricker on his charcoal journey. The Portland-based chef and owner of the Pok Pok empire cooks with a lot of charcoal at his restaurants, but was primarily using mesquite before he considered binchotan. “If you’re used to grilling with mesquite, which is giving off a lot of smoke and a lot of flavour, it’s incredible to see cooks work with binchotan. This stuff doesn’t do that, which is more suited to the way that Thai and Japanese grilling works. The quality of the heat is very even and it doesn’t give off a ton of smoke, it’s just cooking it in this really nice neutral way.”
While happy with the results binchotan provided, the costs quickly began to pile up, and Ricker was concerned about the environmental impact. Binchotan is made from mangrove wood, and the swamps where the trees grow have beendecimated first by shrimp farms, and now by charcoal manufacturers.
He tried a number of different charcoals before discovering a version made from rambutan trees. “Rambutan is an orchard fruit wood,” he says, “and they used the trimming from the orchards. While charcoal is environmentally problematic for a number of reasons, this is the least problematic type that we’ve found. It burns like the mangrove stuff and it costs a lot less money.”
There was so much interest in the product that Ricker started working with a partner in Thailand, and his Thaan charcoal, made from rambutan, is now sold across the United States and in select stores in Canada.
Ultimately, the kind of charcoal people use is less important than the primal pleasure derived from cooking over fire. “Fire is a magnet,” Perrin explains. “People are just drawn to it. You can do the exact same dish in the oven or over propane, but if you cook it over fire it’s automatically better in people’s minds. Part of it is perception, but the wood smoke and cooking outside really does add something and gives a different result than if you cook it just in a regular kitchen.”