Where once there were exposed brick walls and Edison bulbs, now there are stacks of firewood. As more and more chefs turn to wood-fired ovens and grills, the lowly woodpile is becoming a standard part of NYC restaurant decor.
Once relegated to Neapolitan pizzerias, wood-fired cooking is making inroads at some of New York’s buzziest new restaurants. Standard-bearers like Peasant and Tertulia have been using the rustic technique for years, but, thanks in part to a move away from molecular gastronomy, new spots such as Pasquale Jones and Barano are getting in on the trend, too.
We spoke with Missy Robbins, head chef and owner of new Williamsburg hotspot Lilia, about why she uses a wood-fired grill at her Italian restaurant.
We’ve noticed a serious trend in wood-fired cooking in New York. Why did you decide to use the technique at Lilia?
I cooked for five years with wood at Spiaggia in Chicago and have missed it ever since. I was also very influenced by cooking in Italy many years ago, where wood-fired cooking was a part of many of the kitchens that I worked in. It’s just how they cooked in the Old World. I definitely didn’t hop on a trend — this has been a long time in the works.
It makes you wonder why we ever switched to gas grills. Speaking of, how is wood-fired cooking different from gas?
With a wood-fired grill, there is a constant need to pay attention to the fire and to maintaining its heat. It takes a lot of work and understanding — your hot spots are always changing.
Sounds difficult. So, why do it?
The benefits are the flavor it imparts and the rawness of the technique. It is really the anti-modern — the anti-sous vide, the anti-technical. It’s as raw as it gets — just you and your fire.
What specifically are you using the technique for at Lilia?
We are grilling all our fish and meat, like the swordfish and the lamb leg, but we’re also slow-cooking ingredients like potatoes in the hearth. We have a rotisserie in the back of the hearth as well, which we’re playing around with for larger cuts.
Why do you think so many other restaurants are suddenly using the technique?
I think people are really just interested in returning to simplicity.