You don’t need to buy a grill. Those rows of gleaming stainless steel outside the big-box store represent the kindergarten version of cooking with fire: all training wheels and safety valves and the avoidance of soot. Let other men debate clay-insulated kamado versus metal kettle versus bincho charcoal versus mesquite chips. Men who claim culinary dominance because of their lump-charcoal mastery live in a prebagged state of ignorance.
Look at the coolest restaurants and you’ll see they have one thing in common: wood. As in splintery. As in recognizably from a tree. From the new Shepard in Boston to pioneering Camino in Oakland, chefs follow the flame, preparing food kissed with the flavorful smoke produced by wood as it shifts from lumber to ember. Lump charcoal will never do that.
And shamefully, it will never require that you start a fire from scratch, building it from kindling you’ve scavenged from your backyard or a walk in the park. There’s kindling everywhere. You have to focus your attention to find it, but it’s there. Cardboard from a shoebox will also do. Or just a lot of newspaper balled up.
Start a fire like in the movies: Place little bits of very dry stuff on the bottom; above those bits, some dry, pencil-size sticks or thick pieces of cardboard; above those, some wood as thick as the handle of a pool cue, arranged in a teepee shape; and on top at least three pieces of oak, again in a teepee shape.
Light the little bits and get ready for some very active 90 minutes of cooking. If you’ve planned ahead, your fire will be on a spot of ground you won’t mind scorching. Around it will be a ring of bricks or cinder blocks, on top of which you’ll place a big metal grate (20 bucks at Home Depot) to replace the grill you’re not going to buy. As the conflagration blazes, you’ll have high heat to cook with. A big cast iron pan over that fire will sear a steak without letting the flames scorch it. The smoke will envelop and flavor the meat. The coals will turn to embers and provide a less intense spot for charring onions, peppers or fennel you’ve salted and tossed with olive oil. Follow the flames and embers as they shift from high heat to low. It’s dinner, and you’re a better man for your efforts.
For more detailed techniques and recipes, Around the Fire from the chefs at Ox in Portland and This Is Camino (both from Ten Speed Press) are profoundly inspiring restaurant cookbooks that will further raise your game.