There is something about open flames that make flavours and the dining experience glow. Tatler finds out why wood-fire cooking is such a hit with chefs and diners alike

Ask anyone, anywhere in the world, and somewhere in their favourite food memories would be a gathering around a fire with friends or family—cooking, eating and laughing. In Singapore, barbecues are popular, but it wasn’t until modern barbecue restaurant Burnt Ends came onto the dining scene in 2013 and smoked the likes of leek with brown butter, marron, quail eggs and marshmallows in its four‑tonne, double‑cavity kiln did we truly grasp the true beauty of slow cooking with wood.

This foodie nation hasn’t looked back since. Fuelled by diners who have come to appreciate the rich flavours teased out by fire and the novelty of watching their food licked by flames, several restaurants with wood‑fired dishes and open hearths have popped up in the past two years, with more new openings on the horizon. In the words of Burnt Ends’ chef-owner Dave Pynt, “it’s really simple why wood‑fire cooking is all the rage: it makes delicious food that has that bit of magic”.

Italian Argentine chef Mauro Colagreco, who helms three Michelin‑starred French restaurant and 2019 World’s Best Restaurant Mirazur in Menton, France, is the latest to add his take on this form of cooking. He will be opening Fiamma (which means flame in Italian) at Capella Singapore in the second quarter of the year, recreating his Italian nonna’s kitchen with fresh ingredients seasoned with herbs from the hotel’s garden and cooked over wood, in a space bathed in warm, inviting vibes.

Another new entrant is the Filipino‑inspired wood‑fire kitchen Kubo (the name refers to a small hut in Tagalog), slated to open later this year. Chef‑owner Kurt Sombero, the former head chef of Meatsmith (Little India), Burnt Ends’ casual sibling, succinctly sums up the current love affair with fire cooking: “Wood‑fire cooking is a slow process. Its simplicity draws people closer, allowing them to slow down in this fast‑paced city. It is the antithesis between these two ideas that draws people to the essence of wood‑fire cooking.”

In case you missed it: 12 Best Steak Restaurants to Book in Singapore

Gather Round The Fire

The method of cooking also encapsulates the camaraderie and sense of belonging around a campfire. “This is synonymous with Filipino culture, where the fundamental pursuit of our identity is to welcome guests to our home. At Kubo, this is the experience we hope to attain, where guests can gather around the firepit and celebrate the simple things in life in our modern world,” explains Sombero. 

At modern Indian grill Revolver, the dishes, prepared over wood‑fired grill, smoker and tandoor, transport you to the heart of traditional Indian cooking, where spices and ingredients such as stuffed courgette flowers and Australian Margra lamb chops come together in a delicious, heady dance. Revolver’s executive chef Saurabh Udinia enthuses: “It’s a different atmosphere when there’s a wood‑fired grill in the kitchen. It’s a sensory experience, from smell to heat to taste. Meat, for example, doesn’t need to be over spiced or seasoned heavily, as this cooking method already enhances its taste.” 

David Tang, the co‑owner and executive chef of modern Californian restaurant Rosemead, could not agree more. “Wood‑fire cooking has been around since humans discovered fire—you could even say that it’s the oldest cooking method in the world, and every culture has a tradition of cooking with fire,” he says. “Seeing your food being cooked over open flames, and the idea of coming together over a meal that’s kissed by fire, is very appealing on a primal level.” 

Chefs also love that this form of cooking yields myriad flavours. Andrea De Paola, chef-partner of contemporary Italian grill Griglia, highlights: “The high temperature that a charcoal grill can reach gives an additional layer of flavour and smokiness from the wood used for cooking. Cooking over the fire also requires less fat (oil), which makes dishes lighter, allowing the natural flavours of the ingredients to come through.” 

Chef Isaac Tan, who oversees Bedrock Bar & Grill, which has been offering wood‑fired meats since 2008, is amused that the world’s most primitive form of cooking is now trending, but sees its lure for chefs. “We can play around with the flavours by adding different types of wood over coal embers, or other elements such as herb sprigs and hay,” he expounds. For instance, at Bedrock Origin, the restaurant’s second outlet located in Oasia Resort Sentosa, seafood such as dry‑aged barramundi tail and turbot is grilled over applewood. The head of culinary and product innovations at F&B group Commonwealth Concepts points out, though, that wood‑fire cooking stretches chefs technically, due to its unpredictability. “You need that instinct of controlling the flame by adjusting the wood and judging the temperature as you cook,” he says. 

That wood‑fired dishes can be enjoyed in both refined and casual settings only adds to the appeal. Beer nights at Thirty Six Brewlab & Smokehouse are enlivened by toothsome spicy pork belly satay and a simple cauliflower. A quick lunch of prawn and octopus niçoise salad at the newly opened Latin-European bistro Sol & Luna is made special with rescoldo-style potatoes cooked overnight over hot embers and tossed in olive tapenade. 

With so many palatable variations to explore, wood‑fire cooking is likely to remain ablaze on the local dining scene for some time. Sombero says it best: “I feel that cooking with fire symbolises a much‑needed radiance during dark times. It will in some way brighten someone’s day. I strongly believe this cooking style will stay as long as humans exist.” 

© 2022 Tatler Asia Limited. All rights reserved.