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Rekindling an old flame

The primal art of live-fire cooking is at the cutting edge of the restaurant world. Rafael Tonon introduces the chefs helping to keep the fires burning

Words by Rafael Tonon

Photography by Matt Wilson

live fire cooking at fuegos de apalta
The Collection
Live-fire cooking in all its glory at Fuegos de Apalta in Chile

The early 21st century has been a significant era for fine dining worldwide. The 2000s saw the flourishing of new cooking techniques that allowed the gastronomical axis to shift beyond classical cuisine into another realm. In Spain, the molecular gastronomy forged by Catalan chef Ferran Adrià at his renowned restaurant El Bulli was gaining evermore attention and helped transform the culinary world. Chefs everywhere began using industrial techniques and utensils (many of which did not previously belong in the kitchen, such as siphons, tweezers and dehydrators) to create unprecedented ways of cooking. Never before were so many techniques – from foams, to spherifications – developed, perfected and replicated in such a short period of time.

Alongside this revolution, however, another much more rudimentary, way of cooking was kept alive by a group of chefs who preferred to look to the past – in their case, at least 1.8 million years. In many parts of the world – from the Basque Country to the interior of Patagonia, passing through Scandinavia and Australia – these cooks saw fire as a magical element still capable of creating new and surprising results. While everyone else in the culinary world was experimenting with progressive cuisine and other gourmet trends of the day, these chefs had abandoned fussy fine dining for cooking over an open flame.

In Axpe, a small, idyllic village nestled in the mountains of the Basque Country, pioneer chef Victor Arguinzoniz had actively devoted himself to his craft as a fire cook. Founded in 1990, within a decade Arguinzoniz’s restaurant Asador Etxebarri had become a place of pilgrimage for food lovers – and one of the best restaurants in the world. Helped by a customised system of pulleys that Arguinzoniz himself created to control the fire’s intensity, leading to expertly grilled Palamós prawns and huge tomahawk steaks, Asador Etxebarri regularly features in the upper echelons of the World’s 50 Best list.

On the other side of the Atlantic, on a private island in far-flung western Patagonia, celebrity chef Francis Mallmann also spearheaded a similar revolution in Argentina, which spread like wildfire throughout Latin America. Perfecting the art of outdoor grilling – with theatrical methods including the now-famous fixing of a whole lamb to an iron cross before exposing it to the flames – Mallmann opened a series of restaurants around the world, from a small Uruguayan village to a hip neighbourhood in Miami. Other restaurants in the Mallmann mould soon followed – from Don Julio in Buenos Aires, to SY23 in Aberystwyth – putting fire back into the centre of the kitchen and taking part in a new wave of ‘fire dining’ across the globe.

chef francis mallmann chopping herbs by the fire at fuegos de apalta
At Chile’s Fuegos de Apalta, chef Francis Mallmann charges a team around an outdoor grill before dishes are served on an alfresco deck immersed in grapevines

According to Portuguese chef Alexandre Silva – who devotes himself to the mastery of fire cooking and runs Lisbon restaurants Fogo (Portuguese for ‘fire’) and Michelin-starred Loco – cooking over flames has never really gone out of fashion. ‘What happened was a refinement of techniques that allowed us to perfect the ways of cooking over embers,’ he says. Chefs such as Silva have embraced the idea of opening restaurants where they can rely on different grills and fires to prepare vegetables, meats and even the most delicate seafood, like razor clams, using the heat (and flames) emanating from fire, firewood, stones or other materials. Silva roasts small prawns directly over flames to burn the shells and enhance the flavours, while maintaining juicy flesh. Beef is cooked over firewood, then rested in smoke. ‘Few cooking techniques offer as many possibilities, and people cannot remain indifferent to fire,’ he adds.

‘Fire means the essence, the beginning of cooking’
– Pablo Rivero

Running one of the most famous parrillas in the world – Don Julio, a restaurant that has ranked first in Latin America, according to the 50 Best list – Pablo Rivero says fire is a symbol that evokes atavistic memories. ‘Fire means the essence, the beginning of cooking. It was around the fire that people cooked, but it is also what our sense of home has always been attached to,’ he says. ‘As a society, we seek to rescue all these symbols through a kitchen that can bring back all this representation.’

Since the 2013 opening of Osso, his mixture of butcher’s shop and restaurant in Lima (with a branch in São Paulo, Brazil), Peruvian chef Renzo Garibaldi has helped revolutionise fire cooking not only in his native country but across his continent, too. Garibaldi insists that grills represent an essential part of the future of haute cuisine, and he recently opened new restaurants dedicated to them, like his brand new Incêndio, also in the Brazilian city. ‘I see a beautiful rescue movement in fine dining that goes through native ingredients and ancestral cooking techniques,’ he says. ‘In this sense, we have rediscovered fire and its different possibilities.’ For Garibaldi, cooking with fire has become a luxury because the flavours are ‘unique and insurmountable’ – something more modern techniques, such as combi ovens or sous vide, cannot achieve. ‘We have not yet been able to re-create, using other techniques, the flavour that real live fire brings, whether using wood, coal, rocks or right on the ground. Nothing else is so complete.’ The chef also believes that fire’s wild and unpredictable nature still fascinates cooks. ‘One cannot rule fire; we just try to control it. This relationship attracts and challenges more chefs to dedicate themselves to it. It still intrigues us, because it has no limits,’ he adds.

‘One cannot rule fire; we just try to control it’
– Renzo Garibaldi

At Ekstedt in Stockholm, this principle is taken to the edge: the restaurant has no electricity. ‘Charcoal and smoke are our most powerful tools,’ says the website, where they boast ‘no electric griddle, no gas stove – only natural heat, soot, ash, smoke, and fire.’ Even in a country where cooking with fire is not exactly a tradition, everything served there goes through a fire pit, a wood-fired oven or a wood stove. The head chef, however, has her roots in parrilla. Born in Argentina, a country where cooking with fire is a ubiquitous tradition, Florencia Abella worked at the mythical Can Fabes in Spain before taking over the kitchen with a Nordic accent, with dishes such as cold- smoked reindeer with black truffle from Gotland and red-baked beetroot. ‘It’s a challenge yet extremely fascinating. Since we don’t have other cooking methods at the restaurant, I have to rely only on fire to serve my customers every day,’ says Abella. ‘Even though I had never worked in a kitchen with live fire before, it’s something I’m familiar with.’

In a certain way, so are we all.

5 restaurants championing the live-fire cooking trend

Asador Etxebarri

Atxondo, Basque Country

Tucked in the Basque mountains, Asador Etxebarri is on most chefs’ top restaurants lists. Every morning, Victor Arguinzoniz lights up the braziers with wood (from holm oak to vine trunks) that he collects mostly in the surrounding Atxondo Valley. Known as the fire whisperer, he designed the six fully adjustable grills himself to coax out the flavours of any ingredient – from house-made buffalo cheese, to the desserts. It is remarkable how he manages to make smoky notes a perfect seasoning for even the most delicate products, such as fresh prawns or milk ice cream.

Don Julio

Buenos Aires, Argentina

The son of livestock producers from Rosario, Pablo Rivero is the mastermind behind Argentina’s most famous parrilla, and he is devoted to sourcing top- quality grass-fed cuts. Featuring highly on lists and picking up awards around the globe, this steakhouse, located in a charming corner of the Palermo neighbourhood, serves everything from house-made charcuterie (like sausages and morcillas) to chunks of perfectly grilled meat prepared in a massive 110-sq-ft grill, where expert asador Pepe Sotelo showcases his talent to handle fire and smoke like few others.


Stockholm, Sweden

Fire is the fuel that powers this trendy restaurant in Stockholm – even down to the lighting. Founder and chef Niklas Ekstedt worked at El Bulli and The Fat Duck but chose to use fire to elevate the dishes on his locally sourced tasting menu. His right-hand woman, Argentinian chef Florencia Abella, is in charge of the kitchen and prepares anything from vegetables to game meat over embers to enhance the smoky flavours and caramelisation in different preparations using Scandinavian woods, charcoal and ash. Ekstedt recently launched Ekstedt at the Yard in London.


Lisbon, Portugal

At this restaurant devoted to fire, chef Alexandre Silva (from Michelin- starred Loco) cooks the freshest local ingredients he can gather from farmers and fishermen directly on embers. From the starters to desserts, passing through the best fish and seafood from the Portuguese coast, all dishes go through the fires that the well-skilled chef has mastered in grills, open flames and iron pots. From razor clams to chunks of beef, everything is cooked to perfection.


Lima, Peru; São Paulo, Brazil

A butcher’s shop and restaurant, Osso was a groundbreaking space when it opened in the Peruvian capital in 2013, offering the best cuts of meat and charcuterie. Chef Renzo Garibaldi passionately champions a sustainable approach to butchery, focusing on animal welfare and avoiding nitrates and chemicals in his sausages. Using only grass-fed Angus beef and free-range chicken on its menu, Osso – which was born as a secret table at the back of Garibaldi’s meat emporium in La Molina neighbourhood – now has two branches in Lima and one in São Paulo.