Foams, soils and sous vide move over - there's a new culinary trend in town. And it's a renaissance of sorts. In a growing number of eateries around town, relying solely on gas and electricity is being eschewed in favour of the age-old method of transforming something raw into something edible using fire. Of course, for many cultures around the world this is the way food has always been cooked, but the rising number of eateries boasting barbecuing, wood-grilling, char-grilling or pit-smoking means solid-fuel cooking has "hot" written all over it. It's all very well seeing such buzzwords on a menu, but what does it mean? We look at what's involved, why flaming food is so popular, and which spots around Auckland do it best.

Fire, embers, smoke

The modern kitchen centres around gas, electricity and, increasingly, induction technology. There are plenty of ways in which gas and electricity are more convenient and safer for cooking but there are also some things gas and electricity can't offer. Flavour is a biggie: the smoke from fire lends a lot of flavour to food. You can even buy "liquid smoke" as a cheat.

There's ritual and romance to cooking with fire and the process of building, lighting and tending the fire. And there is the challenge it issues to the cook: fire is a fickle beast not easily tamed. Successfully producing something not just edible but tasty demonstrates skill.

Cooking with fire can be the simplest thing - making toast or charring a marshmallow over a campfire, for example. But there are also many ways in which fire is harnessed into a safer, more reliable and flavour-enhancing tool.

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It might be by burning charcoal and setting a grill directly over it to cook on, building an oven fired by wood, a chamber to cook food indirectly from the heat source or burying a fire underground and cooking with its heat, as in the Pacific.

Where here?

A growing number of eateries around Auckland harness fire in delicious ways. At Woodpecker Hill in Parnell, a big chunk of the kitchen is taken up with a stainless steel pit-smoker. Designed by chef and co-owner Che Barrington, it was custom-built by a local manufacturer of assembly line systems. Inside, racks are stacked with big shoulders of pork (Boston Butts, they call them) and beef brisket.

Che Barrington, chef at Woodpecker Hill restaurant. Photo / Michael Craig
Che Barrington, chef at Woodpecker Hill restaurant. Photo / Michael Craig

The meat is cooked indirectly, over a long time, by heat that enters the chamber from burning charcoal in the "pit". Barrington serves it in different ways - simply sliced into hearty slabs, like the 14-hour beef brisket, or stir-fried with a rich spice paste, as in the red curry of smoky pork.

He even does a curry of "burnt ends", made from the crispy end pieces of the beef.
Barrington has cleverly had a grill built over the charcoal pit, too, meaning one heat source feeds two cooking apparatuses. On that char-grill he cooks duck, which develops a beautiful smokiness.

Charcoal is used, too, at Molten in Mt Eden, where owner Sven Nielsen, who had never laid a brick in his life, built his own brick fireplace in the back courtyard. It is fitted with a moveable grill and a spit to roast whole suckling pigs and lamb. Cooking on this is an involved process.

"When spit-roasting, we bank the coals to the side of the animal so it's not directly over the heat," Nielsen says. This slow cooking produces moist, tender meat.

ROTORUA DAILY POST | Lifestyle
6 May, 2015 5:00am
2 minutes to read

"When we barbecue, the steel grill is subjected to high heat, which chars or caramelises the meat's surface. We can control the cooking process by moving the meat to cooler or hotter parts of the grill. Either way, cooking over coals produces a smoky taste you just don't get with gas."

Sven Nielsen built the brick fireplace at Molten Restaurant. Photo / Getty Images
Sven Nielsen built the brick fireplace at Molten Restaurant. Photo / Getty Images

Another benefit of the grill, says Nielsen, is that the smokiness matches "exceptionally well" with oak characters in wine.

On Sundays, a suckling pig graces the spit and you can have some of its tender flesh and crackling (oh man, the crackling ...) stuffed in a bun with slaw and mustard for the bargain price of $9.50.

The Japanese are known for their expertise in char-grilling, and much of the charcoal used in Auckland kitchens is imported from Japan. The main focus at Masu - as well as amazingly fresh sashimi - is food cooked on the robata grill.

This centuries-old form of cooking originated in Japanese fishing communities. At Masu, it translates into a very long charcoal-fired grill over which a line of chefs meticulously shift and flip morsels of vegetables, seafood and meat.

The key is top-quality ingredients paired with simple flavours, and the art of that grill.

Among the things you should try from the robata are the eggplant with ginger miso and sesame and the lamb cutlets with gochujang, pickled cucumber and carrot. Masu is also the best place in town to experience Japanese Wagyu.

Wood-fired pizza ovens rose to fame in the 90s and the high-temperature cooking produces some of the best examples of pizza in the city.

Thankfully, the ubiquitous smoked chicken, brie and cranberry topping and its dubious bedfellows have largely been laid to rest in favour of simpler toppings of quality ingredients.

The best places to get that wonderfully puffed up crust produced when slow-proved dough meets wood-fired inferno are Dantes (branches in Ponsonby Central and Takapuna), Settebello in New Lynn, Stumpy's in Balmoral and Toto's in the city.

Charcoal fuels the clay tandoor at Sid Sahrawat's Cassia. "It weighs one tonne and it took 10 men to carry it into the kitchen," ­says co-owner Sid's wife Chand Sahrawat.

"Naans and kulcha are stuck with water on to the clay walls to cook. We cook the chicken for the brioche sliders and chicken curry, as well as the tandoori fish on skewers in it, and we also put a grill on top to toast the brioche."

Chand says Cassia has a gas tandoor as a back-up but it doesn't impart that vital smoky flavour. "It might be used for breads sometimes but never for the meat."

Arguably the first restaurant to fire up the scene was Depot.

"Depot is all about the beauty of the bach and cooking outdoors," says owner and chef Al Brown, whose childhood memories of cooking over the campfire have been a big driver in what he has created at Depot.

The kitchen features a charcoal oven and a wood-fired grill. And at Brown's two branches of Best Ugly Bagels, the Montreal-style bagels are par-boiled then baked at high temperatures in the large wood-fired ovens.

An important part of Brown's vision is what he calls "celebrating imperfection". Depot's most famous dish is skirt steak ­- considered a cheap cut until Brown made it famous - cooked simply on the grill so the inside retains its lovely juices and the outside benefits from the lick of fire.

"The occasional burnt bit adds so much personality," reckons Brown, who admits he is partial to a bit of burnt toast.

And at Best Ugly, the idea is the bagels aren't perfectly shaped and uniform and cooking them on a long wooden paddle in those big wood-fired ovens is an art.

An authentic cylindrical pit-smoker is the engine behind Bareknuckle BBQ, a mobile outfit that caters events and runs pop-up gigs.

Owners Jimmy and Tam Macken travelled to the Southern states of the US on a quest for Jimmy to learn from the great pitmasters and to find the dream pit-smoker.

They eventually shipped it back to Auckland from Uvalde in Texas, near the border with Mexico.

The pitsmoker is fuelled with wood - "pohutukawa, apple or pear, nothing too hot or gummy", says Jimmy - and the heat and smoke generated cooks succulent baby back pork ribs and beef brisket on the bone.

The ribs and brisket bear the famous "smoke ring", the layer of pink flesh under the charred skin, which indicates good technique.

Bareknuckle also offers pulled pork and chopped beef from the barbecue and classic sides like slaw, potato salad and pickles.

Check bareknucklebbq.co.nz to see where they're popping up next or to order packs of barbecue delivered to your door.

One thing that is lacking from Auckland's fire-powered offering is the Polynesian version, where food cooks via steam and smoke in a covered pit in the earth.

The hangi, or umu or luau as it's known in the islands, has counterparts in parts of the Middle East and South and North America, including the traditional New England clam bake.

But the exact techniques, foods cooked and resulting flavours of the hangi are Aotearoa's own.

There are a few takeaway hangi joints and catering operations, and plenty of backyard hangi pits are still dug for celebrations, but electric hangi machines are rapidly replacing the traditional fire-driven method.

And there doesn't seem to be anyone regularly offering a real hangi dining experience. Being able to witness the theatre of preparing the pit, the fire and the carefully wrapped baskets of food, then the eventual reverse of the process and unveiling of tender, smoky meat and vegetables - now that would be quite something.